The recession has cost many Americans their job — including artists. Even those who are self-employed have taken a hit. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer talks to several Kentucky artists feeling the recession and looks at how researchers are trying to find new ways of gauging how their wellbeing impacts the overall economy.
“There’s some stuff that’s been here longer than me,” says Alison Anderson, who creates costumes and is s showing me the shop at Stage One, where she worked for 17 years. “This is costume stock,” she says showing me rows of costumes. “We had built these double racks and we were going to have other double racks built on the other side. But that won’t happen now.”
The children’s theatre company in Louisville laid off all employees in its costume and scene shop last month — including Anderson. She says hearing the news from management was devastating.
“We couldn’t really look at each other, she says. “And nobody really had anything to say because I don’t think that anybody could speak at that moment.”
Anderson says she’s since worked to lineup freelance assignments with other theater companies and schools to create mascot costumes. She says she knows she’ll have to live more frugally now. And while her job loss should show up in federal employment statistics, income losses suffered by other artists likely won’t.
One is Lennon Michalski, a painter who teaches three classes at the University of Kentucky and one at Eastern Kentucky University. He’s represented by galleries in Lexington, Asheville, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C.
“I used to be able to make quite a bit to the point where I could live a very relaxed life,” he says. “I could spend and go out. To now, I’ve had to really boil that down: unable to buy supplies; really leaning on tax deductions.”
A new major survey by a nonprofit group called Leveraging Investments in Creativity reveals Anderson’s and Michalski’s experiences are common among artists in this recession. The report shows about 50 percent of artists surveyed saw a decrease in art-related income and 18 percent report a decline of 50 percent or more. It also shows two-thirds of the artists hold a second job. Judilee Reed is the organizations’ executive director.
“The impact of this is, of course, less income, barriers to affordable health insurance and health care, and a lack of resources to obtain a professional development and training that artists require.” she says.
Reed says our society needs more detailed data on artists to help policymakers make better decisions in supporting them and to understand their role in the economy.
“Surveys like this,” she says, “shouldn’t be any more unique then understanding how the real estate market is faring in this country.”
“Arts workers are, in fact, central, just like other workers, to a clear understanding of the economy,” he says. “They truly contribute to the economic wellbeing of the country through their entrepreneurship, their high rates of self employment, their annual median earnings.”
That’s why the NEA has produced sporadic reports about artists in the workforce for decades. And it’s looking to do and encourage more. It recently convened a roundtable of researchers who study how artists contribute to the economy. Many say they want to see more detailed reports, like those produced by the National Science Foundation, which has a $6 billion budget. It produces reports on a range of subjects, including education and salary levels in science-related fields and the economic impact of science-related industries. It even compiles reports with state-level data.
Iyengar says information in these kinds of reports can attract venture capital for science-related projects. And he says he wants to see the NEA do the same for the nation’s creative culture by leading an effort to raise the integrity and accuracy of data about the arts.
“So, we have a ways to go to really, I think, encapsulate what’s happening with not just artists, but arts workers and cultural workers,” he says.
Iyengar says, eventually, better information could benefit states and even local communities. It could give them relevant data to examine and better understand their economies and support local artists — even in a recession.