What artists actually need is an economy that works for everyone

By Laura Zabel


In the years since Investing in Creativity, the Urban Institute’s 2003 report on the support structure for U.S. artists, a lot of things of have changed, many of them for the better. More than ever before, through nonprofits (including the one where I work, Springboard for the Arts) and education institutions, artists have access to programs that teach entrepreneurship and business skills. There are organizations to help artists find affordable studio and living space and programs that help artists navigate the complex healthcare system. New grant and fellowship programs that provide recognition and visibility for artists have taken hold.

Incredible work is happening all across the country to ensure that artists are more able to make a living and a life and contribute meaningfully to their communities.

And yet, despite all this progress, I still feel like we have a long way before we approach something that feels like a real, systems-level change in how artists are able to support themselves and be visible and valued for their work. Even if we were to exponentially scale and broaden access to the current artist supports – for example, if every artist in America had access to basic business skills training — while it would be an important improvement in the lives of artists, it still feels a bit like nibbling at the margins.

Because our systems aren’t just broken for artists, they are broken for everyone. I’ve come to believe we can’t really improve life for artists in any broad or lasting way without improving life for everyone.

Ack. So daunting. I know. It flies in the face of every consultant who tells us to avoid mission drift and every pundit who tells us art should stay in the realm of metaphor and beauty and avoid pedestrian concerns like economics and inequality. And yet, to not engage in the broader realities of our culture and context for our work feels a lot like fiddling while Rome burns.

Daunting, yes, but also thrilling. We have an opportunity right now, to really change how our culture values art, creativity and artists themselves. I believe we can do it by being an integral part of building new, more equitable and sustainable structures and systems that work for not only artists, but for lots of other people as well. To capture this opportunity, we need to look beyond small artist-specific solutions to systems level problems, and instead engage in the bigger, most urgent questions of our time.

For example, the economy.
Let’s be clear: Our economic systems are perfectly designed for the results we are getting. Just by way of example, by law you need to have a net worth of over a million dollars to become an “accredited” investor—i.e. to be able to invest venture capital in businesses that have a high potential return.*

This law was was made following the great Depression to protect people, but it’s easy to see that laws like this only increase income disparity and ensure that people who already have resources continue to have resources and those who don’t, don’t. This kind of systemic disparity is mirrored in arts world, large minimum donation requirements for boards of directors at major arts institutions may not be regulated by the SEC but they certainly perpetuate inequity between people who hold the power in the arts community and people who don’t.

Luckily, there are really smart, bold people and organizations working to address the broken systems of our economy and imagine new futures. Movements to remake our world and our systems so that they are more equitable and healthy are gaining ground, including the New Economy Coalition, Capital Institute, P6 Cooperative Trade Movement, Citizen University and National Domestic Workers Alliance.** These movements are working for a better system for everyone, but artists stand to benefit greatly from the changes they are advocating (especially because they are often part of the group of low-wage, independent, “gig economy” workers that are most disadvantaged by our current system).

For example, the mainstreaming of gig economy workers because of platforms like Uber has created visibility around the need to organize for better worker protections. Protections like collective bargaining for independent workers and models like worker cooperatives could and should include creative workers and/or be adapted to serve artists.

Or take, for example, the movement and work to create universal access to free college tuition. This option would remove affordability barriers of attending college and change who can imagine a future as an artist for themselves, as art schools are currently among the most expensive schools in the country. It would lessen the student loan debt burden for millions of young people and open up the choices that artists can make about employment post-college.

I think that artists and those who care about them have a greater chance of creating lasting change if we work in solidarity with others trying to change the broken systems that disadvantage all of us. In survey after survey, artists say what they need is income, health care, reliable housing. You know who else needs those things? Everybody. What if we could actually change how our larger economy works so that the need for artist-specific solutions became unnecessary?

I believe (fervently, optimistically) that artists can not only benefit from these movements, but also make them more effective by participating — bringing imagination and creativity to the table to help society imagine new futures and show us new possibilities. To reach their full potential, these new systems need artists’ creative thinking — our ability to animate communities, to advocate and to tell the story of a better future. Now is the time to put our creativity where our mouth is. If we’re going to prove our value once and for all, we have to engage across sectors and with totally new ways of thinking.

Sounds good, right? Let’s just join hands and imagine a new economy into being.

What would this actually look like? Back to that law limiting accredited investor status to only the wealthiest people: As a part of the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) act in 2012, Congress actually opened up that law to allow a new system for all people (not just the wealthiest 3%) to become investors in businesses. It is now legal for people of all income levels to invest in local businesses and ideas through crowdfunding equity investments. How might we use this mechanism to create a market of local creative goods and services as well as a market of cultural and neighborhood value? What if neighbors could come together and collectively invest in an art and community center for their block or if people could easily invest part of their savings in creative social enterprises in their community through a designated community investment engine? These investments could simultaneously build social and financial capital within communities, while creating new paths towards sustainable livelihoods for artists and other makers. Similar models have been used effectively for the support of neighborhood restaurants and breweries, and new statewide initiatives, such as, MNVest in Minnesota, are coming online to create the policy and infrastructure necessary to make this idea a reality.

Imagine an economy where instead of local money going out into the coffers of large global companies, individuals and institutions can choose to have their dollars circulate locally to support local food, culture and other producers. What has been started in the ‘Buy Local’ movement could be expanded to include better mechanisms to make it simpler and more accessible to support local producers with our every day buying habits. We could create incentives for large corporations, educational institutions and hospitals to support locally grown food for their cafeterias and events, locally made goods for employee incentives and locally sourced music and photography for their marketing departments? What if these major institutions could earn a “local economy certification” alongside their LEED certified buildings?

There are exciting models springing up in the food community. The Fair Food Network program, Double Up Food Bucks, provides Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) beneficiaries with a one-to-one match to purchase healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables, creating reciprocal relationship between local producers and their neighbors who need access to healthy food. And the Hmong American Farmers Association’s Alternative Markets Program creates relationships with school districts, catering companies, and stores to make it simpler for those institutions to buy directly from local farmers.

These ideas and examples only scratch the surface of how we might work to change how money travels through our communities in ways that could impact artists as local producers. There are hundreds of other ways we can find for people to spend their money on goods and experiences that build meaning in their lives. There is good work happening to make a new economy a reality. Colleagues in local food, environment and sustainability, and racial and economic equity are focused on building new systems that work for everybody. New mechanisms are being developed to make it simpler and easier for people to spend their money and invest in a way that aligns with their ethics and values in local markets and provide support for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Perhaps the “artist service” work most needed now is to help shape these evolving mechanisms so they are relevant to artists and help artists tap into these systems. And to bring our creative assets to bear in advocating for this system change wholeheartedly. If we were to do all this, it might be that the concept of “artist services” could become unnecessary. In that world, grants and fellowships could be allocated to support special projects, reflection time and R&D for artists, instead of living expenses or healthcare. Support for artists could be focused on helping creativity and innovation flourish and spread widely, rather than remediating broken systems. These artist-specific resources would be built on a solid foundation, a foundation that works for artists, and for everyone.

*gross oversimplification. I am not an economist.

**this is an assortment of organizations and movements that I think are really interesting and crush-worthy right now, you can probably think of others!

Photo by Thomas Hawk via Flickr / Creative Commons

Published February 2, 2016


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  • Spark Mag

    “Because our systems aren’t just broken for artists, they are broken for everyone.” Great line! We need to build power at the bottom in the arts and across the rest of the economy. Artists need to see themselves as part of the broader labor movement.

  • Artlery

    Thank you so much for this absolutely fantastic article, I have often said that the whole world should be the “art world”. 🙂 I am one of the founders of a financial platform called Artlery, https://artlery.com. Our goal is to build a system that handles and automates financial transactions for art around things like credit card processing, paying out to bank accounts, and especially transactions related to “Second Sale Royalties” aka Droit de Suite, so that artists can spend the majority of their time focused on their art. We provide the ability to track metrics and analytics around marketing and engagement as a tool for artists, galleries, and other venues to promote to patrons, and we are also building a first of its kind “valuation algorithm” for art, whereby our hypothesis is that additional transparency in the art market will encourage broader participation. We are just getting started and would wholeheartedly welcome feedback and collaborators! David Thomson dthomson _ at _ artlery.com

  • Eric

    Is there such a thing as artist entrepreneurial investors or funders? I have an idea to create an incubation space to teach artists critical art making/building combined with industrial practices, technology and various material use.

  • I think that a systems approach means recognizing the paradox on the ground, that the “system” is BOTH broken AND working very well. For example, while fewer children are taking up music in grade school, most children with access to computers are finding fulfillment on YouTube, iTunes, with software and other technologies to the point they consider themselves artistic ENOUGH. Anyone who picks up a guitar and starts writing songs doesn’t need professional artists… EXCEPT for the most inspiring among them, to set a higher standard for their own art. There are simply too many artists today. The system works, just not quite the way it used to. So we professional artists have to adjust by asking ourselves the hardest questions: Who cares about our art, why and why not?

    Working in classical music, I understand why most clearly DON’T care to attend concerts. So I quite my orchestra so I can give the People what they want: answers to burning questions and practice to find meaning in instrumental music. Thinking outside the box is as simple as asking strangers what they want from our art form. The money will become apparent when our art is apparently and truly unique and compelling. Once established and recognized, by partnering with a real manager, we might copy and franchise what is unique to grow an artistic enterprise. Difficult? Yes. Impossible? Hardly.

    • Angie Kim

      Rick, we’re really curious to know more about your new practice post-your orchestra work. What does “thinking outside the box…by asking what people want from our art form” look like to you? How is this manifesting with what you’re now doing?

      • Great thing about web forums that we can return to threads months later!
        I recognized a need for a casual tradition in classical music decades ago and began arranging hit symphonic works (MY favs anyway) for one, then two ensembles of 4-8 players to share in churches and schools, then bars and homes. Click my icon to read and hear more. But once I joined the Classical Revolution movement that began in SF, I felt my calling was to be an evangelist of sorts, sharing the good news that everyone can know Bach’s love (or Brahms or Schubert). I also began composing music that blends classical with urban pop; not as a way to “tear down walls”, but to show how great STRUCTURE can be.
        Thinking outside the box begins with listening to people suggest ideas or even poke fun at classical music, and taking them seriously. What if we COULD let someone in the audience conduct us for something easy? The effect is so tremendous, some major orchestras are doing it now. CutTime® can do it in a bar.

    • nancy evans

      I like the concept of artistic ENOUGH. I think this applies to most people’s expectation of art. It is a small minority that actually feel compelled to dig into something and why would there be the expectation that other’s will appreciate it?

    • Thank you both Angie and Nancy for the opportunity to elaborate.

      While I was a member of a major symphony orchestra, it became obvious that young people, ethnic peoples, friends of mine, who would otherwise spend $75+ for a pop artist show, would not EVER spend $20 for an orchestra concert, even with their personal connection to me. They’d pay “lip service” (Oh, I LOVE the DSO), but have never attended, nor would they actually “make it”. Investigating why that really is, I started hanging out at some neighborhood clubs with rock, blues, jazz, soul and country artists to compare (pharmacy earplugs helped tremendously).

      I discovered MOST people loved to drink, sing along, dance a bit, bob heads, tap feet, drum tables, socialize, laugh, yell and take in the atmosphere without having the obligation to shut up, sit still, focus, read up and guess what was so great about the music we were playing. Classical music couldn’t possibly fit into this environment AND have to tolerate cigarette smoke. Now that the later issue is moot, a movement called Classical Revolution sprang up immediately in 2006 in San Francisco, sparking about 25 chapters worldwide playing in bars, clubs and other casual venues, when I started one in my city in 2010.

      Here I discovered that people were curious but either too intimidated or too alienated by the concert tradition because it FELT academic or sacred IN COMPARISON to club culture. So why not develop a club culture for fine art music that INTRODUCED IDEAS of the resultant classical aesthetics without academic airs using spontaneous, interactive and trust-building techniques along with my own arrangements of slightly familiar symphonic hits and romantic-style compositions, some of which blend in a few urban pop grooves?

      These essentially began to form parts of a BRIDGE between the fine arts bubble and those who like casual or pop arts but avoid anything demanding deep experiences to appreciate. I began to realize that to complete this bridge required more partnerships with artists outside the fine arts to create dialogue, comparisons, alternation (variety) and most importantly validation of all creativity in order to win some percentage of validation of the fine arts. Humility and equanimity over the long term builds trust of the institution of the classical arts tradition, as well as a convenient articulation of the overall development of the current tradition; and a personal opinion will suffice.

      The NEW audience is anything BUT picky: humor and information are the glue that keeps them sticking around, so they don’t care so much how polished the performance is. In fact, we sight-read (without rehearsal) most of the time, which makes it more fun and casual. And even though they talk off and on, they pick up info at their own pace, so it’s worth repeating and emphasizing explanations and emotional testimony about the HOW and the WHY of our chosen profession. We also pass out cheap eggshakers so audience can join in on cue on several lively classical numbers. Plus we play lots of dance-able compositions by Joplin, Brahms, Ellington, Mozart and Still to show how a lot of instrumental classical music incorporates the folk music of their time. Our next steps are to partner with pro dancers, poets and videographers. We even have some audience games, such as Rename That Tune and Conduct Us.

      The thing is, neither the audience nor friends can actually articulate what they want to see classical musicians do to become really accessible: I put myself in their heads and IMAGINED what they wanted to know or experience, often based on how they interacted with other music. I saw people bobbing their heads, so I know they want the freedom to move as well as to express the beat. I imagined people were curious to know what makes the music “classical”, so I came up with a short and sweet explanation. And NONE know enough to ask about what DRIVES classical music, so I start explaining the principals of tension and release, and the potential values of dual themes and contrast. Then people start to listen for these, and that serves our art as much as playing for knowledgeable audiences. With the right opportunities, “good enough” can also be a form of excellence. The fine arts today need to inspire the WHOLE community. Eventually some small percentage will feel armed to try traditional concerts.

      • Angie Kim

        Rick–thanks for sharing what you’ve learned. I admire how you combined your inquisitiveness and challenging of the status quo with your artistic practice. I’m particularly taken by your emphasis on getting people to “move.” That’s a quality that seems to resonate more and more–audiences being less interested in passive consumption and more interested in active participation. Thanks!

        • Thanks Angie. Orchestras and even chamber music venues would do well to provide SPACE, likely behind the seated audience, for people to silently stand around, step, sway, dance or even “conduct”, just like we might do at home or a club. Many people hear or learn better on their feet: we need to encourage them.

      • panimus

        I like what you are saying and I wonder if what Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser of 2cellos are doing is an example of one way to do what you are describing: bringing classical style and precision to a wider audience through inclusion of popular music?

        I like classical music and also find this refreshing. I think this sort of “blending” of styles and genres has a lot of appeal and potential to then bring people back to the original “source” of the “blended” styles.

        • Yes, absolutely! The bridge only exists on an arc between two banks: every hybrid forms a step on the pathway across. 2Cellos may be well on the pop side of things, but all inspirations are necessary to bring people to try the OTHER side. Grooves, drums, electric cellos, animations, good looks and CGI can ALL serve to bring new people to once or twice openly try Schubert, esp. if 2Cellos would record the entire C-major Quintet without changing much!

      • Rick- my off the cuff response is that art is for everybody, and if the context of sharing that art doesn’t reinforce that feeling, the audience does not become engaged. The problem with classical orchestral art is that it is delivered in a very formal setting, which means the audience does not become involved. We know that a Grateful Dead or Jimmy Buffett concert is the opposite, where the audience IS part of the musical happening, which becomes a social as well as musical event.

        I think young people fail to appreciate classical music (or jazz) because they have been taught that it is virtuoso art that is delivered to a listening audience. I think it turns off the appreciation of music that is truly timeless. We probably need to stop separating the musicians from the audience because we’ve created a pseudo class system. Art is for the soul, and the sharing with other souls. It’s not for prima donnas.

        • Thanks Michael. To your points, I’ve realized that the concert tradition is very much like a church experience, and that what we’re offering is spiritual in nature, inc. inspiration, redemption and epiphany at best. We are there to worship the music, and its potential impact is maximized by listening in the spirit of meditation. The authority for this tradition comes from Europe and rewards exclusivity (and accents).

          Since you and I acknowledge that this isn’t going to jibe with the Grateful Dead crowd that expects to participate in some ways, what we’ve really needed are casual, participatory, club-like experiences to balance and explain the formality and restraint.

          For that reason, the Classical Revolution movement has been a major game-changer, an open source platform for experimentation and just putting classical where it hasn’t been before. I’ve been able to amplify my ensembles in clubs so people can stay social, eat and drink, invite audience to play eggshakers, cowbells and tambourine, and call out elephants (“One problem with classical music is… generic titles like Symphony No. 2.”) and then address them (“There’s no provocative title so that we can use and sharpen our imaginations.”)

          The dominant music form in our country is song. Classical music, by and large, is instrumental; without lyrics that give immediate context or personalities that make the HUMANITY of the music overwhelmingly compelling. Newbies don’t know how to immediately find context without these elements… unless we are willing to get BEYOND “dumbing down”. That’s why New Classical, inclusion and entertainment values are going to correct this imbalance, creating curiosity for the tradition over time.

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  • The problem is fundamentally economic, especially how digital formats have transformed creators’ business models. It should be possible to use technology to break down the high concentration of control over distribution exercised by Amazon, Apple, Google, etc., but it will take creative thinking informed by economics and finance. Thus, solutions will have to address the network effects of digital distribution systems and how these networks can be designed and utilized to empower users.

    This should not deter artists unschooled in economics or business, because the alternative is for artists to forever depend on subsidies from public institutions or private philanthropies. Creative artists should not be forced to become beggars (or businesswomen). We must also recognize that Bernie’s socialism offers no solution. Sorry, but the public debate departs from reality in our politics.

  • Janis Crystal Lipzin

    Too many fixes emphasize teaching artists to take on the attributes of business people in addition to making the best art possible. That is asking a lot from people who have creative aspirations and who already work at various “day jobs” to support themselves, creating situations where they work full time at several “jobs.” Artists should be permitted to do what they do best, make art, not be entrepreneurs, sales people, or businesses. Institutions that exhibit artists’ work, should, for a start, pay fees to artists for the right to use artwork to attract paying visitors. Artists are often told that exhibitions increase their visibility but artists can’t tell the makers of their art supplies or equipment to provide them for free because using them will “increase their visibility,” so why do institutions get away with that argument?

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What is this?

CREATIVZ is a conversation about how artists in the United States live and work and what they need to sustain and strengthen their careers. It's part of a research project from the Center for Cultural Innovation and the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Surdna Foundation. Overall research and online strategy by Helicon. Online strategy and production by We Media.

Read more about the project.

Cover photo by Bill Dickinson via Flickr / Creative Commons