Kelcey Steele was performing on stages across the country, doing what he loved, when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. Within in a short period of time, Steele was laid off from his job as a lead dancer and choreographer in Kansas City and found himself traveling over 500 miles home to Cincinnati.
“I was lucky because my parents have a room for me. I still have a room in a house that I could go to. That’s not the same story for a lot of people. I realize how lucky I am.” Steele said.
One after another, theaters and playhouses across the country began closing their doors to the public. What was once a constant space for arts and entertainment had become lifeless as creatives were forced to put their passions on hold.
Even with lessened COVID restrictions and three major vaccines, the performing and creative arts industries are not having an easy time recovering from the pandemic. More than a year later, many local artists are still unemployed and theaters and creative spaces across the state remain unopened.
Ohio Citizens for the Arts is a statewide arts advocacy group that lobbies on behalf of the arts to Ohio State legislature, administration and Congress. Angela Meleca, the group’s executive director, said there are over 300 members statewide.
When the pandemic hit, Meleca said, most, if not all, of their members had to lay off at least 50% of their workers. Although many industries have been able to get employees back to work, the arts industry doesn’t have the finances to do so.
A survey to the groups’ members identified a need of over $70 million to bridge the gap for Ohio’s arts and creative industries.
“So while (theater and arts companies) were able to kind of survive by (putting) themselves in an induced coma, if you will, so they could just ride out the pandemic, having to come out of that, they’re facing expenses greater than they were in,” Meleca said. “Looking at now, having to bring a workforce back, having to build back productions. That all adds expense that would normally be balanced by ticket sales and earned income through the past year. … I can’t think of any business that would be forced close to the public for over a year without any opportunity to generate any earned income and be expected to survive and reopen without having any type of funding relief.”
Locally, companies had to innovate and create ways to get arts to the community. Steve Loftin, CEO and president of the Cincinnati Arts Association, said that during the pandemic Music Hall and the Aronoff Center for the Arts had to cancel or reschedule over 300 events. To make up for the loss, free virtual performances were provided to the community.
Loftin says they cut expenses everywhere that they could and had to lay off nearly 50% of their full-time staff and nearly all their part-time workers and event personnel .
For individual artists, the pandemic hit hard. At the beginning, many did not qualify for unemployment because many have to consider themselves self-employed or part time workers 1099 tax filers.
Steele was working on contract when he was laid off which allowed him to receive unemployment benefits, but he hasn’t had work since other than a few gigs consulting or local art groups. In his free time, he’s advocated on behalf of himself and other artists as many don’t know when they’ll have work again. He said he worked with Councilwoman Jan Michelle Lemon Kearney which led to the passing of the Cincinnati Arts Access Fund with City Council last fall. The fund was a series of two $1,000 grants for an estimated 200 artists in the city of Cincinnati.
“I know there are people out there who would say to me, ‘Why don’t you just go get another job?’ This is my career that I’ve studied for. That I went to school for. What I have been successful at and that I hopefully will continue to be successful and when it’s back,” Steele said. “You don’t tell doctors and lawyers and all these people whose careers we have on a pedestal to go find another career. When something goes wrong, you provide infrastructural support.”
Torie Wiggins, an adjunct instructor at the University of Cincinnati and actress, had to put both of her professions on hold during the pandemic. She said that although the past year has been difficult for artists, the importance of mental health has become alarmingly clear.
“Everyone’s coming back different. We’re all changed,” Wilkins said. ”So, therefore, the theatrical experience has to change. And I think one of those changes that’s worth noting is the importance of wellness for the artist, for the creator, and that’s everybody involved. … Everybody has to learn the value of their work and how it’s affected when it comes out of a place of wellness and rest.”
Meleca said it will take multiple factors to get the arts back into swing again. In addition to financial support, guests need to feel comfortable going back in-person to see live performances and organizations need time to coordinate and get productions up and running.
“It would be tragic if they were able to survive the pandemic but they’re not able to survive recovery,” Meleca said.
Steele said that although he isn’t sure what the answer is to get the industry back on its feet, now more than ever he feels there must be a push to show the importance of the arts and create infrastructure to continually support artists.
“As an artist, I am an American citizen. I vote. I pay my taxes and I am entitled to the same protections that every other American worker is entitled to,” Steele said. “I shouldn’t have to worry that if I get laid off a job I’m not going to qualify because the government doesn’t know how to account for independent contractors.”