What do artists really need to make a living and a life today?
In 2016, we worked with the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI) and the National Endowment for the Arts on Creativity Connects, a participatory research initiative to understand the most important trends and conditions facing artists today. The process involved consultation with hundreds of artists and field leaders nationwide, and an interactive micro-site with essays from some of those.
Although there are many things impacting artists’s ability to make work and thrive today our main finding was that the biggest issues facing artists today are not specific to artists. What artists really need, in other words, is an economy and social safety net that works for everyone. The report argued that to make real, sustainable improvements in conditions for artists, funders and intermediaries must engage with larger systemic issues like affordable housing, debt reduction, access to capital, rights and benefits for independent workers and more.
This study led CCI to launch AmbitioUS, an experimental initiative to connect the arts sector to work happening around cooperatives and other efforts to shift capital and ownership. Helicon helped conduct research and design work for this initiative and is an ongoing Ally.
Technology is profoundly altering the context and economics of artists’ work. New technological tools are expanding the boundaries of artistic practice and the presence of art in daily life, as well as the ways people interact with and consume artistic products and creative content. These new mechanisms are fundamentally altering the cost structure and methods of creating, distributing, and consuming art, especially in fields with digitally reproducible products such as music, writing, photography, and film. Online giving and crowdsourcing platforms are also changing the way some artists finance their work.
The artists’ world is competitive, adequate reliable employment is elusive, and philanthropic interventions— gifts, grants, and awards—are modest and irregular. Chronically low wages in much of the nonprofit sector is a challenge, and many cultural institutions expect artists to work for free or for nominal fees. There are no standards for employment and artists often experience wage theft and other contract violations. Many artists work in the "gig economy" and lack benefits and other safety nets, sharing conditions with other low income workers.
Conditions for artists reflect conditions in the society at large, and the race-, gender-, and ability-based disparities that are pervasive in our society are equally prevalent in both the nonprofit and commercial arts sectors. As Carlton Turner of Alternate ROOTS puts it, “We continue to struggle with issues of inclusion, diversity, and equity in the arts and culture sector because our society continues to struggle with them.”
Training for artists is not keeping pace with artists needs. Appetite for professional training in the arts remains strong—approximately 120,000 people graduate with art degrees every year. The skills required to succeed as an artist today are not limited to mastering an art form or presentation technique. Increasingly, artists also need knowledge and skills in multiple areas of production, business, and social media, and must master the complexities and ambiguities of both making art and making a career, which often requires engaging outside of the arts sector.
Fellowships, grants, and awards are an important part of the artists’ economy, especially for those artists seeking recognition and presentation opportunities in the nonprofit arts sector. Many interviewees and participants in the Regional Roundtables suggested that the system of foundation and public agency grants and awards for artists needs re-thinking. Grant guidelines and timeframes are not keeping pace with the ways that artists are making work, application procedures are unnecessarily cumbersome and often exclusionary, and decisionmaking is too slow. Many also commented that too few programs offer support for new art forms, for hybrid or interdisciplinary work, for community-based artists, and for artists working in non-arts sectors.
Enabling the full spectrum of artists to realize their creative potential suggests that change is needed. The field should consider ways to:
- Articulate and measure the benefits of artists and creative work to societal health and well-being.
- Address artists’ income insecurity as part of larger workforce efforts.
- Address artists’ debt and help build their assets.
- Create 21st-century training systems.
- Upgrade artist support systems and structures.
Addressing these priorities requires aligning artists’ interests with those of other people facing similar challenges and collaborating with broader movements for social and economic change.