If you know an artist, chances are you know a person who is hurting.

Theaters have been closed. Live music has been sporadic. Some galleries have opened for limited hours; others have kept their doors shut. Artists have scrambled to adapt to the new exigencies of life during the pandemic, but every shift online has been painful to those accustomed to congregation. Those who rely on the enthusiasm of crowds have been left out in the cold.

Arts organizations aren’t simply worried about funding. They’re worried about survival.

“In a crisis like this, the arts are the first thing to shut down,” says Ann Marie Miller of ArtPride New Jersey, “and the last to reopen.”

The particular vulnerability of the arts isn’t merely an aesthetic problem for a state that, famously, loves its music, its theater, its movies, and its art shows. As Miller points out, it’s an economic issue, too. Arts businesses and arts organizations contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the state economy, employ thousands of people, and keep downtowns thriving. There’s no Jersey recovery without a revival of Jersey public culture.

And if you doubt that, on the ArtPride New Jersey website Miller’s got the numbers and the citations to back them up. While you’re there, Miller and ArtPride (which is an organization that promotes and advocates for the arts in New Jersey) ask for your participation in an online campaign meant to raise awareness about the necessity of the arts. Keep Jersey Arts Alive, an initiative launched by the Burlington-based ArtPride in conjunction with the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, doesn’t ask visitors for a financial contribution. Instead the group simply wants you to thank state policymakers for their prior support of arts organizations — and let them know that their continued advocacy is indispensable to New Jersey’s cultural and financial health.

The goal of the project isn’t necessarily to spur legislators to provide additional funding for arts organizations or bail out organizations that are suffering. While any public assistance would be welcome, what ArtPride and Keep Jersey Arts Alive really want to do is protect the funding that’s already in place.

“We do need to remind them that this is important,” says Miller. “We’re not in New York City where there are many major foundations contributing to arts organizations. In New Jersey, we’re lucky to have the Dodge Foundation, but the truth is that we have limited large foundation support.”

Support for the New Jersey Council for the Arts, which, helps finance dozens of the Garden State’s best-known arts institutions, flows from the state’s hotel/motel occupancy fee. A little more than twenty per cent of the money raised by the hospitality levy is dedicated to the council, and that’s been true since the program began in 2003. Even in a poor year for traveling, like the one we’re living through, the council can count on a minimum appropriation of $16 million dollars. That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s a fairly small slice of a massive state budget. Nevertheless, it’s been a boon for museums and theaters, many of which operate on terrifyingly thin margins and need every dollar they can get.

In tight times, would the state raid and reapportion that money?  Legislators would need to change the rules in order to do it, but it’s not inconceivable that they might. These are desperate hours, and as we’ve learned from past fiscal crises, arts financing is frequently sacrificed.

ArtPride has experience fighting to protect the small amount of money that’s been apportioned to support public culture. It’s no secret that the federal government would like to scrap the current National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. As part of Americans for the Arts, a coalition of advocacy organizations from across the country, ArtPride has been part of a pushback effort that has been successful so far. The current government in Trenton is certainly friendlier to the arts than the White House is, but our state legislatures are likely to face an unprecedented shortfall. There’s reason to worry that the ground has shifted and that it won’t be shifting back any time soon.

Miller encourages artists in Jersey City to continue to organize and speak out. The arts, she believes, make an inestimable contribution to quality of life and mental health. She’s in favor of the proposed municipal arts trust fund, which would slightly increase Jersey City property taxes in order to create a dedicated source of financing for local arts organizations. A similar program, she points out, has worked well in Middlesex County.

“There are always caveats,” says Miller, “but if there’s buy-in from the community, it absolutely can work. They’ve raised a considerable amount of money, and it’s going strong after five years.”

“There’s a great pool of talent in Jersey City as there is throughout New Jersey. But artists are often solitary people and don’t always realize the power they have when they act together. Connecting on the local level, that’s the first step.”

For other entries in Tris McCall’s Eye Level column, click here.

Image courtesy of artist Kayla Colon and ArtPride New Jersey

Tris McCall

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...

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