CREATIVITY CONNECTS / AMBITIOUS

What do artists really need to make a living and a life today?

INTRODUCTION

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 research included 65 in-depth interviews, ten roundtables across the country, a review of over 300 documents, a gathering with 30 field experts to review the initial findings, and 18 commissioned essays written by leaders in the field.

Although there are many things impacting artists’s ability to make work and thrive today–changing technology and participation habits among them–our main finding was that the biggest issues facing artists today are not specific to artists. As the report put it: “Artists share challenging economic conditions with other segments of the workforce” and “structural inequities in the artists’ ecosystem mirror inequities in society more broadly.” The report argued that to make real, sustainable improvements in conditions for artists, funders and intermediaries must work on larger systemic issues like affordable housing, debt reduction, access to capital, rights and benefits for independent workers and more.

This finding has prompted a number of supporters of artists to explore new cross-sector partnerships and initiatives. For its part, CCI has launched AmbitioUS, an initiative to connect the arts sector to work happening around cooperatives and other “new economy” efforts. Helicon helped conduct preliminary research and design work for this initiative and is an Ally.

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 research included 65 in-depth interviews, ten roundtables across the country, a review of over 300 documents, a gathering with 30 field experts to review the initial findings, and 18 commissioned essays written by leaders in the field.

Although there are many things impacting artists’s ability to make work and thrive today–changing technology and participation habits among them–our main finding was that the biggest issues facing artists today are not specific to artists. As the report put it: “Artists share challenging economic conditions with other segments of the workforce” and “structural inequities in the artists’ ecosystem mirror inequities in society more broadly.” The report argued that to make real, sustainable improvements in conditions for artists, funders and intermediaries must work on larger systemic issues like affordable housing, debt reduction, access to capital, rights and benefits for independent workers and more.

This finding has prompted a number of supporters of artists to explore new cross-sector partnerships and initiatives. For its part, CCI has launched AmbitioUS, an initiative to connect the arts sector to work happening around cooperatives and other “new economy” efforts. Helicon helped conduct preliminary research and design work for this initiative and is an Ally.

The Work

New technologies and social media are changing all our lives and have particular impacts on the way that creative content is created and consumed. 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. Better and less expensive technological tools are influencing the way that many artists make work, and where and with whom they make it. These new mechanisms are fundamentally altering the cost structure and methods of creating, distributing, and consuming art, especially in fields with reproducible products such as music, writing, photography, and film. Online giving and crowdsourcing platforms are also changing the way some artists finance their work.

Throughout the study, we heard reports on the challenges of making a living as an artist, whether in the nonprofit or the commercial sector or a combination of both. 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 for many artists, and many cultural institutions expect artists to work for free or for nominal fees. One person spoke to a sentiment shared by many in saying, “There are no standards for employment contracts in many areas of the field, and too many cultural groups rely on artists to discount their labor in order to survive themselves.” The expectation that artists will subsidize the work has many consequences, including diminishing the ability of many artists to work in the sector at all— especially artists without other sources of financial support

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.”

Appetite for professional training in the arts remains strong—approximately 120,000 people graduate with art degrees every year.63 Many more people make their way into art careers without academic training, through apprenticeships or other kinds of preprofessional education. Regardless of the entry point, 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 in a contemporary world.

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.

New technologies and social media are changing all our lives and have particular impacts on the way that creative content is created and consumed. 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. Better and less expensive technological tools are influencing the way that many artists make work, and where and with whom they make it. These new mechanisms are fundamentally altering the cost structure and methods of creating, distributing, and consuming art, especially in fields with reproducible products such as music, writing, photography, and film. Online giving and crowdsourcing platforms are also changing the way some artists finance their work.

Throughout the study, we heard reports on the challenges of making a living as an artist, whether in the nonprofit or the commercial sector or a combination of both. 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 for many artists, and many cultural institutions expect artists to work for free or for nominal fees. One person spoke to a sentiment shared by many in saying, “There are no standards for employment contracts in many areas of the field, and too many cultural groups rely on artists to discount their labor in order to survive themselves.” The expectation that artists will subsidize the work has many consequences, including diminishing the ability of many artists to work in the sector at all— especially artists without other sources of financial support

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.”

Appetite for professional training in the arts remains strong—approximately 120,000 people graduate with art degrees every year.63 Many more people make their way into art careers without academic training, through apprenticeships or other kinds of preprofessional education. Regardless of the entry point, 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 in a contemporary world.

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.

Conclusion

Enabling the full spectrum of artists to realize their creative potential suggests that change is needed in five areas. 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 systems and structures that support artists.

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.