Only a small fraction of arts funders demand that actors earn a living wage before the pandemic

Only 9.4% of the 4,500 state and local agencies that fund performing arts projects require institutions that put on funded shows to pay their actors a living wage, a report by the Actors Equity Association found.

The finding, which was released on Tuesday, was part of a larger memo from the association on how state and local agencies can serve as a “force for change” in promoting equity in a community. industry that has been economically ravaged by COVID-19. The AEA is a trade union representing theater artists.

From 2019 to 2020, the unemployment rate for actors rose from nearly 25% to more than 52%, according to a January report by the National Endowment for the Arts. Performing arts center revenues between July and September fell 54%, from a peak of $1.9 billion in 2019 to around $860 million in 2020.

It was during this moment of crisis that the AEA decided it was time to put more emphasis on promoting diversity and equity within the industry.

“Before the pandemic, our work in this area [on equity and diversity] was in the direction of marginal gains, equity, diversity and inclusion were on a long list of priorities,” AEA President Kate Shindle said in a speech to the National Press Club. “During the pandemic, it became very clear that this had to be, if not top of the list, one of the top three.”

According to a report by the Actors Equity Association, less than 10% of the 4,500 state and local agencies that fund performing arts projects are required to pay actors a “living wage.” Here, an exterior view of the Palace Theater during the opening night of ‘West Side Story’ on Broadway at the Palace Theater on March 19, 2009 in New York City.
Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

The AEA wrote in its report that fundraising groups can address this problem by setting minimum compensation standards based on local living wages or industry union standards. To ensure these guidelines are followed, the AEA said funders should require grantees to include compensation records in their grant reports.

“It is essential that agencies require applicants to demonstrate that they fairly compensate performers and support staff,” the report states. “While ‘representation matters’ is a constant refrain reminding organizations to create diversity, fair compensation is a key consideration when determining whether an organization promotes equity in society through its relations with employees.

By promoting fair compensation, the AEA said performing arts centers can not only promote economic fairness within the industry, but can also better address representation issues.

Those who cannot afford the low-paying and sometimes unpaid positions common to those new to the industry face long-term employment barriers that Shindle says disproportionately disadvantage those who have marginalized identities.

A study by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition of Theaters found that between 2018 and 2019, white people made up 94% of Broadway producers and also made up 100% of general managers. In the 18 large nonprofit theaters surveyed, 100% of artistic directors were white, as were 88% of board members.

“In addition, of course, to the basic expectation that organizations asking for taxpayers’ money should be required to pay living wages to their workers, which in itself should be a priority for anyone concerned with social justice. and economical, the way to increase [diversity] in the theater is not to create unpaid internships for artists and BIPOC workers, but to give them seats on the board,” Shindle said in his speech.

Michael A. Bynum