Writer, actor and filmmaker Matthew-Lee Erlbach is on a mission to get financial relief to the many arts workers and institutions impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Erlbach is calling on U.S. senators to sponsor the DAWN ( Defend Arts Workers Now ) Act that was drafted by the Be An #ArtsHero intersectional grassroots campaign he co-organized with artists Carson Elrod, Brook Ishibashi and Jenny Grace Makholm.
"The arts economy is an $877 billion industry, which is 4.5 percent of our GDP," Erlbach told Windy City Times. "That is more than agriculture and mining combined and $265 billion more than all of transportation. The top ten airlines received $50 billion per their $1 trillion in revenue and yet we receive millions, when we are just as consequential. I want economic justice for arts workers across the country. This looks like immediate and proportionate grant relief for 1099 workers and business through passing the DAWN Act.
"After that, we are demanding a dedicated Department of Arts and Culture and a cabinet-level Secretary of Arts and Culture. I want immediate relief and sustained investment for our sector, which includes live venues, recording venues, cultural spaces and related businesses. I want our government to recognize our economic, social and cultural impact and treat us like they do the coal industry. We are economic coal mines in every state driving a highly interdependent local commercial ecosystem. We generate billions more than coal and we anchor retail, hospitality, restaurants, tourism and transportation. I need our government at the federal and state level to investbecause the return is colossal. The arts economy grows at 4.16 percent, nearly double that of the United States economy as a whole which is 2.2 percent."
One of the ways Erlbach is pushing the DAWN Act forward is the letter he wrote to the Senate when Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to consider the second stimulus billthe original HEROES Actthat the House of Representatives passed May 15.
Erlbach said that his letter "took off like a jolt of electricity with over 15,000 signatories including leaders of every major arts organizations. There are Pulitzer, Tony, Oscar, Emmy and Grammy winners and more importantly thousands of rank-and-file arts workers from around the countryelectricians, carpenters, playwrights, performers, administrators, custodians, ushers, milliners, puppeteers, publicists and any and everyone in-between. The response has showed there is a deep need for a consistent and amplified voice to make arts workers a legislative priority. We will no longer be ignored. That time is over."
Additionally, Be An #ArtsHero has launched the #ArtsAreMySuperpower nationwide letter-writing campaign and social media initiative. Elrbach said the goal is" to empower over six million children and young adults to raise their creative and civic voices in support of the arts in their communities. This letter writing campaign will support the DAWN Act and so far, the response has been overwhelming."
When asked if Erlbach has reached out to the Biden-Harris campaign, he said a meeting with Sen. Kamala Harris' office happened, and the group is working with Joe Biden's Arts Council. Erlbach added that both candidates and their campaign staff have been "incredibly enthusiastic about what we are doing. We also need to remember that we have not received proportionate relief or economic investment from both GOP and Democratic officials. This will require a bipartisan approach because this is a non-partisan crisis."
The arts has been in Erlbach's blood since middle school and he credits his "amazing" teachers and creative family for his career path. Erlbach said the rich arts education he received while attending Chicago Public Schools, Park View Middle School in Morton Grove and Niles West High School in Skokie cemented that foundation for him. He added that initially he wanted to be an illustrator and visual artist working on comics.
"I placed in various competitions and got scholarships to summer art programs at Western Illinois University and Eastern Illinois University," said Erlbach. "I lived for them and made lifelong friends there. Then when I got to high school, I had two mentors that changed my lifemy choir director and theater teacher. This was transformative. The Fine Arts program there was like being at a conservatory. So then my summers turned into music programs down at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where I ended up double-majoring in opera and theater while also focusing on African-American studies."
After graduating from college, Erlbach spent 13 years in New York City and now resides in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silverlake.
Erlbach said that because the world teaches LGBTQ people that they are unwanted, outcast and broken, "we start off looking at the world through this cracked lens. I had to learn how to fight for my rightful place in society. This of course informed my work as an artist and citizen, directing me to go to where the silence is, to make the visible invisible, and to tell the story of our shared humanity. I do not often think about my queer identity. Others do that for me. I just live it."
Among Erlbach's TV writing credits are Showtime's Master of Sex, Netflix's Gypsy and We Are the Champions as well as for the WWE, MTV and Nickelodeon. He wrote the play The Doppelgänger for the Steppenwolf Theatre. Current projects include a dark comedy TV project with a Saturday Night Live alum, a new Netflix series and a feature he is writing with Rainn Wilson.
Not only is Erlbach working to keep the arts funded, he also created a writing program to help single mothers who are transitioning out of homelessness and prison and has been a team leader for Habitat for Humanity for many years.
The writing program's dual purpose is to give these individuals practical skills and use creative writing for self-empowerment. Erlbach said the way to eradicate homelessness and prevent re-imprisonment is by cutting red tape so people can get a job and find affordable housing without any stigma attached to them. He added that addressing this is vital for increasing the mental and emotional health of society which will help the economy and participation in democracy.
As for Habitat for Humanity, Erlbach said rolling up his sleeves to build these houses was a way to give back in a tangible way. Erlbach added that he "fell in love with the organization and recommend it for everyone, It should be mandatory. You will meet people that will change your life and be in service in a way that will directly help those with the most need."
See beanartshero.com and matthew-lee.com/for more information.