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U.S. Capitol Building
Article Published: 04 Feb 2021

D.C. 2021: The New Crew

Changes in the nation’s capital offer fresh advocacy possibilities for the industry.

The month of January brought changes to the federal government. The most visible, of course, took place on January 20, when Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. Kamala Harris became the first female, first Black, and first Asian American vice president. The U.S. Congress is scheduled to commence its 117th session on January 3. The Democratic party has maintained control of the U.S. House of Representatives, while the U.S. Senate is now split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, but Harris, as presiding officer, is able to cast tie-breaking votes.

Biden and Harris have indicated the top priorities for their administration — providing more pandemic relief, improving the economy, attaining racial justice and equity, achieving affordable and quality health care, providing a world-class education for all students, and combatting climate change. The Democratic Party included in its 2020 policy platform support for the arts and culture, specifically supporting funding for the government’s cultural agencies and providing equitable access to art and music education in our nation’s public school systems. In preparing for the transition, the Biden-Harris transition team appointed federal agency review teams, including an arts and humanities team, to listen to stakeholders and provide information concerning short-term and long-term issue priorities for the arts and cultural sector.

As Congress commences its new session, it is important for professionals in opera and across the arts and cultural sector to develop working relationships quickly and effectively with their federal elected officials. Unfortunately, the pandemic has made some traditional methods of contacting representatives inadvisable if not impossible. You can’t visit your representatives’ offices on Capitol Hill at the moment, and you probably can’t invite them to live performances either.

But virtual means of forming connections remain. Most members of Congress have at least one social media account, usually on Twitter or Facebook; sending pictures and videos is an effective way to get their attention. These can highlight the challenges facing your organization and the ways that increased arts funding can lead to success. Newly elected members of Congress are receiving their official email accounts. Spend a couple of minutes to send your federal legislators an email congratulating them on the recent election and indicating the top two or three issues that you’d like them to prioritize as they begin their work on Capitol Hill. It is important to include in your initial communications with federal legislators that you will follow up with them for detailed discussions about how these issues affect your organization, your artists, and the local arts community. In communicating with legislators, it is helpful to include not only economic data but also stories that give context and a human dimension to your concerns.

OPERA America will buttress your efforts. Our organization continues to work both unilaterally and with its partners across the arts, cultural, and nonprofit sectors to engage the U.S. Congress on opera’s vital issues. Still, elected officials are accountable first to their voters. OA’s activities will be most effective if complemented by advocacy action on the ground.

A top priority is relief for opera companies, opera workers, and artists as they continue to deal with the pandemic. The $2.3 trillion Economic Aid Act that was passed in December provides $1.4 trillion to fund the federal government for the remainder of the 2021 fiscal year, including funding increases for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. It also includes a $900 billion pandemic relief package that provides another round of funding for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP); establishes a $15 billion grant program to support performing arts organizations that operate live venues (Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program); and extends and expands the Employer Retention Tax Credit. The Biden-Harris Administration has released a $1.9 trillion stimulus and pandemic relief proposal and intends to push it through Congress within the first 100 days.

One focus of OA’s advocacy will be a continued push for increased funding for the current fiscal year and emergency funding for all federal arts and cultural agencies, like the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Institute for Museum and Library Services. States, state and regional arts councils, and local arts communities have benefited greatly from grants from these agencies over the years.

It will be difficult for the new administration and the U.S. Congress to improve the economy beyond the pandemic without supporting the arts and cultural sector and ensuring that artists get back to work, and also receive training for job opportunities in other sectors, including in health care, the environment, and education. Years of economic data show that the arts and cultural sector is an economic engine at national, state, and local levels. The Bureau of Economic Analysis, under the U.S. Department of Commerce, released a March 2020 analysis concluding that the arts and cultural sector contributes $877.8 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product. According to a Brookings report, “Lost Art: Measuring COVID-19’s Devastating Impact on America’s Creative Economy,” the nation’s fine and performing arts industries have suffered estimated losses of almost 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales. Any long-term damage to the sector will drastically undercut our nation’s culture, well-being, and quality of life. As OA advocates for artists and the creative economy to be considered in any national economic recovery effort, your communications with your representatives will drive this point home.

Beyond advocating for pandemic relief, OA will be pushing the 117th Congress on a number of other issues: tax incentives for charitable contributions; improving the visa process for foreign guest artists; and increasing access to arts and music education for our nation’s students. In all these matters, every voice of support that the industry raises is important. Federal elected officials work for their constituents, and their constituents can hold them accountable. By providing stories about successes, challenges, and specific needs to your elected officials, you can help them to best serve their constituents. OPERA America is here to help. Through our website, social media accounts, and OperaLink e-newsletter, our organization provides communications to help opera organizations, workers and artists serve as effective advocates for themselves and for their local communities.

How to Get Involved
  • Sign Up for Action Alerts.
  • Contact Your Elected Officials.
  • Visit Your Elected Officials.
  • Vote in Support of the Arts.

Learn how at OPERA America's Advocacy Hub.

This article was published in the Winter 2021 issue of Opera America Magazine.