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Investing in Creativity

A Study of the Support Structure for U.S. Artists

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Document date: May 02, 2006
Released online: May 02, 2006

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

The text below is a portion of the complete document.


Why Artists Need More than Creativity To Survive

"Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it."
-- Berthold Brecht

Throughout our history, artists in the U.S. have utilized their skills as a vehicle to illuminate the human condition, contribute to the vitality of their communities and to the broader aesthetic landscape, as well as to promote social change and democratic dialogue. Artists have also helped us interpret our past, define the present, and imagine the future. In spite of these significant contributions, there's been an inadequate set of support structures to help artists, especially younger, more marginal or controversial ones, to realize their best work. Many artists have struggled and continue to struggle to make ends meet. They often lack adequate resources for health care coverage, housing, and for space to make their work. Still, public as well as private funding for artists has been an uneven, often limited source of support even in the best of times economically.

Compounding these material problems is the fact that the public often views the profession of "artist" as not serious. The way artists earn a living may seem frivolous, and artists are often seen as indulging in their own passions and desires which bear no relation to the everyday experiences of most workers. This too contributes to a devaluing of the artist as a citizen with the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else.

In the mid 1990s, problems for artists escalated in the wake of federal funding declines, resulting in significant cutbacks in fellowship programs at institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In response to this new crisis, the Ford Foundation decided to put the plight of individual artists on our agenda. Along with 37 other donors, the Foundation commissioned a study from the Urban Institute to explore the changing landscape of support for artists. Led by Maria-Rosario Jackson, the principal investigator of the study, the Urban Institute's approach involved asking a new set of questions about the climate for support for artists. How are artists valued in society? What kind of demand is there for their work and social contributions? What kinds of material supports — employment and benefits, grants and awards, and space do artists need? Are artists' training programs preparing them for the environments they will encounter? What kinds of connections and networks enable artists to pursue their careers? And what kinds of information are necessary to assess this more comprehensive notion of support for artists?

Additionally, the project was designed to stimulate and sustain interest that could lead to action on these issues at both national and local levels. This was achieved through the periodic dissemination of preliminary findings to funders of the study and other possible stakeholders. Holly Sidford assisted greatly in this regard.

This important and timely study was eventually completed in July 2003. In it, the Urban Institute has given us much to ponder. The big headline is that improving support structures for artists in the U.S. will not be accomplished simply by restoring budget cuts, though we will certainly need to rebuild these kinds of direct financial support going forward. Making a real difference in the creative life of artists will entail developing a new understanding and appreciation for who artists are and what they do, as well as financial resources from a variety of stakeholders. Achieving these changes involves a long-term commitment from artists themselves, as well as arts administrators, funders, governments at various levels, community developers and real estate moguls, not to mention the business and civic sectors.

The study and this resulting report, which includes information on ways in which the environment of support may be improved over the long haul, offers a real opportunity to make a difference in the artistic landscape of this country. We hope it receives a wide readership and that its useful insights can prove the basis for a new approach to investing in creativity.

Alison R. Bernstein, Vice President, The Program on Knowledge, Creativity and Freedom (KC&F), The Ford Foundation.

Margaret B. Wilkerson, Director, Media, Arts and Culture unit, KC&F, The Ford Foundation.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).



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