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Art In The Recession: In Tough Economy, Artists Act Anew

re-posted from the Huffington post

This is the first in an occasional series examining the recession’s impact on culture: The Recessionary Arts. Find out more about it here.

Despite dim job prospects and ever-dwindling paychecks, more artists are living and working in America today than ever before. If as sociologist Charles Horton Cooley once said, “an artist cannot fail; it is a success to be one,” then success in America is at an all-time high.

At least 2.2 million people in the United States can be classified as professional artists, up from 1.9 million in 1996. And as artists have proliferated, arts organizations have followed suit; According to a report from Americans for the Arts, there are over 100,000 non-profit arts groups and 550,000 for-profit arts businesses in the U.S today. Between 2003 and 2009, a new nonprofit arts organization was created in the U.S. every three hours.

However, general funding for the arts decreases year after year in most states, with the more classical disciplines — dance, classical music, and theater — facing especially severe cuts. In 2009, according to the same Americans for the Arts study, 41 percent of nonprofit arts groups reported a deficit, up from 36 percent in 2008. Attendance at museums and performing arts events “decreased 19 percent and 22 percent, respectively, between 2003 and 2009.”

In early 2010, Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, went so far as to tell The New York Times that “there might be too many resident theaters” in America and the decreasing demand for their product was something they should “talk about.” Many theater professionals reacted with outrage — “If the National Endowment for the Arts doesn’t support our existence, who will?” — but the statistics, and the decrease in funding for everything, everywhere, made the statement more pressing.

Art might be the only sector that has seen an increase in employees without an increase in monetary support to back them up. At the same time, artists and the organizations that support them have had to consistently prove themselves to local and state governments hesitant to spend money on anything at all.

After one round of particularly steep cuts to the arts budget in Montgomery, Alabama, the executive director of the Alabama State Council on the Arts told the Birmingham News that “we have to do as good as job as we can talking about how arts are significant and central to state government, as opposed to a frill.”

Indeed, storied cultural institutions and the artists they serve are on the chopping block as they defend themselves against further decline.

But we’re also living in a time when making and distributing art to the masses is easier and more widely consumed than ever. Despite the financial challenges, is there still room for optimism?

Many artists and administrators think so.


Robert Lynch, President and CEO of Americans for the Arts, one of the nation’s leading nonprofits for arts advancement, thinks some people might be misinterpreting his organization’s recent report, which outlined some of the financial difficulties faced by artists.

“Certainly there is a lessened demand for certain kinds of venues that deliver the arts, for example: a decline in people sitting in seats to hear classical music,” he said over the phone from his D.C office. “However, another study shows that downloads of music are soaring, and the demand for music is higher than it’s ever been. So what I think this study says is not that there’s a lessened demand for the arts, but that we’re undergoing a massive reassessment of the ways people want to engage with them.”

Lynch certainly doesn’t think we need “less art” or “fewer artists,” and he doesn’t think we can eliminate any of the myriad organizations that have sprung up over the past few years. In fact, he says, if you look at the trajectory that the arts have taken over the last half century, he said, you will see “massive growth” in interest from consumers on the whole.

“The data we have today shows that nonprofit groups still generate 5.7 million jobs. We also know there are 2.2 million artists who spend more than half their time making their living being an artist and millions more who do it part time. We really have to feel good about people’s interest in this industry.”

David F. Chapman, a theater director, teacher, and writer based in New York, feels like he’s learning some valuable “survivalist” skills in these trying times. The struggle has made him think more critically about why he wants to do the kind of work he’s doing, and what he actually wants to spend his time on.

“Right now we’re learning how to be creative and resourceful and make the most out of a little bit,” he said. “We’re sort of in the depression era of making art.”

He notes that even theater productions with the largest budgets — like the recent, troubled production of “Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark” on Broadway, which went millions of dollars over budget and delayed its opening night several times — constantly need more money than they have. When funding is limited and resources scarce, he wonders if perhaps it encourages artists and organizations to work within their means, and try new things.

Chapman, for his part, branched out from directing to try solo performance for the first time, and it made an indelible impression.

“I think it’s good for certain organizations to remind themselves that one of the reasons they’re a not-for-profit is because they’re working to advance a specific mission,” he said. “That mission will never go away. Amnesty International, for example, they look forward to the day they can turn off their lights and close the doors because they’ve received ‘amnesty internationally.’ The mission will always exist.”

Noah Fischer, one of the visual artists leading the recent Occupy Museums movement — an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street — said that the most egregious problem isn’t funding for artists, but rather the proliferation of people providing unpaid labor for arts organizations.

“How do you compete against unpaid intern labor?” Fischer asked. “It’s kind of a tough competition.”

The Occupy Museums group has protested at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and recently marched with a Sotheby’s art-handler union, whose members have been locked out of their jobs for the past three months.

Generally, Fischer wants lawmakers to fiscally “understand” everything that artists provide to the society at large. “Think of all the content we consume provided by artists, all the entertainment we get on a daily basis. Creative labor needs to be addressed as labor.”

Chapman, however, wonders if his art would suffer if he were subsidized every month no matter what he put out — if he received a monthly stream of income without any questions asked.

“Let’s say I lived in some fictional country where I got money for being a nice artist who could write a good application and didn’t have to worry if anyone was going to come see my stuff or write nice things about it, if I just had this pillow of state support,” he wondered. “I really don’t know if I would be growing as an artist.”


Digital artist Scott Snibbe never used to make a profit from his art shows. He remembers the early 1990s when he had to turn down opportunities to show his work because he would always end up losing so much. But in the past few years, his passions have found new homes at the iTunes store, where his unique, shape-shifting projects have flourished as Apps. His recent high-profile digital art collaboration with the musician, Bjork — a sort of interactive map for her most recent album, Biophilia — came after years of hard work and failed projects.

Snibbe had always hoped he might one day be able to create a “culture” around his work. He says he has an Andy Warhol-style interest in combining business and art, and he believes that artists are able to do that now more than ever. With Amazon, writers can upload their own books, on iTunes, developers can upload their own apps, and through YouTube and Vimeo, filmmakers can upload their own video projects. This is indeed, Snibbe says, the “Post-Gatekeeper Era” for artists.

Given that artists now have many more opportunities to market their work, Snibbe believes people are limited “only by their imagination.”

“I look at my own history, some of my own decisions in the past, and they’ve been guided by small-mindedness,” he said. “I should have pushed to approach more people for collaboration, to always sell and display my work, to be aggressive and unafraid of failure.”

This idea of collaboration is something theater and dance companies have also begun to embrace, with largely positive results. In 2009, 11 small-to-midsize cultural institutions in downtown Manhattan found themselves hit especially hard by the recession, and joined together to form the “Lower Manhattan Arts League.” When one group had trouble securing a particularly hard-to-obtain grant from American Express, the league applied for the grant together and secured it, divvying up the $100,000 of grant money amongst themselves.

Tania Camargo, executive director of Soho Repertory Theatre Inc., one of the institutions in the League,told Crain’s New York that this union is “the best thing to come out of the recession” by far. In fact, her theater had its most profitable year ever as a result of it.

The Watts Village Theater Company in Los Angeles banded together with the L.A County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Census Bureau — of all things — to produce more “community-specific” work. The managing director of that company, David Mack, told TCG’s 2010 Theatre Facts Survey that this union led to revenue and support they’d never seen before.

Other theaters, like Arena Stage in Washington DC, have also seen positive signs. Last year, single-ticket revenue went up 20 percent, according to TCG. Other theaters, like Indiana Repertory Theater and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, have seen attendance increase in the past few years.

Occupy Museums’ Fischer might approve of groups like ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the Mural Arts Project in Philadelphia. Both are wide-reaching, community-driven organizations that have provided many artists with funding and great opportunities to show their work to thousands of people, while also positively impacting local economies.


Theater artist Chapman does admit that if there were more grant money for individuals and smaller groups, we would certainly see more experimentation and multimedia work — the recession doesn’t allow much room for “playing” and inhibits rehearsal time. It also makes it hard for most artists to live anywhere close to comfortably.

But ultimately he thinks the financial crunches will force artists to defend their ideas more, to really fight for the work they want to produce. And that, he says, can’t be a bad thing.

Naturally, Hollywood and Broadway houses are gravitating toward “surer bets,” projects that have star names and popular brands attached to them. Such choices can often lead to diminished artistic value. But Hollywood’s “Paranormal Activity” franchise was made for barely a dime, and Broadway’s “Book of Mormon” has recently broken through the wash of revivals and musicals-adapted-from-films to become one of the biggest hits of the past decade. People still want to see and try new things, especially if they actually feel new and if they’re any good.

If anything, Americans are generally more interested in artistic pursuits than they’ve ever been. The Americans for the Arts report states that “the number of Americans who personally participated in an artistic activity — making art, playing music — rose 5 percent between 2005 and 2009. During the same period of time, the number of people volunteering for the arts has jumped 11.6 percent.”

In a keynote speech delivered at a conference for arts educators and administrators last year, the longtime nonprofit leader Ben Cameron began by rattling off of a laundry list of the hardships facing artists today: endlessly shrinking endowments, donations, and budgets abound. Yet Cameron ultimately ended up taking an optimistic stance, explaining that in times like these, the role of the artist is even more pressing — and more immediate — than ever before. An organization with a mission to bring the arts to the community that it serves will retain that mission, he said, no matter what’s happening on Wall Street. It is its duty to continue to fight for it.

“In a time when the world economy is hitting the reset button and the mantra in economic circles now is less ‘economic recovery’ than ‘economic reinvention,’ how do we see the present as an invitation in the arts to fundamentally reinvent what we do and how we operate?” Cameron asked.

He certainly didn’t have all the answers — in fact, his speech was mostly peppered with questions — but he quoted Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address as a call to arms for his fellow artists and administrators: “As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”

Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, also laments that so many organizations have had to tighten their belts and fight for survival in this current climate. But he has also seen these same organizations doing whatever they can — whatever is “required,” he said — to “deliver the arts to the people.” That is their mission and they are out to achieve it, whether it means drawing thousands to a baseball stadium in Washington DC to watch an opera on a big screen while drinking a beer, or letting local amateur musicians play with a major symphony orchestra.

“People want to learn and they’re enthusiastic,” he said. “We know what the troubles are, and there are many. But the great news here is the enthusiasm and the hope, and that’s what I’m betting on and what I’m investing in.”

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