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creative:impact - 5!...6!...7!...8! Step, Pivot, Step, Turn! 18 Months In The Dance Continues

Deb Polich
Creative Washtenaw

What we’d once hoped was going to be a short little dance number, COVID-19 has turned into a dance marathon. Deb Polich of Creative Washtenaw and WEMU’s David Fair talk about the state of arts + creative industry, now 18 months into this pandemic, on this edition of "creative:impact."

Deb Polich
Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy.  In the weeks and months to come, 89.1 WEMU's David Fair and co-host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explore the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on America’s arts sector. Even as arts organizations return to in-person programming and employment conditions improve for artists and creative workers, the arts are recovering slower than other industries. This is a summary of research by Americans for the Arts and others on the human and financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the arts.

1. Artist Employment is Recovering, But Slower Than the Nation’s Economy

  • “Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation” jobs dropped from 2.5 million to 1.2 million between February and April 2020 (-53%). By January 2021, jobs rebounded to 1.7 million and are up to 2.1 million as of July 2021. Positive news, but arts jobs are still down (-16%) since before the pandemic (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).
  • Johns Hopkins University reports that, as of July 2021, the percentage of job losses at nonprofit arts organizations remains nearly 4 times worse than the average of all nonprofits (-18.5% vs. -4.9%).
  • The U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Business Pulse Survey reports that “arts, entertainment, and recreation” businesses are among the most likely to take longer than 6 months to recover from the pandemic.

2. The Pandemic’s Impact on Nonprofit Arts & Culture Organizations and their Audiences

As of July 2021, financial losses to the nation’s nonprofit arts and culture organizations were an estimated $17.97 billion. 99% of producing and presenting organizations cancelled events during the pandemic—a loss of 557 million ticketed admissions impacting both arts organizations and audiences. Additionally, local area businesses—restaurants, lodging, retail, and parking—were severely impacted by cancelled arts and culture events with a loss of $17.6 billion in audience ancillary spending. Local government revenue losses were $6.0 billion and 1.03 million jobs were negatively affected because of cancelled events. As of July 2021:

  • 39% of organizations with in-person programming remained closed to the public. The vast majority, however, expect to return to in-person activities in 2021.
  • BIPOC organizations were more likely to report that they lack the financial resources needed to return to in-person programming than non-BIPOC organizations (55% vs. 38%).
  • 77% of organizations were currently delivering virtual content/programming. Looking ahead, 29% will improve their online content, post-pandemic, while 18% expect to hold steady. 45% plan to reduce their virtual presence and 8% intend to discontinue it altogether.
  • 35% of arts attendees are already attending in-person programs (up from 17% in April) with an additional 42% expecting to do so by January 2022. (AMS Audience Outlook Monitor)

3. The Pandemic’s Impact on Artist & Creative Workers

Artists/creatives were—and remain—among the most severely affected segment of the nation’s workforce. 95% lost creative income during the pandemic. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, 63% experienced unemployment. (Americans for the Arts Survey)

  • BIPOC artists had even higher rates of unemployment than white artists in 2020 due to the pandemic (69% vs. 60%) and lost a larger percentage of their creative income (61% vs. 56%).
  • 37% of artists were unable to access or afford food at some point during the pandemic and 58% did visit a medical professional due to an inability to pay.

4. The Economic Importance of Getting Artists and Creative Workers Back to Work

  • The arts are a formidable industry in the U.S. Prior to the pandemic, the nation’s arts and culture sector (nonprofit, commercial, education) was a $919.7 billion industry that supported 5.2 million jobs and represented 4.3% of the nation’s economy in 2019. (U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis)
  • The arts industry is an economic catalyst, an industry that accelerates economic recovery. A growth in arts employment has a positive and causal effect on overall employment. (Indiana University)

The most current version of this update is maintained at www.AmericansForTheArts.org/node/103614.


In Monday's Executive Briefing, Alan Brown shared new findings from the Audience Outlook Monitor study that painted a serious picture of a major contraction in demand. Over the one month period from mid-July to mid-August indicators of near-term demand retreated by as much as 20%, spelling rough waters ahead as cultural organizations navigate reopening during the Delta variant surge. Alan’s presentation slides are also available, and we encourage you to share the video and slides with your staff and board as a catalyst for discussion.
Key takeaways include: 

  • August results show a dramatic decrease in readiness to return to cultural events - roughly 20% of hypothetical demand evaporated between July and August
  • It is now clear that many organizations’ fall reopening plans will coincide with a surge in Delta variant infections
  • The percentage of respondents who’d not go out “this week” jumped from 15% in July to 41% in August (source: Nat’l Orchestra Cohort)
  • The proportion of “vaccinated but reluctant” respondents jumped from about a third of respondents in June to half of respondents in August
  • In other words, half of vaccinated respondents aren’t going out until epidemiological conditions improve
  • The calendar for returning regressed by about two months between July and August
  • Now, roughly 30% to 40% of respondents don’t anticipate returning to live events until Jan. 2022 or thereafter; the effects of Covid-19 are likely to depress demand well into 2022
  • Between June and August, the percentage of respondents saying they won’t go out without a proof of vaccine requirement nearly doubled, and now sits at 40% to 50%
  • Feelings about proof of vaccine requirements are much more favorable than unfavorable, and trending more favorable


David Fair: [00:00:00] This is 89 one WEMU. I'm David Fair, and welcome to creative:impact. It is our weekly look at the local creative sector. My content partner and co-host is Deb Polich. She serves as president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw. Always grateful for time with you, Deb.

Deb Polich: [00:00:17] It's good to be here, David. Thank you. So what was your holiday weekend?

David Fair: [00:00:21] Well, it was challenging. Let's put it that way. Full of worry and concern. My eldest daughter, her husband, and both of my grandchildren all tested positive for COVID. I'm glad to say the grandkids are faring pretty well to this point. But my daughter and son-in-law, they've been really sick.

Deb Polich: [00:00:39] Oh, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.

David Fair: [00:00:40] There's been so much improvement. They got the monoclonal antibody infusions, but still sound like death warmed over. I want to caution--both decided against being vaccinated over my strongly worded objections. And so, it is a cautionary tale. I wouldn't wish this on anybody. So, being vaccinated, obviously, may not have prevented them from getting COVID, but most likely would have lessened the severity of their illness. So my hope is more people make the choice to get vaccinated, so as few as possible have to go through any of this. Now, I'm going to assume that your weekend was a whole lot better.

Deb Polich: [00:01:14] Well, of course, please know that your family is in our prayers and thoughts. Yes. So, we decided to mask up and go to New York City for the weekend, kind of unexpectedly. It's very much of a spur of the moment.

David Fair: [00:01:26] I love when spur of the moment stuff happens.

Credit Deb Polich / Creative Washtenaw
Creative Washtenaw
Showstoppers exhibition


Deb Polich: [00:01:28] Yeah, we decided to take in some theater, some exhibitions and museums. But New York is not the New York we knew before. You know, the first thing you notice when you hit the ground is that the streets are unusually quiet.

David Fair: [00:01:41] Still, huh?

Credit Deb Polich / Creative Washtenaw
Creative Washtenaw
Empty 6th Avenue in New York City


Deb Polich: [00:01:42] No. There's not a blur of yellow taxi cabs blaring their horns, and the hustle and bustle and energies gone. There's empty storefronts, closed restaurants, and hotels. And we arrived, unknowingly, on the first night that Broadway reopened with two musicals: Hadestown and Waitress. We have plans to see Hadestown on second night.

David Fair: [00:02:03] So how was it to go back into the theater? Were you at all anxious about the virus and how it was going to be managed?

Credit Deb Polich / Creative Washtenaw
Creative Washtenaw
Costumes at Showstoppers exhibition


Deb Polich: [00:02:10] Well, fortunately, we know that, according to the Audience Outlook Monitor Survey, that's been going on since the start of the pandemic, that more than 90 percent of the arts audiences are vaccinated. And New York has mandated that, before entering any indoor theater or restaurant, you must prove or show your vaccine proof and an ID and also wear masks to enter. So, the comfort level was pretty good. Everything was managed smoothly, and the theater was full. And people were excited. As soon as they as soon as the actors walked out on stage, everybody gave them a standing ovation. knowing how hard this has been for actors and performers and in theaters, you know, throughout this whole pandemic. It was really--actually it was quite emotional.

David Fair: [00:02:53] And I would imagine that the shows themselves were pretty stellar.

Deb Polich: [00:02:56] Oh, yeah. I mean, you know, it's one of those things that it's been so long, you know, maybe even if they weren't stellar, we would have still thought so. But they were awesome.

David Fair: [00:03:05] And that's so good to hear. This is 89 one WEMU. And we're talking with the president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and our partner in creative:impact, Deb Polich. Now, some believe, Deb, that as arts and culture in New York goes, so goes arts and culture in the rest of the country. This past weekend, we saw college football stadiums around the country fully packed, including more than 100,000 at Michigan Stadium. As we see the increase in the number of COVID cases, it's unclear as to whether that's going to be sustainable. The number of people hesitant to go out is going up. And, once again, I bet you're hearing from those in the nonprofit arts and culture world that there's fear for the future.

Deb Polich: [00:03:43] Yeah. So again, back to the Audience Outlook Monitor. We know that most audiences are vaccinated. However, because that survey has been going on monthly since the beginning of the pandemic, it's easy to see that the August survey shows that the levels of confidence about going back into venues has dropped to back to last January. So, that's been significant. And there's venues here in the community that have reopened and are now requiring a vaccine--proof of vaccine--before entering.

David Fair: [00:04:19] Beyond COVID concerns, we've all heard about the workers shortages. How significantly is that playing out locally in the nonprofit arts and entertainment realm?

Deb Polich: [00:04:27] Well, again, it continues to be precarious. The, you know, we're seeing that there is still a long time for recovery for the artists and creators and even the venues. And there's been a bit of a rebound, but it's much slower than the rest of the nation's economy. And predictions are that it's going to still be another six months to recover from the pandemic. But the hard part is, where's that start point? Is it when vaccines started? Is it when the Delta variant gets under control? The six months keeps getting pushed out.

David Fair: [00:04:59] Well, as you well know, we entered summer, and there were grand plans for reopenings, a return to live entertainment events, and those are going on in a somewhat restricted way, as you experienced in New York. But that means that many continue to lose revenue. Some have already closed their doors permanently. How likely is it more will go on to right here in our community?

Deb Polich: [00:05:19] Oh, I think you're going to see this. Now, we've had a little bit of good news, maybe a lot of it, depending how you want to look at it. You recall we talked a while back about the shuttered venues, operating grants, and although it's been a painful process to get to them, that was 16 billion dollars that Congress allocated to venues. And those are pretty much expended at this point. And I'm pleased to say that 19 organizations and businesses in Washtenaw County received a total of seven point two six dollars. So, that's going to be very helpful to them. But there's still lots and lots. And we have more than 100 organizations and businesses in this town. And the rest of them are without--they don't have a piece of that pie. So it's still very, very difficult. And again, that end goal is a long way off.

David Fair: [00:06:08] Once again, you're listening to creative:impact on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. I'm David Fair, and talking with Creative Washtenaw president and CEO Deb Polich. Now, beyond the pandemic, we continue to deal with societal injustice, inequity, and disparity. When it comes to the nonprofits in the creative sector locally, are minority run organizations suffering more than the whole of the sector?

Deb Polich: [00:06:31] Well, I think that's all across the country that that's the truth. And, you know, again, a reality. And, you know, it's definitely organizations of color, but it's also smaller organizations. They have the hardest time getting--both of them--have the hardest time getting the attention that they're deserving in this world and the attention of funders and donors and otherwise, because there's just so much noise to break through.

David Fair: [00:07:01] Well, as we navigated our way through various rescue and relief plans, as you mentioned, the arts and creative sector was undervalued and underrepresented. So, how do you want to move forward from this point on?

Deb Polich: [00:07:14] Well, we're doing a lot of work to change the understanding of what this sector is. Again, the number I always throw out is that we're four point three percent to four point six percent of the national gross domestic product. And that's high in Michigan--a thirteen point two dollars billion in impact on our state. Billion dollars. Did you hear that? And so, it's very important. And it's not just icing on the cake. It's actually part and parcel to our economy in the state and in this region. So it's very important to come for the come back. And, you know, as I walk around town, masked, of course, and vaccinated, that, you know, you talk to venues, you talk to restaurants, you talk to retailers and others. And they know that they need to have the people back in the city before they can start to recover. So there's a ripple effect, no doubt.

David Fair: [00:08:07] And, as you explore the ripple effect, what do we lose if we don't start to better care for the creative sector in our community?

Deb Polich: [00:08:15] Well, there's, first and foremost, what it does for humanity, and that's extremely important, even though I'm always talking about numbers with you, David, you know, so there's that that critical standpoint. But, also, it's quality of life. It's the economy. It's what we do interconnectively with with health and human services, with education and likewise. So, you know, it's never going to disappear. But the vibrancy, the vitality, you know, it's taken a huge hit, and we've got a long ways to go for recovery.

David Fair: [00:08:46] So, a couple of the words that we've thrown about a lot through the course of the 18 month pandemic to this point are "pivot" and "adaptability." So, when you can't prepare for the unknown, how do you plan for being adaptable?

Deb Polich: [00:09:02] Well, I think we're learning that as we go along. And it's like it's like the number from A Chorus Line: five, six, seven, eight, step, pivot, step, turn. You know, what we thought was going to be a short little dance number has turned into a dance marathon. And we're learning constantly along the way.

David Fair: [00:09:20] And there is a lot more to learn. And this is there's no end in sight, at least not yet. We keep hearing predictions, as you mentioned, but the future is uncertain.

Deb Polich: [00:09:29] We need our community and the people that find value here to be with us on this journey. It's hard to be out here on your own without, you know, those champions. And, so that, you know, here you and I on creative:impact will continue to talk about this and bring the information to our listeners. But I just want to say we we all need to be seriously in this together.

David Fair: [00:09:54] Is perhaps one of the silver linings of all of this, is that, sometimes within the sector, there can be siloed interests. Is there going to be greater collaboration that might benefit all?

Deb Polich: [00:10:06] You know, I think within the sector, there is, but I I really believe we've got to do a better job as a community of doing the interconnection between sectors. And I know that's really hard when you're specifically looking at surviving in your own area, but I really think there's strength in us all working together.

David Fair: [00:10:28] Well, thank you very much for the update today, Deb. I certainly appreciate it. And I'll look forward to talking again next week.

Deb Polich: [00:10:34] Yes. And we'll have another creative guest next week. And thank you so much for all you guys do. And, goodness, I hope your family is doing better.

David Fair: [00:10:43] Thank you so much. Deb Polich is president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and my creative:impact co-host. For more information on today's topic and to visit the creative:impact archive, visit our website at WEMU Dot Org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR Station, Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM and WEMU HD, one Ypsilanti.

Credit Deb Polich / Creative Washtenaw
Creative Washtenaw
Close-up of balloon dress.


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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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