Why Are Artists Poor? | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Why Are Artists Poor?

According to at least one of the experts at last week's International Conference on Cultural Economics, it's because we give them too much money.


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A young French economist got a lesson in risk assessment when she arrived in Chicago last week for the 13th International Conference on Cultural Economics. She turned her back on her suitcase in a hotel lobby and it vanished.

A study of the effect of incidents like that on Chicago tourism would have been right at home on the agenda for the four-day conference at the University of Illinois at Chicago, attended by 175 members of the Association of Cultural Economics International. UIC professor Thomas Smith says the meeting drew scholars from 25 countries but only a handful from the U.S., where economists are more concerned with Wall Street than with culture. Subjects ranged from South African arts festivals to the "Cultural Hegemony of Singapore," but one that cropped up repeatedly and across national borders was the pathetic financial condition of artists. As Dutch economist and artist Hans Abbing posed the question in the title of his 2002 book (on prominent display at the publications table), Why Are Artists Poor?

Abbing was at the meeting, with an answer right out of Econ. 101: supply and demand. "Artists are poor because there are so many of them," he says. It's a glut that began after World War II, when the romantic notion of a bohemian lifestyle gained currency in spite of the obvious lack of financial rewards. In "Living on the Edge," the paper he presented at the conference, Abbing argues that subsidies for artists, intended to alleviate the problem, only exacerbate it, creating more "loser" artists without increasing overall incomes. In place of financial success, artists expect some kind of nonfinancial recognition, he says, but even that fails to materialize for most. His solution: give up on art as a vocation. Make your day job your only job and (horrors!) aim for the status of "nonprofessional artists who matter--gifted amateurs."

Abbing's views are controversial, but he probably wouldn't get much argument from Sari Karttunen of the Arts Council of Finland. Based on 50 years of trends in that country, she observed with alarm that while the Finnish government hopes to increase the proportion of the labor force in the arts--to 15 percent from less than 1 percent--and continues to pump money into artists' grants and training, unemployment among artists is already common and rising. A second Finnish study puts it at 20 percent. Neil Alper of Northeastern University studied U.S. census data from 1940 to 2000 and found that there are four times as many people in the arts now, that 88 percent are white, and that in 1999 the mean income for artists (including architects and graphic designers) was $36,126 (dancers, with a mean income of $17,953, were the worst paid).

Julia Rothenberg of the City University of New York hung out in West Chelsea a few months after 9/11 and noted that while the tiny blue-chip sector of the art world was chugging along just fine, the bulk of the artists who'd been among the "frontline troops of gentrification" in New York could no longer afford to live or work in the city. Dennis Farber, an artist and teacher at the Maryland Institute College of Art, said the "big secret in visual arts is family money." Those who have it can train at academic hot spots in New York, London, and LA, live in the right places (New York), and hang in long enough to succeed. Those who don't generally wash out.

Tom Smith looked at the effect of government funding on a large sample of arts organizations and found that while government support tends to attract more private donations for opera companies and symphony orchestras, it can result in less private funding for dance companies and theaters--he's not yet sure why. Knut Loyland of the Telemark Research Institute reported that after government subsidies were introduced, theaters in Norway grew more numerous and less cost-efficient, with no increase in audience size. Michael Hutter of the University of Witten-Herdecke found that the cost of materials influences new art forms: when cheap guitars became available, the garage band was born.

A number of speakers presented findings suggesting that the arts remain the domain of the cultural elite. Arthur Brooks of Syracuse University found that the audience for public television, which has a mission of serving a broad spectrum of the population, is primarily the educated. Michele Trimarchi of the European Center for Cultural Organization and Management said there's a growing demand for culture but noted that 92 percent of Italians have never set foot inside an opera house.

Sociologists Steven Tepper and Gabriel Rossman of Princeton University set out to study innovation in theater and found an abundance of world premieres--followed by a black hole. Almost 90 percent of the 72 theaters they surveyed had mounted a world premiere in the previous three years, but only about half had staged a play in its second production. "We started to think we should be looking for something else," Tepper says, so the team began to focus on staying power, or what they call "stickiness." They asked the artistic directors which three theaters were having the greatest impact on the development of new plays and came up with a list topped by the Actors Theatre of Louisville, followed by the Manhattan Theatre Club and New York-based Playwrights Horizons. But when they looked at actual production records they found that the most influential were Pittsburgh's City Theatre Company, the Joseph Papp Public Theater, Florida Stage, LA's Mark Taper Forum, and the Charleston Stage Company. Among Chicago theaters, Steppenwolf, Lookingglass, and Northlight were highly ranked by their peers but didn't generate much sticky work, while the Goodman Theatre and Chicago Dramatists scored high on both counts. The stickiest Chicago theater of all didn't even turn up on the peer ranking, but placed tenth out of 401 nationally based on its record. It's this year's Jeff awards champ: Bailiwick Repertory.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Laura Park.

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