As I wait for my Uber while sitting outside of an old luxury hotel, I think: “Maybe 20 years ago this was THE PLACE to be, they still have a picture of a young Bill Clinton jamming on the sax the night of his inauguration in 1993.”
Recently, I had the enormous privilege to participate in the Advocacy Leadership Institute of the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture (NALAC). For 15 years the organization has brought Latinx cultural leaders to Washington D.C., to learn through hands-on experience about the inner workings of the political processes in this country. I had a chance to advocate, to invest in the creative economy for a sustainable arts and culture ecosystem and a dignified living off of our artistic practices.
Many window-tinted cars stop ominously, revealing young, very young, late-millennial passengers, mostly blond-white people with complete familiarity with this environment. These ‘nepo babies’ (as in nepotism) represent the apex of the social chain in our society. People who have had access to the halls of Congress since their infancy, who are so accustomed to this life that any other reality sounds ridiculous. I mean, this is America. This is the shiny city on the hill.
I stand in awe that I even get a chance to witness this scene. How many generations has it taken for my people to have some kind of access to this place, and to these people? A reality that — for them — is nothing more than a Tuesday brunch, a Friday social.
This social experiment called the United States is erected on a manufactured mythology, resting on a sacred forest stolen from the Piscataway, Pamunkey, the Nentego, and the Powhatan peoples and manicured on the daily to appear pristine 365 days a year for it holds — in appearance — the power to run the most powerful nation in the world.
It must be noted that I’m writing this two days after Joe Biden announced his presidential bid, which if he is successful, would put him back in the White House at age 82. During my visits, I had a chance to speak to an aide of Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has held the same office for the last 31 years. These folks have held onto power for dear life and they are legislating and signing bills and treaties for a world that they will not live in for long.
My pitch to elected officials, lobbyists, and quite frankly anyone who would take the time to listen, was about supporting infrastructure for the creative economy, making the arts and culture ecosystem sustainable, and guaranteeing artists a dignified living off of their artistic work. A survey from Californians for the Arts shows that 80 percent of the artists in San Francisco have experienced a form of displacement, whether from their homes, their workspaces, or their performance or exhibition venues.
Currently, most of us artists supplement our income with one or two jobs, and we rely heavily on the gig economy, working for companies like Uber or Doordash and living without health insurance. These days, it is not uncommon to see empty self-driving cars roaming the city driving by encampments on the streets, passing by thousands of unhoused people daily. If we consider that 10 percent of the current jobs in the country are tied to driving jobs — whether it’s a taxi, Uber, a bus, or a truck — what will happen when this technology becomes ubiquitous and we find effectively 10 percent of the working population in the US unemployed?
This is where arts and culture can offer a real solution to level our economy in the age of innovation. It can heal our social fabric by providing services for mental and physical health through somatic practices like dance, theater, and music. This goes beyond providing representation to under-resourced communities and silenced narratives through audio-visual and literary arts such as graphic work, film, and writing, but actually providing artists with an opportunity to make a livable income off of their artistic work, and furthermore circulating money in their local economies.
Currently, the contribution of the arts and cultural sector to the national GDP is 4.4 percent; and if we look at California alone it is 7.2 percent. However, since COVID, elected officials haven’t created the meaningful investments needed to transform the creative economy that to this day still mirrors that of feudalist times — that is, only if you have a patron, you’ll be able to create the work you want to and make a living out of it.
I know this might sound out of a beautiful utopia, but this is a real need and a radical opportunity, precisely right now when Congress is about to start negotiating the budget and arts and culture is one of the first things on the chopping block — as usual.
This is a call to action to everyone in the country, particularly to us artists, to create the coalitions and grassroots work to represent our work and the right we have to live a dignified life by sharing our art with our communities. Our art, many times, makes up for the lack of accessibility that the government is not providing, as well as is a form of innovation that doesn’t ignore the real societal issues at hand.
Arturo Mendez is the founder and executive director of Arts.Co.Lab, a Cultural Equity Agency that amongst other programs, supports artists and micro-organizations with professional development to access grants and funds, as well as the curation of a Fanzine called Urban Prophets Illustrated.