Taking Note: Filling Gaps in Artist Data Knowledge

By Sunil Iyengar


“You have many contacts/among the lumberjacks/to give you facts/when someone attacks your imagination,” the 2016 Nobel literature-laureate sneered half a century ago. This jab at‎ the false authority that data can confer was reinforced by Dylan’s peers.‎ ‎”Statistics don’t lie/but statistics don’t die, either,” yelps Phil Ochs, while John Lennon, mocking a survey of municipal potholes, simply shrugs: “Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.”

Songwriters from the Sixties are not the only data-skeptics. Artists everywhere might question whether knowing a few basic stats—even about their own vocation—gives them better access to skills, jobs, and basic amenities. (Answer: probably not.) And yet those making decisions about how to build effective support structures for artists—‎educators, businesses, philanthropists, and public policy leaders—need accurate facts about artists to inform their work.

The Creativity Connects report suggests that the way that artists work is changing. Accordingly, the way that we collect data about artists must change as well. For example, the report finds that artists increasingly are embedded in many sectors, including but not limited to the arts and creative fields. Although federal data can be used to ascertain which industries employ artists, there remain gaps in our knowledge about how self-employed artists (by some counts a third of all artists) weave in and out of industries and sectors, in what venues artists work, and how they supplement their incomes. We also lack robust data to assess trends in the “gig” workforce, which we know includes many artists.  The last Bureau of Labor Statistics study of contingent workers was in 2005, prior to the explosion of many digital platforms that enable this work (the next one is planned for 2017).

Moreover, what do we know about artists who do not earn income from their work, also a large and important segment of the artists population? And among artists who do earn, which blends of income sources correlate with which artist occupations, or with various demographic or regional characteristics? Absent formal training or certification, what unique skill sets do artists rely upon to gain access to different sectors?

A number of past, ongoing, and planned NEA-funded research projects attempt to fill some of the gaps in existing federal data about artists. These include research on workers who moonlight as artists, a study on the relationship between undergraduates’ arts or non-arts training and the development of workforce skills such as creative problem-solving and entrepreneurship, and understanding artists experiences in thegig” economy.

Yet there remains ample scope for dialogue about what other kinds of data we need to better monitor “trends and conditions affecting U.S. artists” over time and improve critical support systems for artists in response.  At the NEA we look forward to engaging with researchers, funders, artists and others around this question.

This post is adapted from NEA’s research blog.

Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar directs the Office of Research & Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. Since his arrival at the NEA in June 2006, the office has produced more than 25 research publications, hosted several research events and webinars, twice updated the NEA's five-year strategic plan, and overseen a new and expanded survey about arts participation. In that time, the office also has created an arts system map and long-term research agenda, and has launched a research grants program. Sunil also chairs the Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development.

Published December 7, 2016

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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