A recent article in Salon cites some nasty figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the past seven years, jobs in the arts have suffered sharp falls: architecture by 29.8%; performing arts by 21.9%; musical groups and artists by 45.3%. What’s most alarming about these numbers is that they reflect a downward trend that began long before the economy crashed. In 2008, professional dancers made an average of just $15,000 a year. Though the Salon article has a bit of a sour grapes tone that won’t be to everyone’s liking, it brings up a thought-provoking question: as making a living in the arts gets harder, how do artists define success?
“There’s always this sense that art is just play,” says Peter Plagens, a painter and art critic. “Art is what children do and what retired people do.” When a musician sits down to practice or a painter presses a brush against a canvas, their efforts are viewed by many as leisure activities. “We have this Puritan, practical tradition in the United States,” says Dana Gioia, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Puritans would give to the poor, but not to the idle. Artists are seen as these idle dreamers.” With such negative stereotypes to combat, countless artists spend their careers subsisting on unpredictable grants and part time jobs, and even with promising models like as Kickstarter, few achieve financial stability.
So if money isn’t your measuring stick for success, what is? This question goes beyond bank accounts and gnaws at the core of what it means to pursue a career in the arts. While we can create our own personal definitions of success, quitting that day job and paying the bills every month through creative pursuits is a common and compelling dream for many. An economy that devalues the arts makes that dream ever harder to realize.
Why do you think the arts are losing value?
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.