The National Endowment for the Art’s recently unveiled report about the “sharp increase in unemployment” among visual and performing artists’ makes the job situation look bad.
Actually, it’s worse.
Based on recent U.S. Census Bureau surveys that were conducted on behalf of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the report’s findings apply only to those for whom art is their “primary occupation.” People who view themselves as artists but who work for more hours a week at a different job aren’t counted. The report DOES include self-employed artists, such as the painter who earns his living by selling his work. (I suppose that to become an “unemployed artist,” he has to put down the brush.)
A better measure of how the recession is affecting artists would be a comparison of art-related income in the last quarter of 2008 to that in the last quarter of 2007. But the new report is concerned not with income but with the recession’s “impact on jobs.” This relates to the goal of the federal stimulus package—to preserve positions that are now “in jeopardy or [have been] eliminated.”
Artists’ income IS discussed, however, in NEA’s more voluminous Artists in the Workforce: 1990-2005, belatedly issued in May 2008 (when its figures were already out-of-date).
Here are some fun facts from that report:
—There are (or were in 2005) about 2 million artists (i.e., people for whom art is the primary occupation).
—Some 35% of those were self-employed (compared to only 10% of the total workforce). But in the subcategory of “fine artists, art directors and animators,” a much larger portion, 55.6%, was self-employed.
—Median income of artists from 2003-2005 was $34,800. But you have to read the fine print: Income is the total that the artist received from ALL sources, not just art.
—Median income of full-time artists was $45,200, compared to the higher median income for full-time (general) professionals of $52,500.
—Some 45% of all artists did not work full time all year. Their median income was $20,000.
What all this means is that, art-stars notwithstanding, choosing a career in the creative arts, more often than not, involves financial sacrifice.
And that’s why NEA needs to prevent more self-employed artists from declaring themselves “unemployed,” by reinstating artists’ fellowships that help make it possible for them to keep on creating.