Diversifying Support for Artists

Ann Markusen

American artists are still emerging from a bumptious cycle of structural downs and ups and institutional changes. Since the watershed of the culture wars in the early 1990s, diverse publics and legislative bodies have questioned artists’ purposes and contributions. Supporters — patrons, funders, friends — have scrambled to help them survive. In ways that may be a great blessing, an older, constraining preoccupation with artistic excellence and peer-judged grants has eroded. More inclusive notions of who artists are and of their many missions are taking root. Over twenty years, a panoply of experiments and initiatives in funding, entrepreneurial training, space provision, organization building, and lifelong learning are helping artists succeed in their work lives. New participatory conceptions of creation and presentation are amplifying markets and deepening public appreciation, as are expanded inducements to anchor artists in community.

A focus on artist as a singular occupation forms one important post-1990 development. I compare artists (high levels of self-employment) with scientists, another subset of creatives (low self-employment). Markets and institutions value the two differently. Most scientists work for well-funded corporations, healthcare nonprofits, government laboratories, or universities, where their ranks are expanding at the expense of liberal arts. In organized job settings, scientists are given space and tools to work, research funds and assistants, feedback from superiors and peers, and time and resources to travel to professional meetings for training, presentation of their results, and further training. Their salaries are ample enough to include membership in and attendance at meetings of organizations (e.g., the American Association for the Advancement of Science; AAAS) that promote their occupation and image in the broader society. They don’t have to rely on weak economic impact arguments. Artists offer very different skills, contributions, missions — difficult but essential to articulate.

The Culture Wars as Disruptor

From 1990 to 1994, pitched battles over the purposes of and funding for artists took place in Cincinnati (the Mapplethorpe controversy), Minneapolis (the Ron Athey fray), New York, and other cities, as well as in the American Congress. These conflicts are one face of a larger civic and cultural polarization endemic at that time. John Killacky recently wrote a retrospective account of his role in the trenches as the Walker Art Center’s curator of performing arts (Killacky 2010), documenting the extraordinary creativity of and controversy over an emerging political arts movement that included Karen Finley, Robert Mapplethorpe, John Fleck, Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, Ron Athey, Diamanda Galás, and many others (Killacky’s 1990 Walker series was titled Cultural Infidels). Killacky underscores the umbilical connection of this movement to the AIDS pandemic. He reviews the pillorying of artists: Senator Jesse Helms pressured the NEA to deny grants to many of these artists by name and forced NEA recipients like the Walker to sign a “decency” form: “The Walker signed it; I had no hesitation. There was nothing ‘indecent’ in what we presented” (Killacky 2010). In 1995, Congress defunded all grants to individual artists except for literature fellowships and honorifics in jazz and folk arts. Many foundations, especially corporate ones, followed suit, although some private funders swam against the tide, increasing their support for artists in direct response to the NEA cuts. Since then, artists and their supporters have created additional routes to financial and presentation opportunities, building new understandings of the role of artists in society and approaching publics in new ways.

Who Is an Artist?

Since the culture wars, field and popular conceptions of who is an artist have both softened and broadened. Through the 1980s, most funders, politicians, and members of the general public thought of artists as highly skilled aesthetic creators funded competitively for the quality of their work. Artists won grants according to merit criteria that heavily rewarded formal academic training and achievements to date, the latter often reflecting the presentation or purchase of their works in venues with wealthy patrons. Words like “crafter” and “amateur” were tagged onto those working in artistic media outside the system.

Furthermore, the public tended to equate “artists” with visual artists, especially painters. We don’t easily think of musicians as artists (despite the moniker “recording artist”), or actors, designers, and writers as artists either. At its most extreme, “artist” connotes the few visual art superstars (dead or alive) who dominate contemporary art markets, galleries, and museums.

The public sector, led by the NEA’s first census counts in the 1970s, used an alternative, occupational definition of artist. Based on livelihoods (what is your primary occupation by numbers of hours worked?), it excludes many who are skilled and spend time at artwork. Others are categorized, often unreasonably, as craftworkers. Many people create art as an avocation and do not aspire to earn income from it. Minneapolis’s Textile Center, for instance, was organized by women weavers who spent a year rooting out as many quiltmakers, rugmakers, and knitters as they could find from church basements and elsewhere in Minnesota (Markusen and Johnson 2006). Among Native Americans, immigrant, and other racial and ethnic groups, designing and producing regalia and other ceremonial objects for festivals and ceremonies are significant practices, but such creations are not for sale (or when they are, it is only to Native people). Similarly, materials produced by other racial and ethnic groups (costumes, instruments, and ceremonial objects) are often not intended for sale. Many people sing in choirs, dance at home or in bars, write for pleasure and sharing, seriously practice piano and photography, play guitar, and perform in community theater without claiming these activities as occupations. Are they artists?

The definition of artist thus is elastic, and often hotly contested. This fuzziness has some uses, but when it comes to making the case for artists (as contrasted to scientists), it confuses. Scientists are recognized by their degrees in designated majors; employment in research labs, be they corporate, academic, or public sector; and mission to discover. Artists, on the other hand, are stretched across many sectors, formal and informal, simultaneously and sequentially. Many are self-taught, despite formal educational pathways offered to them. Their missions are much more diverse and sometimes controversial.

Inherited Baggage

How did we arrive at the culture wars watershed? We inherit our more restrictive notions of who is an artist from a Euro-American hierarchy of artworks and artmakers elevated to superstatus by wealth, class practices, K–12 education, and attendance at fine arts schools. Based on years of classroom observation, Larry Gross, in his marvelous “Art and Artists on the Margins” (1995), concludes that discovering the few is the major purpose of K–12 art teachers, along with conveying to the rest of us that we don’t have talent. Real artists thus inhabit a “reservation” (Gross’s word) where the rest of us cannot go. No wonder parents don’t really care whether their kids study art. This was their experience in school, so why does it matter? Think, in contrast, of Little League, where every kid can play and is encouraged, despite his or her initial awkwardness.

But, you will be saying, what about the “quality” issue? Of course, there is quality, and technique, convention, mutual learning. But the ability of most of us to create artwork is not fostered in schools. Gross, citing anthropological work, notes that in more primitive societies, everyone learns to play musical instruments, dance, and sing. It does not mean that they don’t know who is really good at it. On the contrary, because they have experienced the challenge, they know very well who excels and accord these virtuosos places of honor.

At the high end, our system for training and promoting artists is very much inherited from the European royalist tradition in which monarchs, nobility, and the church, and later wealthy merchants and industrialists, chose and employed artists to compose and perform music, sculpt, and paint.

The Turn to Artist as Occupation

As the culture wars funding implosion took root, and the dot-com bust and Great Recession further damaged the arts financially, many advocates and funders turned their sights toward the occupational challenges of being an artist, reminiscent of New Deal and Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (1973) concerns for artists’ livelihoods. Artwork is a job for many an artist, just as science is for most scientists, even though we may fondly still think of the latter as quirky bench workers with a rare kind of genius. How does the income-earning project of an artist differ from those of scientists and other professional workers? And what does that difference mean for philanthropy?

Artists in the United States are much more likely than other workers to be self-employed and to work across simultaneously commercial, nonprofit, and community sectors, requiring considerable labor market dexterity, planning, and risk taking, yet they earn less than other workers. Adding data from the 2000 census, the last to ask a large sample of Americans about their primary occupation, and adding in those who held second jobs from Current Population Survey data, 48 percent of artists were self-employed, compared with 8.7 percent of life, physical, and social scientists and 9.4 percent of the US workforce (Markusen and Schrock 2006). Although 59 percent of artists in the 2011 NEA study have at least a bachelor’s degree (compared with 32 percent of all workers), as a group they earn less than others with comparable educational attainment (Nichols 2011). Economists have shown that this gap reflects artists’ greater satisfaction with their work: they are willing to trade off financial remuneration for the joy and impact of their creativity. Yet many abandon a career in the arts for financial reasons.

Compared with paltry numbers of scientists, about half of all artists are left to cobble together resources and income-earning opportunities on their own. Numerous surveys, among them Joan Jeffri’s pathbreaking work on jazz musicians (2003), detail the precariousness of many artists’ existence, including how few receive patronage or grants, and then only intermittently; how they desire further training, better workspace, and greater access to peers, mentors, and markets; how few land good, full-time jobs in universities, museums, or arts organizations: 57 percent of people paid by California arts nonprofits at the end of the last decades were artists, but most of them worked on contract (Markusen et al. 2011); how many of them moonlight (Alper and Wassall 1999); and how often they work simultaneously for commercial, not-for-profit, and community sectors (Markusen et al. 2006). Highlighted in an expanding body of research on artists, these broad conditions of artistic work moved to the fore in post–culture wars decades as funders and new arts and artist organizations refocused their energies to nurture artists.

Economic Impact: A Detour

In the wake of the culture wars, because it seemed so difficult to articulate the multiple intrinsic accomplishments of the arts — beauty, insight, delight, solace, multicultural bridging, political and social critique — arts advocates turned to economic impact arguments: artists, arts producers, and presenters bring income and jobs into local and state communities. I made this case for artists (Markusen and King 2003). Artists often export their work (writing, visual art) outside the region, or travel to perform, in either case, bringing income into the local economy. They provide human capital to creative industries such as publishing, advertising, TV, radio and film, and technical services as well as other non-arts-related businesses, enabling profitability and added jobs. Some of them develop new services or products that result in new companies. Their collective presence adds to the quality of life, attracting other managers and skilled workers (Florida 2002).

A well-developed economic impact study methodology and industry were already in place to oblige. Soon advocates were waving studies around legislative corridors showing hundreds of millions of dollars in arts economic impact. Despite acute academic criticism of arts economic impact studies (Seaman 1987), advocates believed that these studies clinched budget allocations, so they continued to commission and pump them out. The best of these offer visual frameworks for “seeing” the complex structures that mediate between artists and consumers (Beyers, Fowler, and Andreoli 2008) and include artists as creative entrepreneurs (Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation 2010).

Artists and arts activities do yield economic impacts. But over the intervening years, in exploring the philosophy, literature, and practice of the arts, I began to see that economic impact arguments are weak. Actually, spending money on almost anything at a state legislature will result in additional jobs and incomes. Though there may be differential impacts, we don’t really have good enough data on, say, respending of artists’ incomes to really know whether artists’ multiplier effects are superior to those of scientists or construction workers. Artists probably do spend more of their incomes locally (including on other artists’ work and services), but there is no way to prove it.

Scientists, engineers, doctors, and technologists don’t have to make such instrumental arguments in support of their work. Instead, they work hard to articulate the various missions they serve: a cleaner environment, a cure for cancer, better telecommunications. Over the past twenty years, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has championed the packaging of scientific advances and promise for broad publics and taught scientists how to converse in lay forums like Public Radio and channel TV. Of course, the AAAS is a membership organization of relatively well-paid professionals who understand their dependence on funding — a very different constituency than artists. Among others, McCarthy et al.’s Gifts of the Muse (2004), Brown and Novak’s work (e.g., 2007), and GIA’s Support for Individual Artists Group Steering Committee (Guay 2012) are helping make the intrinsic case for artists, as are the new ways that artists are embedding themselves in communities.

New Spotlight I: Artist as Entrepreneur

As artists became more visible members of a distinctive, often entrepreneurial occupation, their training, planning, finance, workspace, housing, marketing, networking, feedback, and healthcare needs became clearer and better understood, prompting research and programmatic initiatives. In some disciplines, unions and professional associations had long provided some of these services. Artist residencies, some long-standing, have offered temporary, intensive opportunities to work at what are now hundreds of US locations. Informal shared workspaces have endured in San Francisco, New York, and other cities. But since the culture wars, many new organizations have emerged to provide artist services, often funded by regional philanthropists.

Pioneers in providing new dedicated spaces for artists, the nonprofit ArtSpace Projects has created and continues to manage 2,000 artist live/work units in twenty-one states, and the Actors Fund has developed and runs housing for retirees in the New York and LA regions. Artist centers — membership (no screening) nonprofits that provide workspace, shared equipment, and teaching, mentoring, and presentation opportunities for amateurs to professionals — flourish in many cities and are particularly thick in Minneapolis–St. Paul (Markusen and Johnson 2006). While a few of these date back to the 1970s, their ranks expanded quickly after the early 1990s to provide continuing education and networking for artists where higher ed was loath to go.

As Paul Bonin-Rodriguez argues in his forthcoming book, post–culture wars programmatic innovations are forcing artists to function as producers of their original works as well as creators. New organizations are expanding artist entrepreneurship training and services in response. The Los Angeles–based and now California-wide Center for Cultural Innovation, founded in 2001, provides LA artists with business training, grants, and networking opportunities to foster their financial independence. Similar initiatives emerged in Cleveland, St. Paul, Montana, and elsewhere, some linked to colleges and universities. Some nonprofits focus on specific disciplines or constituencies, such as First Peoples Fund of Rapid City, South Dakota, for Native artists. Others tackle healthcare for artists (e.g., Artist Trust in Seattle; the Future of Music Coalition in Washington, D.C.), offer web-based forums and individual artist pages (Chicago Artists Resource; mnartists.org), and support artist homeownership and financial literacy (ArtHome). Since 2007, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, through its Creating a Living Legacy program, helps visual artists organize, inventory, and document their artworks and careers.

Regional and national funders often generously support these efforts. Over its ten-year lifetime, Leveraging Investments in Creativity frequently convened regional providers of artist space and entrepreneurship programs for mutual learning. Cities pitched in with entrepreneurship initiatives for artists too: see, for instance, the City of San José’s Creative Entrepreneur Project (Mirikitani, Sevier, and Markusen 2009).

New Spotlight II: Artist as Community Shaper

Although many artists have always been embedded in their communities, especially minority, immigrant, and low-income artists, recent creative placemaking initiatives began to showcase this aspect of artists’ work and to foster new paths for artists to engage. In the process, more artists are serving broader constituencies, building participation, and burnishing artists’ images among the general public.

Artists’ entrepreneurship has often extended to community and place work, often at the partial expense of career building. The Creative Placemaking white paper, a framework for expanding NEA Our Town grants and for the new ArtPlace funding consortium, presents exemplary, mostly completed projects in which artists and arts organizations walked out their front doors and devoted their skills to working with their neighborhoods and towns (Markusen and Gadwa 2010). Many of the key initiators were artists, a surprise to NEA leadership. Visual artist George Marks led tiny Arnaudville, Louisiana, out of a downward spiral by returning, committing to stay, creating the NUNU Arts and Culture Collective for art and music presentation, and figuring out how to use Cajun/Creole music and the French language as themes for revitalization. Similar stories in small towns and big abound: Kentucky’s Appalshop, New Orleans’s Ashé Cultural Arts Center; Juxtaposition Arts and Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis.

New organizations have sprung up to engage artists in community building. Artists in Context, a ten-year initiative formed in 2009 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New England–focused, supports artists who are innovative, multidisciplinary, and community-embedded to invent alternative approaches to existing societal challenges. They emphatically assert an “aesthetic hybridity” of practice — that artists can do high-quality, on-the-frontiers work that is also in service to community. Marian Godfrey reflected in a phone conversation following her involvement in an Artists in Context event: “There is tidal inertia against the idea that social change and aesthetic objectives can go together. I believe that artists can do both. And we can evaluate it — we just have to bring in both aesthetic and social justice experts to guide us.” Artists and artist-training organizations such as the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture and the International Council of Fine Arts Deans have given creative placemaking a keynote focus in annual conferences. In the visual arts, a subdiscipline called “social practice” is taking root in graduate programs.

Meanwhile, woefully under-researched are the thousands of minority and immigrant arts organizations, often volunteer-run, that are nurturing and innovating with traditional arts forms and are using artists’ skills to fight for community rights and space.

The proliferation of artist-embedding initiatives is helping to collapse the distance between artists and their publics. As Alan Brown (2012) argued in the GIA Reader last year, people care a lot about the settings in which they experience art, seeking out emotionally welcoming and engagement-encouraging venues. Lynne Conner (2007) notes that arts lovers want to participate more fully in, and even co-curate, artistic experiences. The LA Music Center’s Active Arts program helps people pick up their high school instruments, tune their voices, move their hips in dance, write memoir, and experiment with clay and watercolors. The more communities and audience members meet, work with, and watch artists fashion their creations, the higher the stature of artists will be.

Morphing Spotlight: Artist as Fundee

Central champions of artists after the culture wars, some funders, veteran and new, stood by artists despite the backlash. Before the early 1990s, the National Endowment for the Arts was the chief funder of American artists. Thereafter, grants tanked as a form of support, forcing more artists to become more self-consciously entrepreneurial or to take second or even third jobs. In recent surveys, artists resoundingly report that they cannot rely on grants for sustained income. Yet many regional funders understood that grants bear multiple fruits in that they permit artists to take stock, experiment with new techniques and media, and innovate. Grants also provide validation, visibility, and the acquisition of marketing and business acumen that can make a career.

Philanthropic funding of individual artists has diversified and become more attentive to artists’ occupational challenges (including estate planning and late-career and retirement needs) and more mindful of artists’ contributions to society as well as their core role in the arts ecology. New initiatives — Creative Capital, United States Artists, the Alpert Awards in the Arts — picked up where the NEA had left off. Foundations like the Pew Charitable Trust in Philadelphia, the Walter and Elise Haas Fund in San Francisco, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York, the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis, and the Jerome Foundation in St. Paul continued to offer artist fellowships, often with new rationales, criteria, and program shapes. Others pioneered new funding structures. In the Bay Area, for instance, the San Francisco and East Bay Community Foundations teamed up to offer modest grants to artists if they generated matching funds; the approach converted supporters, audiences, and even friends and neighbors into donors (Sanchez and Killacky, 2010). The James Irvine Foundation liked the model, building its statewide Community Foundations Initiative around it. There have been losses, too, even recently: the Bush Foundation ended its artist fellowships, and the James Irvine Foundation dropped its awards for choreographers.

Evaluation played a major role in philanthropic revamping. In the days of elite artist funding, evaluation happened before you got the grant: a panel of peers and experts decided you were worthy, and only a few evaluated outcomes. In the 1980s, the Bush Foundation evaluations focused on how artists used grants and their impact on aesthetic work, incomes, and validation. By the mid-1990s, Bush evaluations probed how to make the program more racially, geographically, and aesthetically diverse, and whether artists’ community involvement should be emphasized in selection. The Durfee Foundation, following several years of $25,000 awards to each of three artists nominated by Los Angeles leaders, surveyed all artists who had applied. They heard back that the artistic community considered these grants to be drops in the bucket and the process demoralizing, since so many failed. Artists preferred applying rather than waiting for nomination; they were interested in easy-to-apply-for, modest-sized grants to be awarded quickly; and they did not want to be pigeonholed by discipline or career level. As a result, Durfee launched its Artists’ Resource for Completion program, awarding $3,500 grants to 475 Los Angeles artists over a ten-year period.

Other organizations have tackled structural problems faced by artists. The Surdna Foundation and others funded the new Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), creating a national, self-sustaining survey system that gives arts high schools, conservatories, colleges, and universities feedback on the quality of their degree programs and the subsequent experience of their graduates. From the start, the data show that arts grads generally feel very positive about the quality of their arts training, including those who respond that they are using their arts skills in nonarts jobs. But they lament the dearth of career planning and business skills. Many also express a desire for further aesthetic training. The results are beginning to change curricula at some institutions. Other foundations have created programs that cofund artists and arts or community organizations (the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, for one), or fund arts community organizations only if they engage artists (the McKnight Foundation’s current arts funding strategy).

New artist funding initiatives sprouted in the state and local public sector, too. Complementing stalwarts like the City of Los Angeles’s artist grants, funded from a decades-long hospitality tax, were new tax initiatives, such as Cuyahoga County’s (Cleveland, Ohio) voter-approved tobacco tax that generates $15 million a year for the arts, of which nearly $1 million goes toward Creative Workforce Fellowships for artists ($20,000 each). Minnesota’s voter-approved constitutional Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment has made more than $1 million per year in new funding available to artists through four Minnesota State Arts Board grant programs.

New funding formats are also emerging. Kickstarter is now a player in support for artists (Brown, Brown, and Bach 2012). Both United States Artists and 3Arts have initiated crowd funding–like programs. However, Cushing (2013) warns that this web-reliant shift toward a more transactional relationship in philanthropy, whereby you give something and expect to get something concrete back, could mean the end of institution-building philanthropy. Smaller, community-based experiments are raising funds for artists locally. In Sunday Soup, for instance, people pay for a meal, artists pitch their proposals, and the audience votes on which projects to fund (Guay 2012).


The arts community has responded inventively to the setbacks, pain, and damage to artistic careers in the 1990s. Innovations were in the pipeline already, but the scale and diversity of responses confirm economist Joseph Schumpeter’s venerable hypothesis that major innovation happens when business-as-usual implodes (viz. the Great Depression). These innovations are changing the notion of artists for artists themselves, their teachers, and the general public. Even if the mission of artists, compared with those of scientists, engineers, and doctors, remains hard to summarize simply, we are demonstrating their many contributions in a grounded way. Artists’ skills and creations differ from those of the “harder” creative occupations, but they are demonstrable, far beyond dollar figures. We ma y not have the resources for the kind of ongoing public relations campaign the AAAS has fostered for scientists and engineers, but we can push for greater visibility for artists in newspapers, online media, and public forums, showcasing extraordinary creativity, humanizing artists through case studies and cameos, and demonstrating the work they are doing in communities.

We still have a way to go. How to blend artistic license and community service remains a challenge. As John Killacky reflected, “In the 1970s, it was all about the artist and the studio: no community service, no creative placemaking. Then it completely swung to ‘and we do this and this and this,’ emphasizing community and forgetting about the studio. Now it seems to be swinging back, to showing how artists enrich our lives, perplex, anger and bewilder us. Now artists are back in the center, where they belong.” Cora Mirikitani, looking forward in a phone conversation, asked, “How do we make sure that artists can survive? Can they continue to do the work that they do? We haven’t really answered those questions. Yet.” Hopefully we have democratized and broadened the conception of artist without sacrificing quality and aesthetics. And hopefully we can sustain and replenish this extraordinary portfolio of supports developed over the past twenty years.

The author would like to thank the following for ideas, conversations, and feedback: Vickie Benson, Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, Bob Booker, Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, Sue Gens, Marian Godfrey, Sunil Iyengar, John Killacky, Sarah Lutman, Cora Mirikitani, Claire Peeps, and Judilee Reed.



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