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Actors and writers and now congressional lobbyists

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

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

“We are an industry, not a cause,” one of the volunteer group’s four organizers, 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 stressed, there is no federal Ministry of Arts and Culture, while transport and agriculture have cabinet places.

Erlbach and his fellow Arts Hero founders – actors Carson Elrod and Brooke Ishibashi and writer-director-performer Jenny Grace Makholm – aren’t cultural mucky-mucks used to the halls of power. When the performing arts ceased, what they thought was their own survival.

Ishibashi said the campaign started simply as a way to rally the industry to advocate for the extension of federal unemployment compensation in the event of a pandemic, which was due to expire in August.

“We started out by cold calling people, creating assets and saying, ‘Here’s a toolkit, let it be known’. We lobby differently because we lobby for ourselves and for our own desperate need. We are all worried about how we are going to pay our rent and our mortgages. “

Unemployment benefit was not extended at the time, but Be an #ArtsHero continued. They began to create economic reports for members of Congress – in a joint conversation, Ishibashi and Erlbach casually referred to the relief efforts supported by the group, an alphabet soup of acronyms like CALMER (Culture, Arts , Libraries and Museums Emergency Relief) and DAWN (Defend Arts Workers Now).

As an extension of lobbying efforts by longtime organizations like Americans for the Arts, the group lobbied to help shape legislative language so that bills include relief for artists and workers, not just for artists and workers. institutions. Erlbach’s widely circulated open letter to the US Senate pleading for emergency aid drew 16,000 signatories, including grassroots members of the culture industry and celebrities, institutional and labor leaders, and advocacy groups.

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

“We are here to change the conversation so that artistic workers can understand their intrinsic value because it is tied to an economic value, a dollar amount,” Ishibashi said. “These figures are beyond reproach.”

Erlbach added: “Ironically, the arts have a history problem in this country.”

“We’re here to become a legislative priority, and that’s part of the reframing of the paradigm that we are workers,” he said. “Whether you are a bailiff, a milliner, a museum guide, an administrator or a publicist, you are an arts and culture worker. “

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

“It was like the legislative process was something someone else was doing,” he said. “Now that’s something we’re doing.”

The stimulus bill just passed by Congress has brought good news for the arts, including weekly unemployment supplements. “At $ 300, what happened wasn’t enough,” Be an #ArtsHero said in an email. “But it was something, and we’re proud to have lent our voice to the cause to get it.

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