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2 million artists in the U.S., many struggling

Hillel Italie

Santa Fe, N.M., calls itself “The City Different,” a community “brimming with bright, creative and energetic residents.”

It is, according to a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), overflowing with inspiration.

“Artists in the Workforce: 1990-2005,” released last Thursday by the NEA, is a 140-page quantification of the state of the country’s artists, from the total who call themselves artists (around 2 million, separated into 11 categories) to the locations where they’re most likely to settle — such as New York, of course, and Los Angeles.

Or Santa Fe, the scenic, temperate home to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy, fellow author Natalie Goldberg, painter Susan Rothenberg and her husband, the sculptor-multimedia artist Bruce Nauman. No other city has so high a percentage of writers, artists and architects, the NEA says, a finding that doesn’t surprise Santa Fe officials.

“It’s really something that has built over time,” says Sabrina Pratt, executive director of the City of Santa Fe Arts Commission. “You have visual artists who come here for the light and others for the sense of community. Being here seems to feed the artistic soul.”

The arts enrich not only the spirit, but the matter of Santa Fe, Pratt says. Artists contribute so much that the city once had to pull out of a government study on arts and the economy for fear of “throwing the statistics off.” But even in Santa Fe, some artists have a hard time making a living, a problem the NEA finds nationwide.

According to the NEA, artists earn some $70 billion annually, but have a median income of $34,800, well under the average for “professionals.” Only one out of eight actors works full-time, and just one out of four musicians. The “struggling,” if not the starving artist, is both stereotype and fact. NEA chairman Dana Gioia believes that Washington needs to regard them with the same concern as it does other workers.

“You have underemployed and highly trained musicians, actors, dancers and other artists who could easily provide arts education to our schools,” he told The Associated Press. “For the most part, the arts have been dropped from the education of our young people. This is an educational crisis. We are not creating the skills necessary for a 21st-century economy and we have the trained workforce that could solve this problem.”

Drawing upon data from the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as other government agencies and arts organizations, “Artists in the Workforce” identifies a vital but underappreciated population that has nearly tripled since 1970. Gioia, himself a poet, says the intention is to “bust old stereotypes” of the alienated artist.

“I think American artists are perceived as unemployed, marginal and passive,” he says. “If you look at the statistics, artists represent one of the major occupations in the American economy. These are highly trained, productive and highly entrepreneurial people.”

Among other NEA findings:

• Computers have apparently led to a decline in visual artists and a big jump in those who identify themselves as “designers,” which includes Web designers. The number of art directors, fine artists and animators fell from around 280,000 in 1990 to around 220,000 in 2005. Designers, nearly 40 percent of all artists, increased from around 600,000 to around 780,000.

• Among cities, Santa Fe has the second highest number of overall artists per capita, behind San Francisco, which leads in designers.

• Los Angeles-Long Beach has the most artists overall, around 140,000, followed by New York City, around 133,000. Nashville, Tenn., has the greatest concentration of musicians, Las Vegas the highest rate of “dancers and choreographers” and Orlando, Fla., home to Walt Disney World, leads in “entertainers and performers.”

• The Pacific region of the United States, which includes California and four other states, has the highest number of artists per capita, 95 per 10,000. The East South Central, which includes Alabama, Kentucky and three other states, has the fewest, 47 per 10,000.

• The percentage of artists who are Hispanic, Asian or American Indian grew from 9 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2005.

Gioia said the report highlights how dispersed the arts world has become. While New York and Los Angeles remain cultural leaders, cities from Stamford, Conn., and Santa Rosa, Calif., to Missoula, Mont., and Fort Collins, Colo., also have a substantial number of artists.

“It’s the impact of a kind of decentralized electronic culture … Artists are no longer confined to living in the three to four metropolitan media centers,” he says. “You can now live in Santa Fe and e-mail your New York agent every day.”

(Associated Press)