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When I moved to Minneapolis, my first week in the city, I went to a concert at the Lake Harriet Band Shell. I had relocated from Kansas after college seeking a place to call home, and that evening in the park was a powerful signal that I had made the right choice. The park felt welcoming, creative and like there was room for me here.

Since that concert 25 years ago, I have attended countless concerts and outdoor performances in Minneapolis parks, and they always engender a feeling of belonging that renews my love of this community. I was dismayed to learn from the Feb. 14 article "Musicians not feeling love from Park Board," referring to unpaid performances, that all this time these experiences were being created by extracting resources from our local creative workers.

Creative work is work. Labor deserves to be compensated. A budget is a reflection of values, and not including artists in the budget for these park events is an ethical failure on the part of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. By asking musicians to play for free at more than 200 events, the board is telling us that it is fine with extracting hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid labor from its own citizens. I know that some readers might point out that many artists have been willing to do this work for free. But just because someone is willing to do something for free does not make it ethical to exploit them.

Artists are our neighbors and community members who need to eat, put food on the table and pay their rent just like everyone else. Artists are often piecing together dozens of contract gigs to make ends meet, and they often fall through the cracks of contract protections and small-business support. Economic conditions like widening wealth gaps, systemic inequity, and a lack of safety nets like health care, housing and unemployment benefits also impact artists. As most people know, the pandemic was particularly devastating for artists and creative workers, and those sectors have been among the slowest to recover.

And yet we also know that we have never needed our artists and culture makers more than we do now. The U.S. Surgeon General declared an epidemic of loneliness and isolation last May, and recently spoke at length about the power of art to help us address this crisis. In Minneapolis specifically, we need spaces of belonging, connection and healing if we have any hope of addressing the many crises and challenges facing our city. We can't create those spaces and experiences by extracting labor from the people who bring us together. If anything, the Park Board should be expanding its budget to increase support of our artists because of their impact on our community's health, economy and well-being.

Dismissing these concerns by offering that artists should pass the hat or be grateful for the exposure is, frankly, offensive. As many artists have pointed out over many years, you can't eat exposure. Minneapolis could be setting an example for other cities, yet here we are, behind many other cities in our own state that have recognized the value of creative work.

We have the power to change this, and we should. I hope that everyone who has enjoyed a summer evening in the park, listening to music, feeling a sense of belonging, and marveling at the beauty, creativity and potential of our city will call on the Park Board and our elected officials to behave in an ethical manner and value the labor of our musicians, artists and creative community.

Laura Zabel is executive director of Springboard for the Arts.