On Friday, I had the privilege to attend the NEA’s Cultural Workforce Forum, a convening of researchers who have recently led efforts to measure and understand the work habits and economic condition of individual artists in the United States. The event, though not open to the public, was simulcast on the Internet so that anyone could view it (the broadcast will be archived on arts.gov this week). Both the convening itself and the public broadcast of it are, I believe, firsts for the NEA.

The format was more academic research conference than industry gathering; each of the three “panels” actually consisted of a 10-minute presentation from each participant followed by a Q&A period at the end. The primary discussion took place among the invited researchers and several other guests granted spaces at a very large U-shaped table setup, but Sunil Iyengar, who ran the show for the NEA, made sure to solicit regular questions from the 30-40 onlookers as well. The panelists hailed from a mix of academic institutions and nonprofit organizations of various types, though curiously only one, Ann Markusen, was from west of the Mississippi (and she made it by less than a mile).

Since the archived video will be viewable to anyone who wants the gory details for any particular session and the schedule for the day is posted on the NEA’s website, rather than deliver a blow-by-blow report of what was said by each speaker, I’ll simply highlight some of the more interesting lessons and factoids and provide some overall analysis based on recurring themes in the discussion.

After introductions by Chairman Rocco Landesman and Director of the Office of Research and Analysis Sunil Iyengar, the action got started with a presentation from the NEA’s Tom Bradshaw, who played a lead role in organizing the day’s content. (Bradshaw, by the way, did an exceptional job ensuring that these presentations flowed logically from one to the other; it really enhanced the experience for those of us in the room.) Bradshaw walked attendees through the NEA’s research on individual artists, with particular attention to the Artists in the Workforce: 1990-2005 report. Key learnings:

  • The number of people with art as their primary job has kept pace with the growth of the overall workforce.
  • US artists are highly concentrated in urban areas; a fifth of them reside in just five metropolitan regions.
  • They are more educated than the overall workforce, but do not earn as much compared to those with comparable education levels.
  • They are three and a half times as likely to be self-employed as the general population; more than a third are their own boss.
  • Women are surprisingly under-represented among artists, with architecture being the most extreme field; less than a quarter of architects are female. Women also earn less than their male artist counterparts.
  • The unemployment rate of artists rose twice as fast during the current recession as that of the overall workforce.

Next up we had a presentation on artist labor markets by Greg Wassall of Northeastern University. Wassall took a look at census records going back to 1940 to get a more historical picture of artists’ place in the workforce. Key learnings:

  • The report used data from the decennial Census, which relies on household surveys for its information. Survey respondents are asked what job they held in the past week, and if they held more than one job, only the one with the most hours is counted.As a result, many “semi-pro” or moonlighting artists and those with seasonal employment patterns aren’t included.
  • Furthermore, occupational definitions evolve and fluctuate over time. For example, apparently in 1940 there was a category designation for “showmen” that promptly disappeared in 1950’s census and thereafter.
  • The most ubiquitous category of artist is the designer, which now describes nearly 40% of all artists working in the United States. This share has grown steadily throughout the last half-century.
  • Not only women but racial minorities as well are underrepresented among artists.
  • Artists’ geographic distribution by state is quite unequal, with New York and California reporting more than twice the number of artists per capita than the average. On the other hand, different states have different mixes of artists. For example, Montana has an above-average share of writers, while Florida has more performing artists (actors and dancers).
  • Of the fifteen professions with the greatest variability (i.e., stratification) in earnings, eight are artist professions. Dancers actually don’t make the cut only because there aren’t enough super-rich dancers.

Joan Jeffri of the Research Center for Arts and Culture at Columbia University delivered a talk focusing on her center’s history of designing and implementing direct surveys of artists. Key learnings:

  • All research methods dealing with artists deal with the same types of problems, namely: defining what an artist is; the size, composition, diversity, and representativeness of the sample; the depth of the questions asked (more/more complicated questions means richer info but lower response rate); the agenda driving the research; and the difficulty of reaching rural artists.
  • Jeffri uses an innovative technique known as respondent-driven sampling which is basically social networking applied to research. It’s one of the only ways to sample a group whose total population is unknown, and Paul DiMaggio (renowned Princeton academic) called it one of the most important developments in sampling methodology in the past quarter-century during the session Friday.
  • Jeffri’s study of jazz musicians found that those with doctorates have professional networks eight times larger than other musicians, and that there are only about 1750 jazz musicians in New Orleans (as compared to 33,000 in New York and 18,000 in San Francisco).
  • One point that Jeffri mentioned several times is that we need to be clear about why we’re studying artists in the first place. What, exactly, are the questions we’re trying to answer? What are we hoping to accomplish?

David Cohen from the AFL-CIO was in the cleanup spot. I was initially surprised to see Cohen among the presenters, since by his own admission the AFL-CIO is not a research organization. Furthermore, I’d never associated “AFL-CIO” and “artists” in the same sentence before (though apparently it holds nine different arts and entertainment unions under its wing: Actors’ Equity, the American Federation of Musicians, AFTRA, AGMA, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Office and Professional Employees International Union, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Writers Guild of America, East). My apprehension deepened when Cohen revealed that he did not have slides prepared, but rather only a handout. As it turned out, though, this presentation was among the day’s best: the handout is an extraordinarily clear and well-organized document that takes exactly the kind of practical orientation to research recommended by Jeffri. It’s essentially a memo to the NEA and the research community documenting problems with current data collection efforts and recommending a more comprehensive approach with the support and assistance of the unions. Some highlights include:

  • Pointing out the difference between disciplines and roles. Most research on artists, to the extent it breaks down differences between them at all, separates them by discipline (i.e., visual artist, musician, writer, etc.). But income sources and work lives actually vary quite a bit within disciplines as well, for example between choreographers and dancers, or between playwrights and lighting crew.
  • Suggesting the use of time diaries to provide richer data on what exactly people spend their time doing, and for what (if any) compensation.
  • Giving more attention to entry, exit, and retention. The current focus on overall numbers treats artists as fungible; a totally static population and intense turnover could show up identically in the data. What happens to specific artists in the system? Under what circumstances do they exit the industry, and how definitively?
  • Understanding artists’ work habits by sector – e.g., nonprofit, commercial, and government

Thankfully, Cohen indicated that the unions he represents are willing to work with researchers to gather this richer information. Unions hold a storehouse of data on their members that isn’t available anywhere else, so as long as members’ privacy and interests are respected, they can serve as a valuable resource for the advancement of knowledge in this area.

Next, the Urban Institute’s Maria Rosario Jackson talked us through her research on what she calls “hybrid artists”: artists working outside of mainstream performance and presentation traditions, often in community-oriented settings or in dialogue with non-arts disciplines. The “hybrid” designation – which attracted a fair amount of clarifying inquiry from fellow panelists – seems similar to but broader than the more commonly used “informal” arts, “community” arts, and “folk” arts labels. The work is a follow-up to her highly influential “Investing in Creativity” study that  led to, among other things, the creation of LINC. Highlights:

  • Particular challenges for hybrid artists include a lack of training and professional development opportunities; a serious lack of validation from within the broader arts community (in the form of grants, prizes, and the like); few networking opportunities for the artists themselves; and compensation in general (including what levels of compensation are appropriate for this work).
  • It’s even harder to collect information about hybrid artists than more mainstream artists, due to their non-networked nature and the dearth of institutional infrastructure around them.
  • Jackson reported that conventional ideas about artist space (such as live/work arrangements and artist clusters) don’t always serve these artists’ needs, since they are often interested in being around a people from different professions than their own.

Judilee Reed from Leveraging Investments in Creativity reported on a study of the impact of the recession on artists. LINC’s strategy for this survey was to go wide, partnering with 35 arts service organizations to reach some 75,000 artists. The survey garnered about 5300 usable responses, and here’s what they had to say:

  • Two-thirds hold at least one job in addition to art-making.
  • Two-thirds made less than $40,000 in 2008.
  • Artists who spent all of their time on art-making (as opposed to other jobs) had the highest overall income on average (an interesting result, though not one that implies a causal relationship).
  • Half reported a decrease in art-related income over the past year.
  • 40% report not having adequate health care.
  • Artists use the internet for many things, but using it to sell their art is surprisingly not that common.
  • Despite all this, 75% think it’s an inspiring time to be an artist.

We also had Nick Rabkin talking about his research on teaching artists. Quoting Eric Booth, he said that teaching artists are “experts in the verbs of art” – the process, rather than the product. His survey showed that:

  • 50% of teaching artists had a master’s degree or higher, and a majority worked for nonprofit arts organizations.
  • Half of respondents had over a decade of experience.
  • The median compensation was $35/hr, but the number of paid hours was not that high.
  • Median total personal income was $36,200, while the median income from teaching was just $17,850.
  • 20% had no health benefits.
  • On the other hand, they love teaching and see it as a calling.

Steven Tepper of Vanderbilt’s Curb Center took us into lunch with a recap of the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP). This innovative program looks at how alumni of arts training programs (including arts high schools, two-year colleges, four-year colleges, conservatories, and graduate schools) to better understand the career paths of graduates and help clarify what core instruction those programs should provide. As Tepper emphasized, it also holds a number of interesting research possibilities since most studies only look at the people who eventually became artists, not the people who intended to become artists but for whatever reasons ended up on a different path. Thus, there’s no way to gauge what factors play a role in exit except by considering a larger group such as this one.

  • One of the most surprising findings was that schools themselves, for the most part, have no idea how many of their alumni end up in the arts. Collectively, they only even had email addresses for barely more than half of their graduates, and 20% of those bounced back undeliverable.
  • A postcard was sent to those without an email address, but less than 1% of recipients took the survey as a result.
  • Among the respondents, those who had become professional artists were more likely to hold multiple jobs. 58% had three or more.
  • The survey saw some extremely polarized responses. 95% of respondents reported satisfaction with the artistic training they’d received. Yet only 37% felt that their programs had given them adequate leadership training, and just 3% felt that they had been well prepared in financial matters. This despite the fact that more than 40% of graduates started their own businesses.
  • Half said that student loan debt had influenced their career choices.
  • Of the nonprofessional artist graduates, 44% said that they continue to practice their art in some fashion.
  • Tepper was a strong advocate for a technique called a lifemap, which helped respondents to describe their career path in richer detail.

Whew! Almost done here. Following lunch, the University of Minnesota’s Ann Markusen gave a presentation on different ways of defining the cultural workforce.

  • Taking Boston as an example, her research found that Richard Florida’s “Creative Class” definition encompasses nearly half of the overall labor force, while his “Super-Creative Core” (which includes scientists, engineers and the like in addition to artists) accounts for 18.5%, while two more narrow cultural workforce definitions pegged the share of employment between 3 and 4%. Thus, the conversation varies greatly depending on how widely one casts one’s net.
  • Markusen made the point that function and industry are not the same thing. There are plenty of creatives who work outside of the arts; for example, in advertising, where 5% of workers have core artistic functions. Overall, Markusen found that 48% of artists are self-employed.
  • Markusen ended by making an impassioned plea for including more art as part of research about artists. Her studies always feature photography showing artists at work, preferably in front of an audience.

The two final presentations were on the short side. Tom Bradshaw made a repeat appearance to explain a study undertaken by US Department of Agriculture economists using the “O*NET” data set from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The set uses Richard Florida’s Creative Class definition, but screens out occupations whose members are proportional to the general population (such as teachers and doctors). The study showed that this version of the creative class is highly concentrated in urban areas and is highly correlated with growth between 1990 and 2004. Among rural areas, natural amenities are a significant draw. Pitkin County, Colorado, which includes Aspen, has the most creative class individuals per capita among non-metro regions.

Jennifer Day from the US Census Bureau finished off with a presentation on the American Community Survey, which will replace the long-form census survey starting next year.  The ACS is similar to the long-form survey, but will be conducted annually instead of every ten years. In addition to asking participants what their primary occupation was last week, the ACS also asks what kind of work they did (i.e., function) and what their most important responsibilities were. These last two are write-in questions. The ACS will also include a new question about major field for one’s college degree, which could help to provide information about people who trained as artists but ended up working in other occupations.


All in all, it was an extremely informative, if exhausting, day. As the final portion was devoted to audience questions and wrap-up from the panelists, I’ll blend their observations with my own takeaways in the bullet points below.

  • There seemed to be some lingering dissatisfaction with the standardized data sources available for tabulating and analyzing the cultural workforce. Despite the improvements made to the American Community Survey, the general consensus seems to be that it misses quite a few artists because of its focus on primary work over a specific, limited period of time. Unfortunately, there is only so much that a general-purpose survey like this one can be customized for the needs of a particular group of users.
  • Perhaps more significantly, the continuing erosion of the distinction between professional and amateur artists poses challenges to the underlying logic of many of these surveys. How is one to catalogue people who create artistic work but who don’t self-identify as artists?
  • There definitely seems to be a desire to move beyond counting heads and arrive at a richer qualitative understanding of artists’ lives in all their complexity. David Cohen’s observations about differences in work style between disciplines and between roles are important, as is Joan Jeffri’s admonition to pursue research with a larger point in mind.
  • As audience member Esther Robinson pointed out, many artists could benefit not just from art-specific professional development training, but also from training in personal finance – particularly since their finances are often far more complicated than the typical 9-to-5 employee’s.
  • It’s important that research of this type keep the end user in mind: not just colleagues and other researchers, but arts professionals and the general public as well. People need to understand what data is useful in which contexts.
  • We need to get our heads out of the arts sometimes and look at other industries too. Paul DiMaggio pointed out that it’s not so rare to have careers that diverge from one’s training – 30-35% of JDs leave the legal field, for example. Another panelist claimed that the arts could learn much from the way that science and engineering fields collect data from their own ranks. And, of course, there are always lessons to be learned from our international counterparts as well.

As happened during Barry’s Blog’s six-week forum on the future of the NEA earlier this fall, several attendees brought up the role that the NEA can play in driving and centralizing discussion about research. I thought that convening this meeting was a wonderful first step, and broadcasting it publicly was an excellent second move. I very much hope the NEA will find ways to continue this conversation and begin new ones in the years ahead.

  • Ian- really, really fabulous post. I was there “virtually” and you really covered it all. I, too, hope that the NEA takes some initiative with what was outlined and suggested – would be sad to lose this momentum…

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  • Thank you so very much for providing this summary. I am hoping to watch the video later. It is curious to me — and perhaps this is more of a reflection of the topic of the gathering itself — that there doesn’t seem to be much questioning of the way the field is set up, financed, etc — but rather a focus on how to work within the status quo. For instance, was there any questioning of the reason why their was such a concentration of artists in urban areas? For my purposes, the work Jackson and Tepper are doing has the promise to be truly disruptive.

    • Thanks for your comment, Scott. To answer your question, no, there wasn’t much consideration of the reasons for artist concentrations, though I think that’s mostly because the focus of the session in general was much more on “who, what, where, when, and how” kinds of questions than “why.” That’s one of the points that Joan Jeffri and Paul DiMaggio were making: it’s easy to get caught up in the data collection aspects of this research without really taking a step back and asking what it all means.

  • Which is as it should be. Once the data is gathered, then there OUGHT to be people who do something with it. Problem is that few do. But YOU will!

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