Art in Society: its cost, price & value

It’s no secret I’ve been on the path of full-time-art for two years now. It’s been a time of great change, not just in terms of personal career, but perhaps the nature of art’s place in society; it’s costs and value. I’ve been continually adding to this subject I’ve been researching, looking back at my own career and community as well as taking time I’d once spent commuting to read deeply on how to live as an artist. In looking at shifts in the our population and the ways artists have worked over the past decade or so, four major trends have surfaced.

  1. Norms which define who is an artist have diversified,  expanding the population.
  2. Large numbers of artists now work in interdisciplinary ways.
  3. Many artists are finding opportunities to work in non-arts fields.
  4. Artists are driving the development of new platforms for entrepreneurial work.

While federal statistics have produced reliable counts of artists in the U.S. over the years, there is a commonly held belief that their categories are inadequate. The bureaucratic definition of artist is too narrow to cover the entirety of artist population, artists can be categorized as “professionals” in the U.S., but “artist” is a designation not exclusively defined. “Artist” does not describe a specific professional certification or a uniform standard of practice. The term “artist,” is used among a wide range of skill sets and social norms for what is considered an artistic practice or artistic work change with increasing rapidity. Meanwhile official categories lag behind, and that is gap widening.

But with-in the categories as they’re currently defined, artists whose primary income is derived from their art include many who have no academic training in the arts. Some people with degrees in the arts do not make the a living from their art. According to a 2015 survey by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), of 140,000 graduates of art and design schools, only half of them made over 60% of their income exclusively from their artistic work. A 2003 Pew Research Center study found that just 7% of artists they called earn all of their income from their art.

In 2015 the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Office conducted the American Community Survey which suggested the following. 2.3 million people had primary jobs as artists; an increase of about 185,000 over the 10 years prior. This represents approximately 1.5% of the American labor force. Approximately 271,000 workers who hold jobs in other sectors held second jobs as artists. 59% of artists at least have a bachelors’ degree compared to 31% of U.S. workers overall. But, the majority of working artists earn less than professionals with similar educational achievements in other fields. The median income for fine artists, actors, musicians, dancers, choreographers, photographers, and “other entertainers” remained below the median income of the U.S. labor force overall ($39,280). Lastly, artists are 3.6 times more likely to be self-employed than other workers.

Labor economists and Artists think that data still under-counts the number of people who should be counted. Consider culinary artists, social practice artists, martial artists or artists who work embedded within other sectors. Those surveys also exclude folk artists and tradition bearers. People who’s artistic practice is important to the cultural or spiritual life of their communities; but who make most or all of their income in other professions. For example, these official counts would probably not include Shaolin Monks, Indigenous artists, Mardi Gras and other Carnival culture exemplars, as well as community-based artists. There are also cultural traditions that prohibit profiting from artistic work, and federal data on volunteering in the arts does not account for these kinds of professional artists.

An actual in-person Gallery show & appearance: in 1 minute.

In an article titled, “Diversifying Support for Artists,” Fall 2013 issue of the GIA Reader; the only national publication dedicated to the field of arts funding, author Ann Markusen  had much to say on the subject.

“Popular conceptions of who is an artist have both softened and broadened.This fuzziness has some uses, but when it comes to making the case for artists (as contrasted to scientists), it confuses. Scientists are recognized by their degrees in designated majors; employment in research labs, be they corporate, academic, or public sector; and mission to discover. Artists, on the other hand, are stretched across many sectors, formal and informal, simultaneously and sequentially. Many are self-taught, despite formal educational pathways offered to them. Their missions are much more diverse and sometimes controversial.
As the culture wars funding implosion took root, and the dot-com bust and Great Recession further damaged the arts financially, many advocates and funders turned their sights toward the occupational challenges of being an artist, reminiscent of New Deal and Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (1973) concerns for artists’ livelihoods. Artwork is a job for many an artist, just as science is for most scientists, even though we may fondly still think of the latter as quirky bench workers with a rare kind of genius. How does the income-earning project of an artist differ from those of scientists and other professional workers? And what does that difference mean for philanthropy?
Artists in the United States are much more likely than other workers to be self-employed and to work across simultaneously commercial, nonprofit, and community sectors, requiring considerable labor market dexterity, planning, and risk taking, yet they earn less than other workers.”

Ann Markusen: GIA Reader Fall 2013

Multiple surveys confirm that making art is a fundamental part of life in the U.S., and the line between professional and amateur artist is blurry. Some studies suggest that as many as ten million adults receive at least some income from their art-making. Added to that, artists are becoming proficient in multiple disciplines simultaneously—visual, performing, and other media— bringing all that expertise together in a given work or series of projects. Others maintain focus in a primary discipline but pursue cross-discipline collaborations—choreographers working with filmmakers or musicians with visual artists.

New technologies are, of course, a driving force behind this artistic blending. This enables artists to see more work in multiple genres, experiment with mixing media and find creative partners outside of their existing networks. Artists have long worked across nonprofit, commercial, and community sectors helping to dissolve some of the traditional distinctions; particularly between “high art” (traditionally the domain of the nonprofit sector) and “popular art” (traditionally the domain of the commercial sector). However, structural divisions between these different sectors can continue to act as barriers to artists’ ability to launch and maintain a hybrid career. Most professional artists continue to work in fields related to their interests and training; remaining within adjacent industries rather than entering wholly unrelated fields of work.

Despite that, artists are Increasingly plying their skills in other settings, as more sectors are recognizing the value artists can add to their work. Speaking only from personal experience; this includes after-school programs, community centers and religious organizations. Other examples include the park systems, mayors’ offices, neuroscience labs, tech companies and consulting businesses. Factors contributing to artists working across sectors and in non-arts contexts, include the increasing urgency of several socio-political issues. Leaders in a growing number of non-arts sectors are also recognizing that artists’ creative skills can assist their own work. Gate-keeping by nonprofit and commercial arts sectors also act to propel artists to continue seeking creative avenues for their work.

This nebulous definition of Artist allows them to employ various business models for their entrepreneurial endeavors: nonprofit structures, barter systems, cooperatives, commercial models, for-benefit corporations, crowd-funding as well as fiscal sponsorships. Like many non-arts entrepreneurs, significant numbers of artists are self-employed. Self-employment offers the flexibility and autonomy that many artists need. According to the above mentioned American Community Survey, approximately 34% of professional artists are self-employed, and they are 3.6 times more likely to be self-employed than others in the workforce. The Center for an Urban Future found that, in New York City, the number of creative workers operating a side business outside of their primary employment jumped 61% —from 62,000 to 99,600— between 2003 and 2013. Compared to 25 years ago, when just two pathways for an artistic career was evident: commercial art or the nonprofit arts sector. Now we see a much broader spectrum of options which further blurs the definitions of what an artist is, why they do their work, and where and how we deploy our talents.

This emergent class of creative-entrepreneur still faces a great many challenges. In 2019 a National Endowment for the Arts report revealed that, even before the pandemic, “broader economic trends such as rising costs of living, greater income inequality, high levels of debt, and insufficient protections for ‘gig economy’ workers are putting increasing pressure on artists’ livelihoods.” Few places have felt the brunt of these changes as much as San Francisco, the birthplace of the gig economy and a national emblem of unaffordability.

In an effort to mitigate what appears to be an existential threat to the arts, in March 2021, the city of San Francisco partnered with the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to launch a guaranteed income pilot, called the SF Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists, or SF-GIPA, that gives 130 local low-income artists who have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic $1,000 a month, no strings attached, for 18 months.

YBCA was selected out of a pool of proposals to run the program on behalf of the city because of its experience and connections. At the time, YBCA was planning to launch its own guaranteed income project for artists, and this allowed it to combine forces and take both projects further. This took the form of the 2022 California Relief Fund for Artists and Cultural Practitioners. Nearly 4,500 artists and cultural practitioners across the state applied for this opportunity. They selected 1,900+ awardees, all of whom received financial support, and I am glad to say I am counted among them. Through this program, San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts continue their commitment of providing financial opportunities to artists and cultural practitioners. This grant was made possible thanks to the California Arts Council who assigned stewardship for this program, one that would not have taken place without their ongoing support across the state of California.