Actors and Writers and Now, Congressional Lobbyists

Art is what binds us. It illuminates the human condition. It’s good for the soul. Those are the kind of arguments you usually hear when...


Art is what binds us. It illuminates the human condition. It’s good for the soul.

Those are the kind of arguments you usually hear when artists and cultural institutions ask for money. The advocacy group Be an #ArtsHero, which was created this summer by four New York theatermakers, takes a different approach.

“We are an industry, not a cause,” one of the volunteer group’s four organizers, the writer-director Matthew-Lee Erlbach, said of the arts sector in a recent video interview. “According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, we generated $877 billion. It’s more than agriculture and mining combined.” Yet, he pointed out, there’s no federal department of arts and culture, while transportation and agriculture have spots in the cabinet.

Erlbach and his Arts Hero founding colleagues — the actors Carson Elrod and Brooke Ishibashi and the writer-director-performer Jenny Grace Makholm — are not cultural mucky-mucks used to the corridors of power. When the performing arts shut down, what was on their mind was their own survival.

Ishibashi said the campaign began simply as a way to rally the sector to advocate for the extension of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation that was due to expire in August.

“We started by cold-calling people and building out assets and saying, ‘Here’s a tool kit, please spread the word.’ We lobby differently because we lobby for ourselves and our own desperate need. We are all worried about how we’re going to pay our rent and our mortgages.”

The unemployment compensation wasn’t extended at the time, but Be an #ArtsHero forged ahead. They started creating economic reports for members of Congress — in a joint conversation, Ishibashi and Erlbach referred casually to relief efforts the group is backing, an alphabet soup of acronyms like CALMER (Culture, Arts, Libraries and Museums Emergency Relief) and DAWN (Defend Arts Workers Now).

Following up on the lobbying efforts of long-running organizations like Americans for the Arts, the group has pushed to help shape legislative language so bills include relief to artists and workers, not just institutions. Erlbach’s widely circulated open letter to the U.S. Senate arguing for emergency relief drew 16,000 signatories, including rank-and-file members of the culture sector and celebrities, institutional and union leaders, and advocacy groups.

The letter hammered the group’s essential point: The arts matter because they represent a lot of money and they create jobs.

“We’re here to change the conversation so arts workers can understand their intrinsic value because it’s tied to an economic worth, a dollar amount,” Ishibashi said. “Those numbers are unimpeachable.”

Erlbach added, “Ironically, the arts has a story problem in this country.”

“We are here to become a legislative priority, and part of doing that is reframing the paradigm that we are labor,” he said. “Whether you’re an usher, a milliner, a museum docent, an administrator or a publicist, you’re an arts and cultural worker. ”

Erlbach, who leads the group’s political-outreach team, says that Be an #ArtsHero has met with representatives from dozens of House members and over 60 Senate offices.

“It felt like the legislative process is something someone else does,” he said. “Now that’s something that we do.”

The stimulus bill just passed by Congress delivered some good news for the arts, including weekly unemployment supplements. “At $300, what passed was not enough,” Be an #ArtsHero said in an email statement. “But it was something, and we are proud to have lent our voice to the cause of getting it.”

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Newsrust: Actors and Writers and Now, Congressional Lobbyists
Actors and Writers and Now, Congressional Lobbyists
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