Sunday, October 30, 2011

Artists Are The 99 Percent

Last week I was captivated by the stories people shared on the We Are The 99 Percent Tumblr.  It's really sad to see how much suffering the recession has wrought.  Sadder still to see that I'm not the only one who can't afford to get married, hasn't been able to find work in my field even after going back to school repeatedly, and has felt the anguish of self-loathing, depression, and shame as a result.  I noticed some common threads among the stories.  The economic upheavals much of the 99 percent were experiencing seemed mainly to be caused by unemployment, disabilities, the high cost of health care (with or without insurance), student loan debts, and divorce.  Many of the stories came from people in professions where the pay is low or else fluctuates wildly, especially teachers, social workers, and entrepreneurs.  And several of these entrepreneurs are artists.

Here are some of their pictures, and excerpts from their stories.  Click the photos to read more about these artists.

I am 24 years old, a talented artist with a bachelors degree, but that doesn’t help me at all.
I work more than 40 hours a week, and live paycheck to paycheck. I have so much debt, I can barely afford to even buy train fare to GET TO WORK.

I’m 23 years old, I graduate from college in December with a degree in graphic design. I’m in debt up to my eyeballs and I can’t find work in my field. The only work I can find is part time for $8, which doesn’t go far when your trying to make bills and put food on the table. I am engaged but my fiance and I cannot afford to even plan our wedding. I have a dress but I cant marry the man I love, let alone put food on the table. I work for less then $15,000 a year, I help my parents and sisters and try and keep my own house going, but I payed more in taxes last year the GE and other big companies. We need change and we need it now.
I am the 99%

28, college grad (Bachelor of Fine Arts). Scored graphic design job in 2007, lost it in the 2008 meltdown. Unemployed 9 months in 2009, broke down in tears once. 

I’m an artist with an entrepreneurial spirit. I could be doing so much more, if I was only given the chance. As a multi-cultural, college-educated, world-traveled female, I occupy a liminal space that could be of great benefit to our nation as it sags under the weight of inflexibility and dread. Allow me to help build the future while trying to honor the past. You should be so lucky to have someone like me!

I am an artist but I continue to work 2 jobs, sometimes 3 or 4, I volunteer and sit on committees.
I make beautiful things and people don’t buy beautiful things in a recession.
When I am lucky enough to sell something through a gallery, they take a 50% cut.

Funny that, being an artist, the only piece of paper I could spare was the back of an envelope - but I guess life really has been that tough… enough so that I couldn’t find anything to do a re-write on if I wanted to, save for many, many smaller envelopes that come from debt collectors.
I can program in 20 languages, know every graphic design app there is - I have tons of fan mail to sift through and reply to every day - and yet, I ate one meal today, like yesterday - paid for by scrounging change and returning bottles.

I am 55 year old “starving artist”.
Never expected anything but struggle doing what I do, so I am not disrillusioned about ending up at my age with very little to show for it and no security.

I have covered up my face in this photo because being poor, educated and out of work is embarrassing. I’m 28. I graduated in December 2009 with a Bachelors in Graphic Design from a top school...The few job interviews I had in my field were nerve-wracking group job interviews where I was staring my competition of seven or eight people, young and old, in the face competing for one job position. In other professional job interviews, I was told that I was competing against people who “worked in the industry” who had decades of experience. I have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting a job. There is a huge demand for my design work, yet no one wants to actually pay for my services. I end up literally FREE-lancing my design work.

I am an artist, a graphic designer with over 20 years experience as a creative director. I was a small business owner for 11 years. Insurance went way up, rent went up, Utilities went up, the cost of living went up, while our earnings either stayed the same or went down for more work. The bank refused to give us a loan or a line of credit. All we needed was a little help for short amount of time. The bank left us and our employees twisting in the wind. We lost our small, family owned business, our life’s work - we lost our American Dream - or more aptly put, it was stolen from us.

I am a 22 year old politically active artist and painter. I am a student at Otis College of Art and Design with thousands of dollars of student loans that will have me in debt for years. I depend on my parents financially, which makes me feel guilty as they struggle themselves. Because I am a full time student, I cant get a job, but even if i wanted one I couldn’t get one because you need job experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience so I’m kinda stuck.

My girlfriend is a writer and i’m a thespian and painter. she works for 9/hr cleaning buildings and i work for a small florist. we've all but given up on our american dreams.

Isn't that sad?  So many artists who have given up their dreams, or may never begin to pursue them in the first place.  Here are a few facts the National Endowment of the Arts compiled in 2009 on employment in the arts:

  • Artists are unemployed at twice the rate of professional workers, a category in which artists are grouped because of their high levels of education. The artist unemployment rate grew to 6.0 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008, compared with 3.0 percent for all professionals. A total of 129,000 artists were unemployed in the fourth quarter of 2008, an increase of 50,000 (63 percent) from one year earlier. The unemployment rate for artists is comparable to that for the overall workforce (6.1 percent).
  • Unemployment rates for artists have risen more rapidly than for U.S. workers as a whole. The unemployment rate for artists climbed 2.4 percentage points between the fourth quarters of 2007 and 2008, compared to a one-point increase for professional workers as a whole, and a 1.9 point increase for the overall workforce.
  • Artist unemployment rates would be even higher if not for the large number of artists leaving the workforce. The U.S. labor force grew by 800,000 people from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2008. In contrast, the artist workforce shrank by 74,000 workers. Some of this decline may be attributed to artists’ discouragement over job prospects.
  • Unemployment rose for most types of artist occupations. Artist jobs with higher unemployment rates are performing artists (8.4 percent), fine artists, art directors, and animators (7.1 percent), writers and authors (6.6 percent), and photographers (6.0 percent).
  • The job market for artists is unlikely to improve until long after the U.S. economy starts to recover. Unemployment is generally a lagging economic indicator, or a measure of how an economy has performed in the past few months. During the prior recession (2001), artist unemployment did not reach its peak of 6.1 percent until 2003 – two years after economic recovery began nationwide.

It seems that artistic endeavors, at least in this country, are primarily accessible to the privileged classes.  Several artists over at We are the 1 Percent: We Stand with the 99 Percent regret that this is so.

My family comes from middle-class beginnings both in America and Romania. Both my mother and my father have worked their entire lives to give me, an only child, a good life. I am 19 and have my own apartment, I have a full ride to college and am working on an art degree, I am insured and have never gone without healthcare in my life.
I get upset if stores don’t have the right color hair dye or if I can’t get my coffee for the day, and I feel guilty for this.
I do not work because I do not have to.
I wear designer shoes to my art classes.
Tax me, because health care shouldn’t be a privelege, it should be a right. 
Tax me, because I don’t need that coffee as much as someone else needs that prescription.
I am the 1%, I stand with the 99%.

 "We should all be able to afford following our dreams," the last poster wrote.  And yet this recession is a poisonous climate for artists right now, as collectors stop buying, grants become less available and art programs get cut from school budgets.  You shouldn't need a trust fund to be an artist, or a wealthy spouse to be a designer, and yet those seem to be the prerequisites to a sustainable creative career right now.  As a result the gap between established and emerging artists widens, and the public doesn't get to see work by artists in marginalized communities.  The art world becomes an echo chamber where the voices of artists who are the darlings of the 1% are heard repeatedly, yet drown out those of less well-connected newcomers.  Discouraged, many just give up.

Another barrier to entry is the prohibitive cost of many art programs.  So many are now being offered by for-profit schools that were purchased by large corporations more concerned about their bottom line than helping students afford an education that will prepare them to pursue their dreams.  Why do so many art students end up at these schools?  Often, its is because they offer specialized programs that more traditional private and state schools do not.  That was why I chose Harrington.  The closest community college offering courses in interior design is all the way out in the western suburbs, though now I wish I'd made the long commute from Hyde Park to College of DuPage and avoided Sallie Mae.

Working full time while going to art school can also be a challenge, if not impossible, because of the time it takes to create a good project.  Courses that require reading have assignments that working students can complete during lunch breaks, downtime, and while commuting.  But art and design projects require the time for trial and error and starting all over again, in addition to conceptualization and research.  My own grades in design school suffered during the semesters when I worked full-time.  I just didn't have the time to work to the best of my abilities.

Another problem is that there are not enough substantial scholarships for students in the arts.  Some are very small and would barely cover the cost of a year's worth of supplies or tuition for a single course.  Others are nearly as competitive as American Idol, with a big prize that only goes to a single talented winner.  They are few and far between in interior design, and the pittance that some of the ASID and IIDA "scholarships" offer is insulting.  They'd rather take the funds they've raised and spend them on lobbying in Washington to keep more aspiring designers out of the profession than help design students.

All of these factors can leave art students stuck footing the bill for an education in a field that doesn't always pay their bills.  It saddens me that there is not more funding for the arts in this country.  We focus so much on technology and the sciences, and encourage women and people of color to enter these fields with generous funding, but not everyone wants to be a scientist or computer programmer.  Nor is everyone good at it.  (After 3 years at a math & science high school, I know I'm not!) Some of us are better suited to other professions and could contribute so much more to society if we were doing meaningful work that we have a natural aptitude for.  Some choose to get an MFA and teach at the college level, but there are not enough positions available.  Many have to settle for becoming adjunct professors with few benefits and low pay.

I am glad to see so many artists speaking out on this issue and advocating for change.  Let us work to create a future where the expression "starving artist" references a mythical archetype and not an economic reality.  You can start by sharing your story at one of these sites:

We are the 99 Percent
We are the 1 Percent: We Stand with the 99 Percent
Occupy Student Debt

I Support No More Starving Artists

A couple resources for creatives in Chicago:

The Institute for Arts Entrepreneurship, whose motto is "No More Starving Artists"

Klein Artist Works, Courses by Art Career Advisor Paul Klein

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