The Arts Are Essential: How the Creative Sector Can Support Post-COVID Recovery

The creative sector has always had a reputation as a luxury at best, or frivolity, at worst. Even before the pandemic, the National Endowment for the Arts is almost annually under the threat of being defunded, and arts degrees frequently make the rounds of the most “worthless” degrees. A poll in Singapore even listed artists as the most “non-essential” job.

However, in spite of creative organizations being one of the first sectors to close (and the slowest to reopen), creative consumption is up; reading is up by 40%, video streaming is up 60%, and crafting is hitting a new high. It makes you wonder: what does it mean to be essential?

According to this poll, telemarketers somehow offer more to the world than artists. Source: Digital Arts Online

I suppose it’s not surprising in America we choose to define essential in terms of business, even in times of crisis. As a business, the arts can be put on pause while it is no longer safe to gather in person. As devastating as the loss of revenue is to these organizations, it is still better than any loss of life that may result from an unsafe public gathering.

But if we talk about essential in terms of “ absolutely necessary and extremely important,” then we need the arts now more than ever before. Rather than a frivolous luxury, the arts is a powerful catalyst in economics, education, and human connection. As we begin to think about rebuilding post-COVID, it is critical to leverage the creative sector to aid our communities in recovery.


According to the IRS, 65% of performing arts organizations have operating budgets under $500,000, yet their impacts in their impacts far outweigh their budget sizes.* In Illinois, people who attended cultural events spent on average $50.56 at local businesses. The same people who attend festivals, performances, museums, and other cultural events naturally spend money at restaurants, hotels, and small businesses nearby those cultural centers. These impacts add up quickly; in Chicago alone, small storefront theaters brought in over $80 million to the local economy. In New York, theaters brought in $1.3 billion to the city. While organizations like DataArts and the National Assembly of State Arts Assemblies are doing great work to understand the impact of the creative industries, this is just the tip of the iceberg of understanding the impacts of our sector.

How the arts could support economic recovery post-COVID: Artists are creative problem solvers, and can be useful in finding ways to encourage people to shop at small businesses, like this portrait artist in Evanston who is selling paintings to support small business owners. Once it is safe to congregate again, artists should be included in the planning of reopening and revitalization events.


How do you raise test scores? Offer music classes to students. How do you increase student confidence? Put them in theater classes. How do you improve attendance in low-income neighborhoods? Add arts programming. Arts education is a critical piece of childhood development, and yet arts education funding has shrunk, especially in lower-income schools.

How the arts could support schools and education post-COVID: Dropout rates are expected to raise dramatically during COVID, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. Students who do not have access to arts education are four times more likely to drop out. Additionally, test scores are expected to drop as a result of the extra stress of COVID, and because at-home learning is not always an ideal environment for younger students. Arts education programs can be used to encourage students to return to school, but because the arts participation naturally increases test scores, Incorporating the arts can help bridge the gap in lost learning during COVID.

Human Connection

The pandemic has revealed that social interaction and community is just as essential as healthcare. Though 95% of artists have reported loss of income due to the closures, Americans for the Arts reports that 65% of artists are still creating work to build morale, entertain, or educate during COVID. During COVID, film, TV, music, and books have helped the public make it through months of inactivity and uncertainty. Cities are partnering artists with small businesses to paint their closed storefronts in Philadelphia, Long Beach, and more. The arts inspire us to keep going through the worst of 2020, and offer connection in a time of supreme isolation.

When the world is ready to reopen, the arts can offer a space for people to reconnect and rebuild.

The creative sector is so much more powerful than college degree ratings would indicate. Rather than leaving it for last in recovery efforts, the creative sector is a vital tool to help communities recover from the pandemic. Artists should be used as resources to rebuild in the aftermath of COVID-19 to revitalize neighborhoods, improve the economy, and-most importantly-connect us to each other once again.

*I ran these calculations myself as part of my thesis so you’ll have to trust me on this. Or feel free to download the entire listing of nonprofit organizations and verify!

Originally published at on September 4, 2020.

My life goal is to prove the value of the creative sector. Board Member of Exposition Review lit journal. Founder of 1099 Creative -