When “artists” means 90% non-fine artists

Patricia Cohen reported that an NEA “Study Says Artists Have Higher Salaries” (NY Times, October 30)—in fact, claiming that the average artists’ earnings are higher than the average worker “by nearly $4,000.”

“Average” is not equivalent with “mean,” yet it would be very easy to misinterpret the headline that most artists are better paid than everyone else. Or to assume that the artists referred to are fine artists.

But the NEA’s “Artists and Arts Workers in the United States” report’s data sets (the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey) are particular, and what it means—and what it doesn’t mean for visual artists—is quite revealing upon investigation.

First, the survey is based on those who identify primarily as artists:

To be counted as an artist, survey respondents must have identified a job within one of these 11 occupational categories as accounting for the most number of hours worked in a given week. In other words, being an artist is their “primary” job.

Many visual artists have day jobs; those who spend most of their time as teachers, curators, or art handlers would not be counted in the survey.

Second, the category “artist” is comprised of many who may not self-identify as artists.

There are 2.1 million artists in the United States.
· More than a third of those artists (39 percent, or 828,747 workers) are designers—a category that includes commercial and industrial designers, fashion designers, floral designers, graphic designers, interior designers, merchandise displayers, and set and exhibit designers.*

The idiosyncratic boundaries of inclusion is illustrated here: curators and art installers (who are often artists) are not be included, yet exhibit designers are. Almost half (49%) of respondents are in design and architecture—typically salaried occupations that are quite technical. Would the announcement that “Designers and Architects have Higher Salaries” be surprising?

How many survey respondents are visual artists? Less than 10%.

· Fine artists, art directors, and animators make up 10 percent of all artists (212,236 workers).

Fine artists make up less than 10% of survey respondents.

Whether fine artists make up 1% or 9% of survey respondents is impossible to tell. It’s even possible that, in this case, “artists” means 99% non-fine artists.


The coming Culture Wars

Think anti-gay bullying is just for kids? Ask the Smithsonian.

That’s from LA Times critic Christopher Knight weighing in on the recent controversy in which the Smithsonian pulled David Wojnarowicz’s video from an exhibition after someone from the Catholic League complained. Subsequently, Republican representatives (who, like the Catholic League instigator, didn’t actually see the exhibit) attacked the Smithsonian and the NEA.

The merits of art–especially contemporary art that does not conform to traditional/conservative tastes or ideals of beauty–ought to be discussed and debated, not censored. By bowing to religious right pressure, the Smithsonian thought it might be playing it safe, but it showed how easily it capitulates. Homophobia is so not cool. And capitalizing on religious backlash to slash the NEA is so tired. Get over yourselves.

Cheers to Blake Gopnik and the Washington Post for their fearless coverage (afflicting the comfortable!) and alternative art space Transformer Gallery in DC and LA gallery CB1 for exhibiting the Wojnarowicz video in question.


Own Art!

Imagine an NEA as more than a funder on a program brochure, one that touched the lives of individual artists and emerging collectors by helping to bring artwork into people’s homes!

Well, the British Arts Council has a program that helps collectors buy low-priced art in installments (Zoe Slater, “Buying art in interest-free instalments,” Telegraph, November 28, 2009).

Set up in 2004 by the Arts Council, Own Art enables people to take home a piece of contemporary art straight way but then pay for it in 10 monthly interest-free instalments, borrowing anything up to £2,000. So far the scheme has made over 14,500 loans to purchase art valued in excess of £11.6 million. “It’s a simple idea that works for artists, buyers and galleries,” says Mary-Alice Stack, development manager for Own Art.