Is Utah’s arts and culture industry on the road to recovery?

A member of Utah Division of Arts & Museums makes a button from copies of Utah works of art. A new report says Utah’s cultural industry, which was hit hard by the pandemic, may be on the road to recovery.
(Ashley Fredde, KSL.com)

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s cultural industry was the second hardest hit industry in 2020 by COVID-19 behind the leisure and hospitality industry, but the previously $19.3 billion industry may be on the road to recovery, a new report says.

The state’s cultural industry — comprised of arts, culture and entertainment sectors — contributed $19.3 billion or 9.9% of Utah’s gross domestic product in 2019. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sector’s sales were down 7.8%, jobs were down 9.5%, labor income down 7.5% and tax revenue fell 10%, according to the report released Tuesday by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Pre-pandemic Utah ranked third in the country for the growth of creative industry jobs.

The coronavirus’ impact could be seen as museums, art galleries, theaters and other cultural institutions were forced to close their doors. The 119,953 Utahns who held jobs supported by the cultural sector in 2019 faced uncertainty.

“2020, 2021 and 2022 has proved to be a series of unprecedented challenges for this industry. We have the longest road to recovery for any industry and continue to suffer from cancelations due to omicron,” said Vicki Bourns, director of Utah Division of Arts & Museums.

The pandemic’s impacts on the industry include $76 million in losses, with 13% of the industry experiencing 50% or more of services disrupted, and 15% of the industry having more than half of their staff members test positive for COVID-19, according to Utah Cultural Alliance.

Despite the devastating effects, the cultural sector fared better in Utah than other states due to state-level support and federal grants.

“What happened in this state is unparalleled,” said Crystal Young, executive director of Utah Cultural Alliance. Young added that her colleagues in sectors across the country faced additional barriers or a lack of support on a state level.

“It was nothing like the story we had here. We did not lose anybody. We’re still hurting, we still have a lot of runway to recover, but we didn’t lose anybody,” Young said.

Young’s sentiment is enforced by the Gardner Policy Institute’s analysis. The report indicates that the industry began to rebound in 2021 with the second quarter of industry jobs being up 0.7% from the previous quarter.

The start of a return signaled a positive note for Senate President Stuart Adams and Speaker of the House Brad Wilson.

“Utah has been rated as the No. 1 happiest state in the country this year and I believe it’s because in large part of our cultural community,” Adams said.

Wilson said the lack of the arts amid the pandemic has been difficult on Utahns.

“The arts bring us together. There’s been so much division in our state and in our country. I personally believe that’s one of the elements that’s been missing for a lot of us,” Wilson said. “I hope that as we turn the page soon on this difficult time we’ve been in, that we can delve down into our souls and immerse ourselves in the arts.”

But the page hasn’t been turned yet and the industry still faces significant challenges amid COVID-19 surges.

“All the art organizations that bring soul to these spaces quickly pivoted to begin presenting work in person again in 2021. However it still is a challenging time for the arts and culture industry with cancellations from COVID spread among cast and crew, having to regularly reschedule works and quickly pivot due to the changing guidelines,” said Matt Castillo, division director of Salt Lake County Arts and Culture.

“The arts and culture industry does this for the love of performing and the passion of engaging their communities, but often at a greater expense and with less revenue.”

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