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What Artists Actually Need Is an Economy That Works for Everyone

by Laura Zabel – Executive Director, Springboard for the Arts
02/02/2016

In the years since Investing in Creativity, the Urban Institute’s 2003 report on the support structure for U.S. artists, a lot of things of have changed, many of them for the better. More than ever before, through nonprofits (including the one where I work, Springboard for the Arts) and education institutions, artists have access to programs that teach entrepreneurship and business skills. There are organizations to help artists find affordable studio and living space and programs that help artists navigate the complex healthcare system. New grant and fellowship programs that provide recognition and visibility for artists have taken hold.

Incredible work is happening all across the country to ensure that artists are more able to make a living and a life and contribute meaningfully to their communities.

And yet, despite all this progress, I still feel like we have a long way before we approach something that feels like a real, systems-level change in how artists are able to support themselves and be visible and valued for their work. Even if we were to exponentially scale and broaden access to the current artist supports – for example, if every artist in America had access to basic business skills training — while it would be an important improvement in the lives of artists, it still feels a bit like nibbling at the margins.

Because our systems aren’t just broken for artists, they are broken for everyone. I’ve come to believe we can’t really improve life for artists in any broad or lasting way without improving life for everyone.

Ack. So daunting. I know. It flies in the face of every consultant who tells us to avoid mission drift and every pundit who tells us art should stay in the realm of metaphor and beauty and avoid pedestrian concerns like economics and inequality. And yet, to not engage in the broader realities of our culture and context for our work feels a lot like fiddling while Rome burns.

Daunting, yes, but also thrilling. We have an opportunity right now, to really change how our culture values art, creativity and artists themselves. I believe we can do it by being an integral part of building new, more equitable and sustainable structures and systems that work for not only artists, but for lots of other people as well. To capture this opportunity, we need to look beyond small artist-specific solutions to systems level problems, and instead engage in the bigger, most urgent questions of our time.

For example, the economy. Let's be clear: Our economic systems are perfectly designed for the results we are getting. Just by way of example, by law you need to have a net worth of over a million dollars to become an “accredited” investor—i.e. to be able to invest venture capital in businesses that have a high potential return.*

This law was made following the great Depression to protect people, but it’s easy to see that laws like this only increase income disparity and ensure that people who already have resources continue to have resources and those who don't, don't. This kind of systemic disparity is mirrored in arts world, large minimum donation requirements for boards of directors at major arts institutions may not be regulated by the SEC but they certainly perpetuate inequity between people who hold the power in the arts community and people who don’t.

Luckily, there are really smart, bold people and organizations working to address the broken systems of our economy and imagine new futures. Movements to remake our world and our systems so that they are more equitable and healthy are gaining ground, including the New Economy Coalition, Capital InstituteP6 Cooperative Trade MovementCitizen University and National Domestic Workers Alliance.** These movements are working for a better system for everyone, but artists stand to benefit greatly from the changes they are advocating (especially because they are often part of the group of low-wage, independent, “gig economy” workers that are most disadvantaged by our current system).

For example, the mainstreaming of gig economy workers because of platforms like Uber has created visibility around the need to organize for better worker protections. Protections like collective bargaining for independent workers and models like worker cooperatives could and should include creative workers and/or be adapted to serve artists.

Or take, for example, the movement and work to create universal access to free college tuition. This option would remove affordability barriers of attending college and change who can imagine a future as an artist for themselves, as art schools are currently among the most expensive schools in the country. It would lessen the student loan debt burden for millions of young people and open up the choices that artists can make about employment post-college.

I think that artists and those who care about them have a greater chance of creating lasting change if we work in solidarity with others trying to change the broken systems that disadvantage all of us. In survey after survey, artists say what they need is income, health care, reliable housing. You know who else needs those things? Everybody. What if we could actually change how our larger economy works so that the need for artist-specific solutions became unnecessary?

I believe (fervently, optimistically) that artists can not only benefit from these movements, but also make them more effective by participating -- bringing imagination and creativity to the table to help society imagine new futures and show us new possibilities. To reach their full potential, these new systems need artists’ creative thinking -- our ability to animate communities, to advocate and to tell the story of a better future. Now is the time to put our creativity where our mouth is. If we're going to prove our value once and for all, we have to engage across sectors and with totally new ways of thinking.

Sounds good, right? Let’s just join hands and imagine a new economy into being.

What would this actually look like? Back to that law limiting accredited investor status to only the wealthiest people: As a part of the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) act in 2012, Congress actually opened up that law to allow a new system for all people (not just the wealthiest 3%) to become investors in businesses. It is now legal for people of all income levels to invest in local businesses and ideas through crowdfunding equity investments. How might we use this mechanism to create a market of local creative goods and services as well as a market of cultural and neighborhood value? What if neighbors could come together and collectively invest in an art and community center for their block or if people could easily invest part of their savings in creative social enterprises in their community through a designated community investment engine? These investments could simultaneously build social and financial capital within communities, while creating new paths towards sustainable livelihoods for artists and other makers. Similar models have been used effectively for the support of neighborhood restaurants and breweries, and new statewide initiatives, such as, MNVest in Minnesota, are coming online to create the policy and infrastructure necessary to make this idea a reality.

Imagine an economy where instead of local money going out into the coffers of large global companies, individuals and institutions can choose to have their dollars circulate locally to support local food, culture and other producers. What has been started in the ‘Buy Local’ movement could be expanded to include better mechanisms to make it simpler and more accessible to support local producers with our every day buying habits. We could create incentives for large corporations, educational institutions and hospitals to support locally grown food for their cafeterias and events, locally made goods for employee incentives and locally sourced music and photography for their marketing departments? What if these major institutions could earn a “local economy certification” alongside their LEED certified buildings?

There are exciting models springing up in the food community. The Fair Food Network program, Double Up Food Bucks, provides Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) beneficiaries with a one-to-one match to purchase healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables, creating reciprocal relationship between local producers and their neighbors who need access to healthy food. And the Hmong American Farmers Association’s Alternative Markets Program creates relationships with school districts, catering companies, and stores to make it simpler for those institutions to buy directly from local farmers.

These ideas and examples only scratch the surface of how we might work to change how money travels through our communities in ways that could impact artists as local producers. There are hundreds of other ways we can find for people to spend their money on goods and experiences that build meaning in their lives. There is good work happening to make a new economy a reality. Colleagues in local food, environment and sustainability, and racial and economic equity are focused on building new systems that work for everybody. New mechanisms are being developed to make it simpler and easier for people to spend their money and invest in a way that aligns with their ethics and values in local markets and provide support for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Perhaps the “artist service” work most needed now is to help shape these evolving mechanisms so they are relevant to artists and help artists tap into these systems. And to bring our creative assets to bear in advocating for this system change wholeheartedly. If we were to do all this, it might be that the concept of “artist services” could become unnecessary. In that world, grants and fellowships could be allocated to support special projects, reflection time and R&D for artists, instead of living expenses or healthcare. Support for artists could be focused on helping creativity and innovation flourish and spread widely, rather than remediating broken systems. These artist-specific resources would be built on a solid foundation, a foundation that works for artists, and for everyone.

*gross oversimplification. I am not an economist.

**this is an assortment of organizations and movements that I think are really interesting and crush-worthy right now, you can probably think of others!