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The Arts and Economic Recovery in Your Community

worker overlooking steel mill in Pittsburgh, PA

The 2021 $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) is designed to stimulate recovery from the economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities around the country and provides $130 billion to cities, counties, and other local government units for COVID-19 response and economic stabilization. This follows last year’s $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which offered relief funding to U.S. businesses, unemployment benefits to U.S. workers, and billions to hospitals, schools, airlines, and other employers affected by the pandemic.

Together, these economic relief efforts make up the two largest infusions of federal money into the U.S. economy since the Great Depression.

We all know about the New Deal, enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to restart the economy in the 1930s. It included work programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA, renamed the Work Projects Administration in 1939). The millions of workers employed in these programs in the 1930s and ‘40s built schools and hospitals, roads and bridges, and sewer lines, and even planted 24 million trees.

Perhaps a less well-known use of WPA funding, however, went to supporting thousands of artists, including Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko as perhaps the most famous among them. These musicians, sculptors, painters, and other creatives were tasked with raising the nation’s spirits, a fundamental and necessary task given the extent of the damage done to Americans’ livelihoods and sense of worth caused by the economic devastation of the Depression. About more than just jobs, this effort had lasting impacts on morale, and many artworks from this time are still on display today.

The Power of the Arts

As we claw our way out of the economic and spiritual holes caused by public-health protecting social distancing measures that have nearly destroyed pockets of our community fabric, it is worth thinking through possible policy solutions and interventions that can help us build even stronger communities and economies than we had going into this pandemic.

The importance of the arts and creative sector on economic growth and vitality is often overlooked but cannot be overstated. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the arts and cultural sector adds more to the economy than the construction and transportation/warehousing sectors combined, by $87 billion and $265 billion respectively. Cultural amenities generate tourism visits and spending to cities and regions; public art helps foster shared community identity and pride; and creative entrepreneurship and events create the vibrant places that drive talent attraction and retention, arguably the most critical ingredients in today’s economic development recipe book.

COVID-19 Economic Recovery

ARPA represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many communities to build these engaging and cherished places that stimulate economic activity and attract and retain people now and for years to come. ARPA funds can be used to invest in parks, public squares, outdoor gathering places, and open space; the safe reopening, upgrades to, or expansion of businesses in the tourism, travel, and hospitality industries or districts that were closed during the COVID-19 public health emergency; and assistance to small businesses, specifically to enhance outdoor spaces for COVID-19 mitigation (e.g., restaurant patios) or to improve the built environment of a neighborhood (e.g., façade improvements and main street development).

In addition, the Economic Development Administration (EDA) created the $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge through the American Rescue Plan, which is meant to help regions recover from the coronavirus pandemic and increase resilience by growing new regional industry clusters or scaling existing ones. Use of funds granted through this Challenge can include engaging with regional industry, community, and civic partners for planning activity, infrastructure development, innovation and entrepreneurship activity, workforce training, and boosting access to capital within targeted industry clusters.

As your community debates how to obligate these funds, consider the impact of tapping into the arts and engaging local creative professionals to foster vibrancy and economic impact for post-COVID-19 recovery. Engaging the creative sector in economic development planning is a huge opportunity to advance shared goals: creating special places that are celebrated by both longtime residents and newcomers; fostering community pride and cohesiveness; and generating innovative thinking that enhances economic competitiveness.

On September 14, we will be hosting a webinar to explore how cities and rural towns across Pennsylvania are including creative workers and businesses in economic development and community revitalization efforts.

Following the release of the report "Pennsylvania's Creative Sector, From Impact to Opportunity," these case study examples are instructive for local practitioners across the country who are currently contemplating how to use rescue funds to bring economic developers and creative leaders together to build strong and resilient communities for now and into the future.


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