Fear and Anxiety, or Resilience and Creativity

Artist Trust’s Artists and the Economy Survey

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 20, No 2 (Summer 2009)

Claudia Bach
How are artists weathering the economic downturn? Artist Trust wanted to take the pulse of the Washington State artist community and to consider what programmatic solutions Artist Trust and others might offer. Between March 15 and April 15, 2009 nearly 700 artists responded to an online survey. The survey was not designed to collect data for quantitative analysis; rather, it was conducted as a way to gain an informal snapshot of artists’ personal situations. Response came so quickly and in such large numbers that a more extensive look at the resulting data was deemed valuable. AdvisArts Consulting was asked to review the survey responses and identify broad trends based on a synthesis of the mostly narrative responses.

Artists are clearly feeling the negative effects of the unsteady economy. The immediacy of the response to Artist Trust’s invitation to complete an informal online survey indicates artists’ interest in sharing the impact of this recession on their professional and personal lives. This was underscored by an extensive article in The New York Times based on responses to an online inquiry a month later. 1

Many artists are well-versed in surviving economic hardship and are persevering creatively while others are encountering challenges that threaten to topple a delicate balancing act. As one might imagine, the overall picture that emerges is one of decreased or limited economic opportunity. Some artists report little or no change in their situation and a few are finding new opportunities. Most respondents, however, are finding their economic and creative flexibility tested. 2

Narrative survey answers provide a picture of two interrelated themes in the kinds of change that artists attribute to the economic downturn:

  1. Fewer external economic options. Changes in the economy have constricted artists’ options outside the studio. This includes a reduction in the number of sales venues and other opportunities; galleries have closed, exhibitions or performances have been canceled or delayed, and publishers have reduced operations or shut down completely. Teaching opportunities are also reported to be decreasing as enrollment drops for many classes or workshops. Many also note the loss, reduced scope, uncertainty, or unavailability of “day jobs.”
  2. Shifts in personal outlook—sometimes negative, sometimes positive. The external conditions that affect artists’ economic options are also reported to be changing their outlook or behavior. Some artists note that priorities for their time have shifted, often at the expense of time for art making. Others mention a shifting balance in household roles and tensions. A recurrent, though not consistent, refrain is of the emotional toll that external conditions take in terms of decreased motivation and increased depression and anxiety—with a resulting reduction in artistic output. On the other hand, some artists see the current economic downturn as liberating. For them, the decrease in earning potential offers an opportunity to focus and deepen creative endeavors without expectations of external reward.

Changes in artists’ work and lives

Beyond the larger themes found in artists’ responses to the recession (changes in external conditions and in personal outlook), common threads run through the more specific changes that they report in their work and lives. These changes can be grouped loosely into four, often overlapping clusters.

1. Changes in art marketing, promotion, and funding

Artists are making changes in the way they market, promote, and fund their work. They are:

Increasing the use of internet and online services. Artists indicate a proactive response to marketplace changes especially regarding the internet. Web pages or sites, online sales venues and social networking are seen as critical avenues that artists have the capacity and ability to access.

Making more funding requests. The number and types of applications artists are submitting is increasing—for grants, public commissions, artists’ residencies, and other competitive processes offering money and/or time. This is likely to result in increased competition at a time when the number of such opportunities may be declining.

Lowering prices and fees. Frequent mention is made of lowering prices for artwork and reducing fees for performing or teaching, and in general being more flexible in pricing. Some respondents note that this is ineffective, while others find that it has been helpful or even essential.

Networking and collaborating more. Many artists are being more intentional and active in using existing networks and building new opportunities. They are connecting directly with past and possible new revenue sources, and are staying connected to personal and professional circles.

Considering new venues and professional relationships. Artists report that they are considering alternative commercial and business sites, developing self-generated presentation modes, and reexamining their licensing agreements and other contractual relationships. Of special interest are venues or situations that permit selling directly to customers rather than through intermediaries to offset reduced earnings from other sources.

2. Changes in the artwork or art practice

Artists are adapting what they produce and the way they work. They are:

Working smaller. A frequent response to shrinking sales for visual artists is to produce smaller-scale works to justify lower prices. The sales success of this approach, however, is reported to be mixed. Writers and performers also describe creating shorter pieces with the hope of increasing the number of purchases and presentation opportunities.

Using less expensive materials or processes. More than a third of respondents indicate that the cost of supplies is a bigger obstacle now than in the past due to the economy. Alternative materials, supplies, and media are being explored if these can help lower costs. This includes recycling and reusing materials or creating multiples and production work.

Creating new events or formats. Some artists are creating new works or events that reflect current events and circumstances through topical content. More often, however, developing a new format or working in a different setting reflects an effort to produce work at a lower cost.

Shifting toward functional art forms. If they work in a medium that allows it, artists tell of focusing more on the functional side of their work in the belief that this may be more responsive to an environment of reduced consumer spending.

Being more willing to teach. Many artists report increasing their teaching efforts, especially short-term or low-cost formats. Many artists who had stopped teaching are reconsidering this as a potential source of income, and artists who have not previously taught are exploring the possibility. At the same time, other respondents note a decrease in teaching opportunities. These two trends suggest increased competition for fewer slots that may prove frustrating on both fronts.

3. Changes in living and working conditions

Artists are also making changes to their living and working conditions or are adapting to changes resulting from the recession. These changes include:

Reducing expenses. Discretionary income is scarce and some artists report reducing basic expenses including housing, studio, or rehearsal space, food costs, health care costs, and health insurance. Living expenses are often balanced against the cost of art supplies.

Struggling with a decline in available non-art jobs. Artists, like workers overall, are experiencing difficulty finding employment; they are losing “day jobs,” having hours cut, working harder in the hope of retaining their jobs, and finding it difficult to locate new job opportunities. Teaching jobs are less secure or being eliminated. Some artists are adding hours or taking new or additional non-art jobs (when they can find them) to make up for a decrease in art-related income or to compensate for jobs lost by spouses or partners.

Relying on others. A number of artists note that their income has always been modest, but that the current situation is more dire than it has been in the past. In some cases this endangers a delicate economic balance built over the years with spouses or partners and makes it harder for the artists to justify their art career. For others, there has been a rallying of shared resources and a sense of increased support by others of their lives as artists. The survey also reveals an increased reliance on safety net resources from unemployment insurance to food banks.

Reducing the time spent on art. The need to generate income has frequently pushed artists to reduce the time allocated to their art, which often causes frustration. While some despair, others have found creative new ways to carve out time. A few report that having less time for their art has increased the productivity of the time they do spend.

4. Changes in attitude and sense of community

States of mind. In terms of attitude and artists’ states of mind, current economic conditions are not affecting all artists in the same way. Of the choices offered to a question about personal challenges faced as a result of the recession, “morale” received by far the most responses with more than half the respondents making this choice. Some attribute increased stress, anxiety, and even depression to the economy. Artists with debt or health problems appear to be experiencing the greatest stress.

At the same time, many other artists report navigating today’s economic environment in more positive ways. For some, the economic situation is a challenge to cultivate a more “fearless” attitude and to focus on creating and improving their art beyond the pressures of the market. For these artists, this is a time to develop and hone artistic skills and ideas, and to rededicate themselves to their art with greater focus.

The value of communities. A sense of community is highly valued, whether defined as a geographic neighborhood, a community of shared beliefs or interests, the art community at some level, or a close-knit group of friends, family, or fellow artists. Some artists believe the weak economy is building stronger bonds and bridges among people; they are spurring action on behalf of fellow artists and others through new efforts to share information, resources, and ideas. Some are helping other artists market their work and some are increasing their volunteering or they’re lobbying and advocating for artists, the arts, or political causes.

What would help?

Artists were asked what resources would be helpful during this tough economy. Nearly two thirds indicated that small grants were the most important resource. This was followed by about a third who identified business counseling. Loans were not seen as being particularly helpful, with only 10 percent indicating an interest in them. The interest in small grants aligns with past Artist Trust studies that indicate that even modest amounts of funding for artists can serve to sustain and encourage artistic commitment and output, they are a source of both financial and moral support.

Survey responses suggest other things that would be helpful specifically to artists: mechanisms for providing low-cost access to supplies, for sharing among artists, for finding affordable studio and rehearsal space, and for boosting morale. All of these relatively small steps can bolster artists’ ability to weather the economic downturn.

Conclusion

Artists are feeling the impact of the economic downturn in their professional and personal lives. Their responses to Artist Trust’s survey express fear, anxiety, and hardship. But they also reveal great resilience and creativity. The survey suggests that many artists take strength from fellow artists and from the shared resources within the community of artists. The survey also suggests ways that small efforts now can help ensure a strong and vibrant artistic community to sustain us both in the present and in the future.

Claudia Bach is principal, AdvisArts Consulting.
Founded in 1987, Artist Trust is a not-for-profit organization whose sole mission is to support and encourage individual artists working in all disciplines throughout Washington state. A longer version of this report is posted on Artist Trust’s website www.artisttrust.org.

Notes

  1. Robin Pogrebin, “Tight Times Loosen Creativity,” The New York Times, May 20, 2009.
  2. More than two-thirds of the survey respondents (68 percent) identified their primary artistic discipline as visual art. This percentage is higher than the proportion of visual artist to artists in all arts disciplines in the population as a whole as indicated in other research, both in Washington state and nationally. The Washington Artists Health Insurance Project 2005 Survey Report on Artists and Arts Workers, conducted by the Social and Economic Sciences Research Center at Washington State University, found that 57 percent of Washington state artists were visual artists. Data compiled at that time by the NEA reported visual artists as 38 percent of all artists in the United States.