Revisiting Research: Artists Crossing Sectors: How Can We Help?

Frances Phillips

This article is part of the Revisiting Research series.

Ann Markusen told me recently that a conversation with Claire Peeps of the Durfee Foundation set in motion her 2006 study Crossover: How Artists Build Careers across Commercial, Nonprofit and Community Work. Claire told Ann that when she talked to professionals in the commercial arts world, she found that they believed if artists were any good, they would be earning more money from their work. As they saw it, the nonprofit arena propped up inferior talent.

Coming from the nonprofit sector, I held the opposite bias. To my mind, artists in the nonprofit sector produced work that was challenging, pushed new boundaries and ideas, and introduced voices and traditions that were underrepresented in the predictable commercial arts sector. Sometimes artists would break through from nonprofit to commercial work — Bill T. Jones could direct FELA! — and when they did, it improved the for-profit ventures. I also believed that artists made choices about the arenas in which they would work, that choice determined the nature of their artwork, and that artists rarely stepped off the chosen path.
The publication of Crossover marked a breakthrough in my understanding of California artists’ careers. Prior studies had looked at how much money artists earned from their artmaking and their nonart labors; but Crossover dug deeper into the nature of earnings from artmaking by sector. It also rearranged the nonprofit vs. for-profit dichotomy by including a third arts employment sector — “community work” — that takes place within informal structures (as defined by tax code standards).

According to the study, I was right that some artists devote their artmaking exclusively to the for-profit or nonprofit or community groove. A single sector path is rare, however. Most artists’ careers span all three sectors, and when asked about their preferences, 90 percent reported that they would increase their crossover among sectors if money were not a factor. The commercial sector appeared to pay better than the nonprofit or community arenas, but innovation, rigor, and opportunities to collaborate and learn characterized all three sectors.

Looking back at Crossover, I was struck by its robust recommendations for ways to make it easier for artists to cross sectors. These include better training for student artists in organizing their careers, internships with commercial as well as nonprofit employers, robust roles for service organizations, more open review processes for foundation and government grants and contracts, and increased opportunities for networking across sectors. Since 2006, several initiatives and programs have picked up the charge. In my experience, one additional thing foundations can do to increase crossover is to raise awareness of differences in the vocabularies used in the three sectors. I’ve observed nonprofit-oriented review panels stumbling over the language used by peers working in commercial or community environments.

For those who are coming to Crossover for the first time, I would urge you to read through the body of the report and then spend time with the case studies. Ann Markusen and her colleagues have done a great job of collecting nuanced stories from a truly diverse group of artists.