Introduction: What do artists need to thrive?

By Angie Kim


If you’re reading this, chances are good that you’re an artist, a friend of artists, or someone who is interested in how creativity thrives. Hello! You’ve come to the right place.

By engaging in the conversation here and through social media, you are part of a research effort to understand how artists in the United States live and work and what they need to sustain and strengthen their careers. CREATIVZ features essays by a range of thinkers in the arts field, along with comments, images and ideas curated from contributions through social media using the hashtag #creativz. Please add your voice!

This web site is not a summary of research findings, but rather an integral part of the research process itself. The goal is to make the research transparent, include a broad range of people and perspectives in the process and hear from as many artists and artist support providers as possible. A report summarizing the findings will be published and available on this site in June 2016.


This national research project builds on a 2003 report by the Urban Institute, Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structure for U.S. Artists, which developed a conceptual framework for understanding the major domains of support that artists need: validation; demand/markets; material supports such as space, equipment, employment, and funding; training and professional development; community and networks; and access to information. Over the past 13 years this framework has informed the practice of funders, artist intermediary organizations and others who are interested in supporting artists.

The world has changed significantly since 2003 in ways that have important impacts on artists and artistic practice. New technology has changed how artistic work is created, accessed, and supported. Creativity is “in,” and is more highly valued by businesses, civic leaders and the general public. Demographic and generational shifts have led to new aesthetics and ways of working, and raised the urgency of cultural equity. With the “gig economy,” the way that artists have always worked has become more mainstream and magnified the need for new structures that support this way of working.

The domains outlined in the Urban Institute report are still applicable, but we need a fresh understanding of the context in which artists work today, and what new kinds of support structures need to be created, or what existing systems can be enhanced to enable them to thrive.


This research is a partnership of the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), with additional support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Surdna Foundation.

CCI’s mission is to support individual artists, and the ensuing research report will generate understanding and a national dialogue on the kinds of support artists need, with CCI’s intention to catalyze support for artists.

For the NEA, this research is a component of their 50th anniversary initiative, Creativity Connects, which shines a spotlight on how the arts contribute to the nation’s creative ecosystem and connect with other sectors that want to use creativity. Together, the NEA and CCI are working together to recognize and understand the kind of support that artists need today.

How to Be Involved

  • Share your stories and perspective. Comment directly on posts on this site, or through your favorite social media app. On social media, be sure to use this hashtag: #creativz
  • Share the site or posts with other artists, creatives and those who are interested in supporting them.
  • Use social media to show and tell us about your life as a creative–what you do, how you do it and what’s going on in your world that makes your creative work easier, harder or different. You can also see some of the views we’ve curated from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Photo by Naniel via Flickr / Creative Commons‘Theaster Gates’: Double Cross, from 13th Ballad, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 18 May – 6 October 2013

Published February 8, 2016

  • Here’s my take. I got a little wordy, but this is so important for all of us!

    Recognize and understand our importance – art and creativity will save the world! That means you and us collectively. Art can bring people together through beauty and sadness and find connections where labels keep us apart. However, we, as self-proclaimed artists, do not own art, creativity, beauty, and all that is good and pure. We are no more special than any other group. No one likes doing things that are unpleasant or that we aren’t good at doing. Many doctors don’t like to do math or filing. But they did figure out how to get paid for what they do really well. So they can pay talented people to do the work they don’t do well. Isn’t it time for us to do the same? If we reach out to unfamiliar groups and collaborate with our communities, we can raise the value of art and creativity so that we all contribute and benefit together.

    Here are some ways to think about our changing world and ourselves. Some may work for you. Some may not. But we have to admit that doing things the same way we always have isn’t working. We have to stop complaining about lack of funding from foundations and government. It’s not going to change. But we can change. We can work with others to make a bigger pie, not just a bigger slice for us. Or we can be part of making a whole new pie that embraces our whole community. So be open to trying something new. It may be hard. We may falter. But nothing worthwhile is easy and we have the talent and drive to achieve great things.

    I strive to do this everyday. Sometimes I rock it and sometimes I fail. The alternative of stagnation doesn’t work for me. The organization I lead walks this talk too. It’s hard to work knowing that I’m never done, the work is never done, that there’s always something new that forces me to adapt and change. That there’s always something new to learn that can change my opinions and ideas. But it’s also wonderful to live an honestly creative messy life. It’s also sometimes called being an entrepreneur – just a fancy word for being an artist.

    Here’s what I tell myself all the time:

    1. Value yourself! Own your life and art and career. Stop making excuses for why you
    aren’t doing your work that you care about. You can and will discover a way. It just may not be what you started out to do – which is what art-making is all about!

    2. Don’t give your self, your time, or your art away for free unless you have a solid strategy. Otherwise you’re keeping our collective creative value low.

    3. Ask yourself hard questions about your work before you start your creative process.
    Ask yourself why you are doing it. Be relevant to someone other than yourself.

    4. Define what success is for you. Be specific. What do you want to feel like when you
    succeed? What do you want others to feel when they experience your work? How
    much money is enough for you? Don’t be embarrassed by what you want. Don’t let
    others define your rubric for success.

    5. Diversify your revenues – stop waiting for a silver bullet, prince charming, the lottery,
    or even a really big sale. There are a zillion ways to make money these days – and you don’t have to feel like a sell-out! If you don’t have food on the table, you’re not going to make great art!

    6. Make new friends who aren’t like you. Make friends with people who challenge your
    art, morals, ethics, and ideals. You might learn something about yourself. And you might find you have more in common with these folks than you realize, once you strip away labels.

    7. Embrace change. Everyone is feeling the chaos of our new world economy so you are not as alone as you think. People who aren’t artists are as confused as you are. They can provide inspiration and you can provide ideas.

    8. Communicate! Share what you do and who you are in a way that others can understand you. Don’t just say “no one gets me.” You don’t get them either. So work to find common language and you will find connection.

    9. Stop blaming business and money for your ills. This is the best time in history to
    find connection with business people who want to change how we do business. Social enterprise (the concept that business should not be only about profit, but instead about helping humanity and the planet) is a place for positive intersection.

    10. Help others who are struggling. Small business people, higher education, and nonprofits need creativity more than ever. That’s where we come in! We have so much in common – living on the edge, unsure of our future, feeling unworthy.

    11. Get involved! Take your seat at the table. We have spent too long in the corners and cobwebs of our communities. Our voices do make a difference and our ideas can help change the world.

    12. Challenge your personal mental models about what makes good art and good people.

    13. Be hyper-local and global all at once! Being engaged in what you can impact in your
    small corner of the world is imperative. But recognize that our planet is our village. Which is empowering and sobering all at once. What you do in your community can help others 10,000 miles away.

    14. Be a champion for this cause – raising the value of art and creativity in every
    community. Make artists and creatives essential. Show our value in every action and every relationship. And meet people halfway. Discover the unexpected intersections. Stop assuming that what you believe about money and business is true or all bad.

    15. Don’t give up. You have more opportunities than any other generation of artists and creatives. Business isn’t really that hard. Doing the work is hard. Find an accountability

    16. Be great! Try harder than ever to make great art. Challenge yourself. Get uncomfortable. Make mistakes. Disrupt your life. Cry a little. Laugh a lot. Change our world with your art.

  • Sami Allison

    Art is everywhere. Tv, cars, chairs, houses, business signs. So it makes no sense to me that Art would ever be devalued in our country. It is a part of everything you see or purchase and yet the creator of the object is treated as unnecessary.

    Artists need to stand together and stop taking work for the exposure or experience. It’s easy for a company to tell me no, because they know there are 5 artists behind me that will do the job for free.

  • lafemmeartiste

    I’ve been banging my entire being against this wall of resistance to basic cultural sophistication in a small, western college town for 28 years. Nowadays, because my economic ability has become trapped. When I started out, I was the median age engaging THIS overdue national conversation. Thanks for cranking it back up again.
    Located in the middle of pastoral resistance, nature inspires my art in a place that has devolved to 0% per capita support for community-based arts. A part of the western U.S. now becoming the land of hostile cowboy insurgence. 🙁
    Another locale in this nation where basic cultural education is needed to reach human historical lacks, in cultural exposure or breadth that might reflect any reasonably significant comprehension on the value of the arts and design in all aspects of this collective life. A basic comprehension by the most that artists are minimally worth the same wages as plumbers and electricians.
    What we need is not the lauding of more well-intended, but short-term, ineffective ideas.
    America needs a comprehensive agenda to build its national aesthetic identity. Again, meaning fundamental comprehension and appreciation for the arts, and the artists in the majority of every American’s life!
    As others here, usually female, artists have pointed to, nearly 3 decades of social services support have beaten this human dignity down really low. Economic disparity has rendered this artist’s life economically trapped in market isolationism without accessible choices. Family members are distant.
    I value what I know and do, why isn’t this reasonable accomplishment even pragmatically supported in a culturally aware and fluidly reciprocal human socio-economic-cultural climate? I can say I have experienced little bits of this awareness and interactivity in the distant past.
    Flat out, as an artist, I want a regular income, not one more round of homelessness.
    “I” is for every artist on American soil.

  • Teri J. Bond

    Thrilled to see CREATIVZ launch and will spread far and wide to my circles. To “understand how artists in the United States live and work and what they need to sustain and strengthen their careers” will help us all thrive. Congrats on debut. Look forward to listening to a range of voices I expect will chime in to enlighten on how to sustain art and artists in the world. Bravo!

    • Angie Kim

      Thanks for being the first to add your voice to the discussion! Be sure to chime in to on the questions and issues being surfaced here.

  • Marc Zegans

    Delighted to see that CREATIVZ is beginning to move forward, a reconsideration of policy and arts infrastructure that brings artists into the process is most welcome. An important place to begin the conversation is to reconsider the vocabulary by which funders and policy makers frame the conversation about Artists and Art. In particular, I suggest that we controvert and replace the term “artist support,” with more varied and robust vocabulary. “Artist support,” patronizes the artist without providing effective patronage. It’s a term that bakes social control, status reduction and disempowerment of artists into the basic vocabulary of grant making to artists. We do not speak of “doctor support,” though medical education and the practice of medicine is highly subsidized. We do not speak of teacher support, though the teaching profession works nearly exclusively through tax supported and tax subsidized organizations. We do not speak of grant-maker support, though the salaries of grant-makers are paid by direct government subsidy and donor-based, tax subsidized, not- for-profit foundations and intermediary organizations. We do not speak of support of individuals carrying out these social functions because their roles are institutionalized in a way that the role of artists is not.

    We do speak of artist support for a variety of reasons beyond the split between social function and institutional role embodied in our commonplace understanding of “the artist.” One reason is the romantic fantasy of the starving artist, and the related premise that the appropriate measure of an artist’s success is full income from one’s arts resulting from the application of effective entrepreneurial and administrative skills, content and talent not being considerations. Another reason is that organizing arts funding around the notion of artistic incapacity embedded in the idea of “support” privileges the funder, the gallery, the presenter in negotiations with the artists. If the artist is creative but incapable, in some sense unworthy, the artist becomes safe, pliable, a pawn to be moved rather than a primary actor.

    If we begin to develop a richer vocabulary grounded in a more varied and fruitful set of structural metaphors, and if we focus on the means by which as a society we can remove barriers to and facilitate the production of potent art, in part by empowering artists, in part by understanding that artists vary in their motives means, talents and methods, and by understanding that creative innovation, the production of works of deep meaning and human significance arise when we put art and artists first, rather than “the field,” which follows its own agendas. In the interest of transparency and full disclosure I note that I am a working poet, a creative development advisor, and that in the earlier portions of my career was Executive Director of the Kennedy School’s Innovations Program, and an advisor on grant making and philanthropic practice to a number of major Foundations.

    • Alexis

      ˙Marc, really interesting comment, and good points about how the language we use can determine how we think about possibilities and agency. I’m curious whether you have other “structural metaphors” that you’d suggest.

      • Marc Zegans

        Hi Alexis, thank you for your response. I attempted to post a detailed answer to your question yesterday, but it didn’t manage to post. I don’t think I’ll be quite as eloquent now as I was then. But I’ll try to capture the essence of what I said. I hope that my response here opens up a conversation about possible metaphors and I offer these to be suggestive, not to say that they are the right or only useful ones. In my response I’m inspired by a book called Images of Organization written by Gareth Morgan about 20 years ago. Morgan offers a variety of metaphors for human organizations and explores the implications of viewing organizations through various lenses. I think that the same notion is beneficial as we think about funding and infrastructure for artists.

        Here are some possible, somewhat overlapping and somewhat contradictory ways of seeing artists when making policy and developing funding strategies: “artist as explorer,” “artist as inquirer,” “artist as carrier of tradition,” “artist as disruptor,” “artist as maker of meaning,” “artist as healer,” “artist as connector,” “artist as expressive,” “artist as expressed,” “artist as situated,” “artist as autonomous,” “artist as fire-maker,” “artist as fire-carrier.” “artist as self.” Notice that non of these concepts of artist see the artist as dependent, subordinate or incapable.

        Now let me shift focus to more fruitful and vital standards for the design of policy and funding mechanisms and the means by which we employ them, than the degrading appeal to incapacity and subordinate social standing implicit in the term “artist support.” Let’s think instead about arts as analogous to a thriving coral reef a set of interconnected structures and inhabitants doing well in their own right and contributing diversity, beauty, robustness and resilience to the larger ecosystem in which it is situated. On this view, we would wish to see art that shines in variety and abundance, thriving artists, cultural institutions and cultural scenes, rich and productive. On this view funders and policy makers would operate in service to rather than presiders over cultural communities and the individuals that populate them. This vision of service would begin with a basic premise of trust in artists themselves, and priority given to their empowerment and fulfillment on their own terms. This is not a complete answer to your question, and somewhat less than I wrote a first blush, but I hope that it lights a spark or two. Thanks again, Marc

    • Lidia Shaddow

      This is very good. I like it. Makes good sense.

Share your feedback on the research and what you think comes next using your favorite social app (such as Twitter or Facebook) and the hashtag #creativz.”

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Share your feedback on the research and what you think comes next using your favorite social app (such as Twitter or Facebook) and the hashtag #creativz.”

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