Matthew-Lee Erlbach Credit: Dave Thomas Brown

When he was a kid in Rogers Park, Matthew-Lee Erlbach says trips to theaters like Lifeline and TimeLine and excursions to downtown museums were just “part of the vocabulary of growing up in a city that is so rich in its arts and culture and that appreciates arts and culture workers.”

Those workers, in Chicago and across the nation, have taken huge hits during the COVID-19 shutdown. According to a study released in August by Richard Florida and Michael Seman for the Brookings Institution, “Lost art: Measuring COVID-19’s devastating impact on America’s creative economy,” the creative sector in the U.S. has lost an estimated 2.7 million jobs and more than $150 billion in sales of goods and services. The study further notes, “The fine and performing arts industries will be hit hardest, suffering estimated losses of almost 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales. These estimated losses represent 50% of all jobs in those industries and more than a quarter of all lost sales nationwide.”

Erlbach, a playwright-performer-musician-filmmaker (his play The Doppelgänger had its world premiere, starring Rainn Wilson, at Steppenwolf in 2018), aims to not only staunch the bleeding, but create a new paradigm for how we view arts funding in America. His Chicago roots (he’s now based in Los Angeles) have helped form his vision there as well. 

“The labor movement is a huge part of my life,” says Erlbach.”I’ve been doing a very comprehensive survey of labor history from 1867 to 1934, two big projects that I’ve been working on in theater and television. And a lot of that is centered in Chicago. The culture of the labor movement, the ignition for it is in Chicago.”

Those twin loves of art and labor activism are now combined in his work for the DAWN (Defend Arts Workers Now) Act, created with his friends and colleagues at Be An Arts Hero, a grassroots organization formed to advocate for federal relief for the arts. Erlbach, along with co-organizers and theater and film artists Brooke Ishibashi, Carson Elrod, and Jenny Grace Makholm, see Be An Arts Hero as a crucial lobbying tool that combines the power of individual artists and arts lovers with unions and cultural institutions to advocate for policies creating more equitable funding and support for the arts across the entire nation.

One of Erlbach’s major contributions has been writing a letter to U.S. senators laying out the cost of the COVID shutdowns and how vital the arts are to the economies of every state and region. He notes that the $877 billion generated nationwide annually by the arts equals “agriculture and mining combined—nothing against agriculture and mining.” 

The letter, which went viral after its release in July, bluntly states, “We are the Arts Economy. We are everywhere. And our fates are tied together.” 

The DAWN Act has an ambitious agenda. Looking at how much the airline industry was able to get in relief funding (roughly five percent of their generated revenue) inspired Erlbach and Be An Arts Hero to set their sights on a similar figure for the arts. It asks for $43.85 billion in federal funds, to be administered through the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Small Business Administration

It further asks for extension of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) until the COVID crisis is fully under control and 100 percent subsidy of COBRA insurance premiums for people who have lost their jobs. Be An Arts Hero notes that they are working in parallel with similar organizations and legislation, including the Save Our Stages (S.O.S.) Act, spearheaded by the National Independent Venue Association, and the RESTART Act.

In Erlbach’s view, part of the challenge facing the arts is breaking through the old narratives that present them as the province of the culturally elite in big cities, despite occupying a “massive” 4.5 percent of the GDP. “Arts and culture has a story problem,” says Erlbach, who adds, “The Bureau of Economic Analysis, a nonpartisan institution, is saying, ‘You are an outsized performer economically, nationally, and locally.'” And while the letter he wrote leads off by pointing out the role of the arts in big states like New York and Florida (the arts are the largest job creator for the latter), it also highlights the economic role of the arts in less-populated red states, such as Wyoming, Utah, Nebraska, and Iowa. 

When Be An Arts Hero started lobbying Congress, they heard from Senate staffers (including legislative staff in Ed Markey’s and Kamala Harris’s offices, according to Erlbach) that they should actually create the language for a bill. And thus the DAWN Act came to be. Currently, the bill hasn’t been introduced in Congress, and obviously its creators are waiting, like the rest of us, to see what happens once the dust from the elections settles. 

Meantime, they’re continuing to lobby members of Congress, holding planning meetings with other arts advocacy organizations, and focusing on, as Erlbach says, “empowering people at the state level, at the local level to then build those coalitions and change the conversation 100 percent, just by using the language ‘arts workers’ and ‘arts economies.'” Erlbach emphasizes, “This problem is nonpartisan and the solution must be nonpartisan. And therefore bipartisan.” He also stresses that the crisis facing the arts sector is too big to be handled solely by the states.

In a way, Erlbach thinks that the COVID crisis and the shutdown has opened the doors for people to evaluate just how important the arts are for them, individually and as part of the larger economy. And that’s why changing the paradigm for how arts funding is viewed now is crucial. “I don’t know that without a pandemic, people would be taking the time to appreciate the size and scope of the problem and looking for a solution for it,” notes Erlbach. “The opportunity here is after this is over, we’re not going to have to be back-footed again. We can be front-footed about it. We’ll be ahead of the problem.”

Keeping up with the (Joseph) Jeffersons

Speaking of honoring the arts sector: the Equity Jeff Awards will be livestreamed Monday, November 9 at 7 PM. Actor-singer Michelle Lauto will host. The Equity Jeffs normally honor shows that run from August 1 through July 31, but the season was obviously cut short by COVID-19 this year. Among the productions scoring multiple nominations are Drury Lane Theater’s An American in Paris and The Color Purple, Porchlight Music Theatre’s Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, Windy City Playhouse’s The Boys in the Band, Steppenwolf’s Bug, A Red Orchid Theatre’s Grey House, and Court Theatre’s King Hedley II. You can watch the virtual ceremony free through the Jeff Awards YouTube channel, either live or afterward.  v