Arts workers are increasingly entering the political arena


NEW YORK — Christian Amato, a 34-year-old Bronx Democrat who ran a theater company in Greenwich Village before entering politics, was outlining his positions on the arts and other issues at a sidewalk cafe the other day when his phone rang.

“That could be a big endorsement,” he enthused. And it was. Local 1, the theater machinists’ union, was calling for support for his campaign for a state Senate seat representing parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, the latest development in a movement to gain political ground for the more than 5 million American artistic workers.

“It’s fantastic. It means a lot to me,” Amato said over the phone, between bites of avocado toast. take the logo — and do you need my address? Do you check with the endorsement?”

Amato’s campaign, pitting him against two primary election day rivals on Aug. 23, features a range of issues including women’s rights, education, housing and climate change. But it’s his articulation of a sophisticated arts and culture platform which makes his candidacy a real rarity. Its website points out that the creative economy – which also includes institutions and industries such as museums, fashion and publishing – represents 7% of the state’s financial activity and, before the pandemic, generated 484 000 jobs and 120 billion dollars a year.

“As the only statewide nominee with a true arts and culture platform, these types of sponsorships are really important to me,” said Amato, whose resume includes several years at Samuel French, the venerable publisher and licensee of games. “The political process is so much like putting on a show – and I’m in the longest, most arduous audition I’ve ever been in.”

Increasingly, those who make a living in the arts are realizing how much they need allies in government to thrive. And now they are forming coalitions and fundraising to step up their political game. A few with an artistic background, like Amato, stand for election. Others in the artistic field are getting organized, such as the Music Workers Alliance and American Circus Alliance, to push for greater recognition and advocate for those in their fields. Still others, like the two-year-old child National Association of Independent Places, or NIVA, made up of more than 3,000 music and comedy venues, festivals and promoters in all 50 states, takes it a step further. They set up political action committees to support candidates who share their values.

“From the beginning, we have held to the mantra ‘First we survive, then we thrive,'” Audrey Fix Schaefer, NIVA’s director of communications, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Now that we are an established professional association, we intend to stay connected to our members’ advocacy mechanisms, so we are putting in place a PAC to assist applicants who support our mission.”

The creative sector’s victories in securing government aid during the shutdown have confirmed the need for arts groups to assert themselves more aggressively, and not just from the safe space of a stage or a studio. NIVA’s successful campaign for the historic Save Our Stages Act of 2020, a federal aid bill sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), resulted in a massive, one-time federal bailout package: the $16 billion Closed Venue Operator Grant Program. The money went to clubs, theaters, productions and amphitheaters of all sizes across the country.

“What’s important and exciting to notice is that the new advocacy is being done by arts workers themselves,” said Carson Elrod, who in 2020 co-hosted with three other actors and writers the #BeAnArtsHero campaign to raise awareness of the desperate plight of artists and related trades. “The National Independent Venue Association didn’t wait for another organization to come and save them, because no one came to save them. So they came together very quickly. And, as I like to say, they kicked a $16 billion football called “Save Our Stages” into the end zone in less than a year. So if there’s one demonstration of the power of grassroots organization, it’s ‘Save Our Stages’.

Arts workers are building a labor movement for a creative economy in peril

Jeffrey Omura, a New York-based actor who appeared in the world premiere of Craig Lucas’ “Change Agent” on Arena Stage this year, was so energized by his participation in a successful grassroots “Fair Wage on Stage” campaign that he ran last year for the New York City Council of the Upper West Side. Omura has lost the race, but not his activism: He is in the early stages of creating a PAC to support office seekers with positive arts programs at all levels of government.

“Every industry has some sort of political action committee or union that interviews candidates, asking them how these candidates are going to be the best advocates for their industry,” Omura said. “Although I didn’t win, the big takeaway was how do we build this infrastructure for the arts? Lobbyists, PACs: how to ensure that elected officials defend us every day?

Groups such as the DC-based Americans for the Arts have lobbying weapons, but activists say a much more muscular and visible advocacy system needs to be built. “The next step is to get real serious about it, be incredibly organized, and wield that power productively,” said Jenny Grace Makholm, another of the founders of #BeAnArtsHero. “So in our minds, that means forming an organization similar to the ACLU, the NRA, the NAACP, so that when you hear the name on Capitol Hill, you know exactly who we are.”

Political wannabes like Amato seek an even more direct impact. His political deployment in his District 34 run calls for, among other things, increasing public funding for arts education; funding a permanent arts worker program, modeled on the Depression-era WPA; expand public art initiatives; and the creation of a $150 million coronavirus relief fund “for the most damaged parts of the cultural sector, including a $10 million fund to support arts workers.”

Growing up in the Bronx, the son of Italian immigrants who ran a dry cleaner on Arthur Avenue, Amato said he was always encouraged to pursue what he loved. “I made this work of art and my father said to me: ‘He has to take art lessons,'” he recalls. “And then my mom said, ‘Okay,’ and found the Pelham Art Center, which is still in my district. So I love knocking on doors in Pelham and saying, “I have a long history with Pelham: I took art classes for years here. You can really believe in what you say.

Amato’s transition to political life began with former President Barack Obama’s Organizing for Action program, which offered scholarships and grassroots activism training. That eventually led to a chief of staff post to declare Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who is now running in a primary for Congress against incumbent Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (DN.Y.). “He’s got people skills and he’s got intelligence and creativity,” said Bruce Lazarus, a theater producer and lawyer who was Amato’s boss at Samuel French.

Zack Bissell, a New York actor, has been a friend of Amato since attending the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, where Amato was elected the student association’s vice president of arts — a loaded post. to allocate the college’s $12.5 million. artistic budget. While going door-to-door with her pal this summer, Bissell reminisces about history through Amato’s trajectory.

“It’s kind of another variation on a theme,” Bissell said, recalling how Amato put together a musical production in Plattsburgh during a summer break, with the two in starring roles. “When Christian wants to do something, he will figure out how to do it. The whole school went back to this truly amazing production of “Hair.” ”

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