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With report of pandemic losses, Ohio Citizens for the Arts seeks financial support for creative work

Students painting together inside art room
Sabrina Bracher
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Arts advocates want to use report's findings to help reframe Ohio's creative economy

Angela Meleca is on a mission to convince lawmakers that Ohio’s creative workforce is, in fact, a workforce – just like autoworkers, bricklayers and plumbers.

“You know, it's a viable workforce that doesn't often get thought about that way,” she said.

As executive director of Ohio Citizens for the Arts (OCA), Meleca advocates on behalf of artists, arts organizations and others in the state’s creative economy.

“We were over 300,000 jobs in 2019. We were a $55 billion economic output,” Meleca said. “If you talk to anybody in the sector, they would say that 2019 was their best year yet. And then, the world stopped.”

After COVID-19 shut the economy down in March 2020, jobs were lost across the nation and around the globe. Business organizations quickly began lobbying for federal relief to help displaced workers. But, Meleca found it was harder to do that sort of advocacy work in the world of arts and culture.

“It was a huge crash course for me to learn,” she said. “We're not one size fits all, a museum operates completely differently than a symphony or a theater. And then, there are unions involved and there's all these different layers.”

And there’s more to the creative economy than the non-profit world. Business owners from concert venues to graphic design firms argued that they too were part of the arts and culture sector.

So, in an attempt to capture the larger impact of the arts, OCA enlisted the services of Bowling Green State University’s Center for Regional Development (CRD). The resulting report was called, “The Economic Contribution of Creative Industries in Ohio.” Using data-gathering techniques similar to those used to analyze other industries, the CRD has begun to develop a picture of Ohio’s creative economy. Meleca said the pandemic losses were striking.

“It's telling when you look at something like payroll,” she said. “The state lost less than one percent in payroll output. Our sector lost over seven percent.”

In addition to payroll losses, the report notes that the state lost $8.6 billion from Ohio’s creative industries. Meleca plans to use numbers like that to lobby legislators for more relief money. And she plans to do more than just invite lawmakers to a beautiful night at the ballet to help make the case.

“Think of Honda," she said. "When Honda comes to Ohio and wants to get a tax incentive for opening a plant, they don't take the governor to the Honda dealership and say, ‘Look at the ‘22 Civic, isn't it beautiful?’ They take the governor to the assembly plant floor and they say it takes these many Ohioans to build one car.”

While the arts may be largely about beauty and magic, advocates want the people who control the state purse strings
to see the workers behind the curtain.

“Bring them in when you're staging the orchestra, when you've got the electricians and the union people and lighting and sound, all of that,” Meleca said. “We're manufacturing. We are a highly-skilled trade workforce. Because, you know, I heard a year ago from a legislative leader, that the arts is nothing but rich, white, old people wearing tuxedos.”

By reframing the image of the arts, Meleca wants to give creative workers and businesses the same respect that others got. She noted that restaurants and bars were able to make up for some pandemic losses, thanks to help from local and state lawmakers.

“Laws were changed about setting up tables outside, taking a lane in the road,” she said. “There were accommodations to allow them to remain in business or generate revenue, carryout with alcohol. There's no carryout in the arts.”

A lot of it gets down to changing the way that creative workers see themselves and changing the way that lawmakers see the creative economy. And now, there are some hard numbers to back the argument up.

“This, to me, is a tangible document. It's not just me saying so. Here are the numbers,” Meleca said. “But, next step for me is to get this information in front of as many, both public and private leaders, as possible. We're bringing the Intels of the world to Ohio, and we're looking to maximize that. How much does the creative sector matter?”