America Faces ‘Great Cultural Depression’ As Arts Industry Evaporates

Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve spent quite a bit of time lamenting the loss of employment in the food services industry and documenting the existential crisis facing restaurants across America.

As longtime readers know, my affinity for dining out and imbibing runs deep. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve generally become a fixture at a hodgepodge of local restaurants and drinking establishments, running the gamut from the priciest steak and sushi to the seediest of dive bars. In fact, one thing that bothered me about Manhattan was the difficulty of becoming a “fixture” at any one place due to the sheer number of venues and “competition” for “regular” status.

In any case, five years ago I was compelled (by medical professionals) to cease and desist from alcohol consumption, so my lifelong link to the restaurant industry was effectively severed. Parting, as they say, was such sweet sorrow. And yet, despite my detachment, my heart still breaks for those represented by the chart (below).

For decades, they were my psychiatrists and, as it turned out, the only real friends I had. Around two million of them are still jobless and frankly, the figures (from the BLS) almost surely understate the scope of the malaise.

On Saturday, in “Nero 2024,” I mentioned that direct aid for the restaurant industry is apparently not forthcoming outside of any renewed assistance delivered as part of the Paycheck Protection Program.

What the new stimulus bill does provide, though, is $15 billion for cultural institutions. As The New York Times wrote this week, “many small proprietors described it as their last hope for being able to remain in business after a nearly yearlong revenue drought.”

As much sympathy as the restaurant industry deserves, unemployment in the arts is astoundingly high. In a separate piece, published Saturday, the Times’s documented what one union leader warned could morph into

Trying to sort through the readily available data to quantify the situation is nearly impossible given the multifarious, heterogeneous nature of the arts community. It’s highly likely that many artists are undercounted, miscategorized, or simply not captured in any official government data. The Times underscores as much, noting overlap with the hospitality industry. “Many artists work other jobs to cobble together a living, often in the restaurant [and] retail industries, where work has also dried up,”

I don’t pretend to know, for example, how representative the “Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation” series is. More granular series (e.g., “Performing Arts and Spectator Sports”) paint dour pictures, but because I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking at when I chart them, I simply defaulted to the visual (below), as it’s at least widely cited, even if it doesn’t capture what I’m trying to show with any degree of precision.

The Times quoted Adam Krauthamer, president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians in New York, the largest local union of professional musicians in the world.

“My fear is we’re not just losing jobs, we’re losing careers,” Krauthamer told

According to data from the National Endowment for the Arts, unemployment rates for actors, dancers, and musicians are multiples of the rates for food service workers.

Obviously, a $15 billion federal lifeline for venues helps, but it’s no panacea. Enhanced unemployment benefits and program extensions will lapse in March absent another stimulus push. And that assumes Donald Trump signs the existing legislation. If he doesn’t, the billions in emergency funding aimed at rescuing cultural institutions from financial oblivion will get held up along with everything else.

The language I’ve employed in penning this post suggests I mentioned the arts as a kind of addendum to the broader economic suffering brought on by the pandemic. That cadence, to the extent it’s as discernible to readers as it was to me when I proofread the product of my own pen, was inadvertent. And that speaks to how easily entire sectors of the economy can be forgotten. If even I end up accidentally adopting an apathetic tone, just imagine how disinterested most Americans are at the plight of the proverbial “starving artist.”

To be sure, this is no small matter. The Times reminded the country that artists “are an integral part of local economies and communities in every corner of rural, suburban and urban America.”

They (artists of all kinds) also tend to enrich the lives of those around them and otherwise promote a sense of civic responsibility and social cohesion. The country desperately needs that right now. America can scarcely afford to get any stupider or any more divided.


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6 thoughts on “America Faces ‘Great Cultural Depression’ As Arts Industry Evaporates

  1. Musicians and visual artists are shot dead during this. Online lessons help but few. Out west the first recognized spreader event was a chorus. Bands never really made money off recordings. It helped sell tickets.
    Even my usual outdoor summer venues had solo acts, not bands. Not enough tables. All but the child rearing population miss live music lifestyle. It is a very human thing to gather to food AND music. Visual art galleries and auction houses are having a rough go. Even high end. Forget Drama/musicals.
    Touring bands making the leap need an investment in vans/trucks,lighting, sound equiptment. They have notes to pay. Bands are a business formation. Like any other small business they pay the bills or die a natural death. I have friends who have made life long careers ancillary to live music. No more.This is an annihalation. Used equiptment will be very cheap so manufacturers will hurt for years. I miss playing and I am not professional but have not spent a dime at the music store in a year. One site that represents independent music stores is practically giving music stuff away.
    The great America of the seventies returns. Yep,making it great again.

  2. This very important part of our cultural economy has not been well served by our septuagenarian political leaders (I won’t name- but they are on both sides of the aisle). I hope that in the near future, the American people have more choices for leaders in the “55 and under” crowd.
    I so look forward to going out to some of my favorite restaurants in 2021. I have cooked way too much in 2020. Hope they are still there- I have restricted eating out to a few fantastic food trucks and have learned how to make myself an occasional Negroni…which I prefer to order at a bar.

  3. It’s depressing here in the city I live in. It was once a very vibrant and lively scene. It’s gone. This, despite active nurturing and support for years and years by the city, community, and business owners. I’ve felt all along that the Red Senate (and House) not providing aid to cities was in part to try to diminish artists and musicians’ voices.

    I was just listening to an interview with Joel Kotkin that was recorded while he was on his book “tour” earlier this year in support of “The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class.”

    He discusses, among other concepts, the control by the oligopoly, of our lives and culture.

    Mr. Kotkin doesn’t specifically reference this following example. I will. An example of a third-order knock on effect is, say, Ticketmaster, systematically purchasing dozens of what were once small, independent venues, that hosted emerging talent. Ticketmaster then determines who gets booked, can influence what they say and play, and who get shut out when, say, some front man/woman, in a band, says to the audience “We are losing our democracy, we are suffering, go out there and vote and protect one another.” The rest of the band’s tour is inexplicably canceled.

    My comment is too long…I know. (I don’t care.) Regarding “stupider,” Kotkin does specifically reference that the “knowledge level” of students at the incoming college level is so bad…how can a teacher make students aware of the challenges of an emerging neo-feudalism when the students don’t even know what feudalism is?

    Anyway. A couple of wins in Georgia would go a ways toward helping the resuscitation of the arts in our nation’s towns and cities.

    1. I wish I could be as sanguine as you about GA. I support many facets of the arts, live music and stage, public TV and radio, graphic arts and even the arts as used for therapy. What I’m hearing is that the dent in support for the arts is not just the loss of performance, but a huge downdraft in private support. One very important institution I support as a fellow is down 90% in donations this year. Given who the major supporters have been in the past, the rapid abandonment by these folks has truly shocked me. I have doubled nearly all my donations to the arts this year but it appears I am in the minority. Tyranny has a way of forcing the arts, literature, education and honest journalism out of sight because it propagates free expression. Smaller communities will simply stop their support. Life without the arts and with degraded education portends the accelleration of the end of mankind.

  4. This subject is dear to my heart. But the truth is, the arts in the US have been under assault and attenuating since 2008. They haven’t been able to keep up with skyrocketing big city rents and prevailing monopolistic and internet trends for eyeballs, and there is and will be no government support here like there is in Europe, which recognizes culture as a public good. I’ve watched the arts die away one after another: literature, music, theater, film, and now even fashion. They’ve been replaced by sports voyeurism, video games, and social media apps. There are a few interesting electronic musicians, which may be the only economically viable option left, although they are few and far between. Careers have already slowly been destroyed, but I think this depression is the final death knell. What is coming is a cultural wasteland like the 1930s. But I don’t see a way out anytime soon. New York only took over from Paris as the center of the art world after the war due to decades of cheap rents and the influx of intellectual Europeans who had fled their occupied cities to start over. The other big difference between then and now is that the rich used to actively seek out culture and cultivation, out of a sense of insecurity, as a means to prestige. That is no longer the case. Prestige has now been fully conflated with money and fame regardless of talent or cultivation. This cultural debasement is, in part, what led us to elect a reality-show president. Simply put, the culture really no longer respects the arts at all.

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