By Randy Kennedy
Published: November 23, 2009
A major new survey of American artists and how they are weathering the economic downturn has found that slightly more than half experienced a drop in income from 2008 to 2009, a blow to an already struggling group, two thirds of whose members reported that they earned less than $40,000 last year.
James Vira was recently laid off by an architectural firm but is enjoying doing other work, including designing furniture and other objects.
More than 5,300 practitioners in fields like painting, filmmaking and architecture participated in the online survey, a larger response than expected, providing a detailed look at the state of the country’s artists, a group that the Census Bureau numbers at more than two million.
Many of the findings — that working artists tend to work day jobs to support themselves; that more than a third don’t have adequate health insurance; that musicians and architects tend to do better than writers and painters — simply provide statistical support for what artists themselves have long known.
But it also found that the recession has been exceptionally tough for many artists. Eighteen percent of those who responded said their income had dropped 50 percent or more in the last year.
The survey was conducted in July and August and commissioned by a nonprofit artist-support organization called Leveraging Investments in Creativity, which worked with Princeton Survey Research Associates International and the Helicon Collaborative, a consulting firm that advises nonprofits.
The researchers found that in general very few artists’ incomes approach six figures. While the majority of artists have college degrees, only 6 percent said they earned $80,000 or more.
“A lot of the artists who were reporting were telling us, ‘I live in a recession all the time, so this downturn has really not been so different for me,’ ” said Judilee Reed, the executive director of Leveraging Investments in Creativity.
(The groups that conducted the survey, which was paid for in part by the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, publicized the survey through arts organizations and acknowledged that as a result it might not reflect the “experiences of the entire population of practicing artists in the United States.” But they added that the data were weighted to hew as closely as possible to Census Bureau demographics for artists.)
The artists surveyed tended to earn either very little of their overall income from their artwork or almost all of it. Slightly more than 40 percent said that in 2008 they earned 20 percent or less of their total income from their art.
But at the other end of the spectrum 28 percent said creative work accounted for 80 percent or more of their income, and those artists were often those whose incomes were higher, $80,000 or more. Visual artists (who made up half of the respondents) and writers were more likely to earn 20 percent or less of their income from art.
Even artists whose second jobs have carried them through the downturn relatively unscathed said that the climate for creative work was more difficult. Esther Robinson, a Brooklyn filmmaker whose 2007 documentary, “A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory,” was partly paid for with credit cards, money later recouped with an advance from a distributor, said, “This year there are almost no advances available for the same kind of film that is of a certain quality and that is theatrically releasable.”
Ms. Robinson, who also runs a nonprofit arts organization that she founded, said that she was concentrating on short films because “I don’t see a way to finance any of the feature ideas I have for documentaries right now.”
Perhaps because artists tend to have an idealistic bent, the survey found, however, that many also reported upsides to the downturn: that it has given them freedom to experiment and to spend more time on their art when avenues for making money are closed. James Vira, a Manhattan architect who recently lost his job in a round of layoffs at Cooper, Robinson & Partners, is trying to make it on his own by doing consulting work, taking on small projects and designing furniture and other objects.
“It’s allowing me to pursue things that I really want to pursue, and it’s working out so far,” said Mr. Vira, the father of two young children. “I’m very, very hopeful. But I still check the want ads — as a habit, I guess.”