Quick Study: January 18, 2024

Jo Reed: Welcome to Quick Study, the monthly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. This is where we'll share stats and stories to help us better understand the value of art in everyday life. Sunil Iyengar is the pilot of Quick Study. He's the Director of Research and Analysis here at the Arts Endowment. Hello, Sunil.

Sunil Iyengar: Hi, Jo.

Jo Reed: So what have you got for us today?

Sunil Iyengar: Okay, well, the Chair of the Arts Endowment, Maria Rosario Jackson, has often talked about the entire ecosystem of the arts in the U.S., thinking about how it's supported at the national, regional, and local level. So for today's Quick Study, I want to narrow in on one segment of this ecosystem, the artists themselves, who, oddly enough, are sometimes overlooked in these policy conversations.

Jo Reed: That is ironic. Has there been a study about this?

Sunil Iyengar: Yes, it came out a few months ago. It's based on two nationally representative household-level surveys, one conducted just before the pandemic and the other in 2022. This work was partly supported by an NEA research grant in the paper’s titled “U.S. Public Perceptions of Artists During COVID-19”.

Jo Reed: Okay, tell us all about it.

Sunil Iyengar: Sure. The authors, Jennifer Novak-Leonard and Rachel Skaggs, start with the premise that arts and cultural policy makers, funders, and advocates could use a lot more information about how artists themselves and the contributions of artists are valued by other community members. If you think about it, Jo, we know that beyond the spirit of discovery, experimentation, and inquiry that artists bring to their lives and careers, artists can occupy many different roles, often in other industries, for example, as teaching artists, artists working in healthcare settings, or even in business, science, or government. But to what extent do people encounter artists in their towns and neighborhoods? Do they think of artists as having a positive effect on community life? And did this perception change after the pandemic took hold? These are the kinds of questions the researchers sought to answer.

Jo Reed: Okay, well, before you get into the results, can you tell me a little bit more about why, in the researcher's opinion, the public perception of artists is important to questions around cultural policy?

Sunil Iyengar: Sure. I mean, obviously, if you're going to advocate for the arts, you want to be able to point to public support for the work of artists. This may also help to advance arguments about wages and compensation for artists and show the degree to which they're held in esteem by members of the community. But this particular study comes at an interesting time. There have been, in the last several years, in a number of different locations, economic and community development programs involving artists and creative workers, essentially artist employment programs that follow in the footsteps of the Works Progress Administration, you know, at the time of the New Deal. We saw some of this in the pandemic, and we also saw funders support COVID relief programs for artists. You may also remember, Jo, news stories that sometimes depict artists as frontline workers, bringing healing to their communities and mitigating loneliness and isolation. I think the study authors wanted to know how all these factors may have registered in the public consciousness as far as artists being deemed integral to community life.

Jo Reed: Okay, so what did they find?

Sunil Iyengar: In 2019, when people were asked whether they had seen or interacted with artists during the prior 12 months, 57.8% said yes to that question. In 2022, the figure was down to 47.5%.

Jo Reed: Oh, so it declined.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, and the authors say they aren't surprised by this finding because of COVID-related restrictions and closures in the interim period, which, as we've said before on this podcast, acutely stressed employment in arts industries and general participation in the arts in 2021 and 2022.

Jo Reed: That makes sense, but before we go on, how are we defining artists?

Sunil Iyengar: Great question. At the NEA, we relied largely on census and the Department of Labor numbers and definitions of occupations. So, for example, we track 11 different artist jobs, ranging from architects and designers to visual craft and media artists to writers and announcers and all kinds of performing artists and entertainers. But because of those Labor definitions, however, those workers are counted only if the most number of hours they worked in a given week was, in fact, one of these artists' jobs. By this measure, we estimate there are more than 2 million artists in the U.S. The study I'm referencing, though, uses a more generous frame for inviting survey respondents to think about artists. People who took the survey were told upfront that artists include, quote, “a variety of people who do different kinds of artistic, creative, and cultural activities.” The instructions acknowledge that survey takers may think of famous people or celebrities when they hear the word artist, but the survey is more concerned with artists that folks may run into in their local communities.

Jo Reed: Okay, so with this survey, the artists need not have been professional or working as an artist for money.

Sunil Iyengar: Correct. In fact, many public perceptions about whether local artists are workers or essentially hobbyists stayed constant between the two survey years. That is, in both 2019 and 2022, roughly 30% of adults perceived artists in their community as creating or performing art as a hobby, while just a slightly lower percentage, 27, reported in both years they deemed local artists as wage earners and workers. On the other hand, there was a decline over this period in the share of adults who saw local artists as teaching others how to create. This could have been, as the authors note, because of widespread closures of schools and other learning programs at the height of the pandemic. But going back to the public perception of artists as wage earners, interestingly, this perception was positively correlated with another view about artists, namely the idea that local artists make their communities better places to live. In other words, you were more likely to hold this position if you also viewed artists as workers or wage earners.

Jo Reed: Okay, so sticking with that question, how people think about artists as making life better in their communities, what did the survey show there?

Sunil Iyengar: So here's the payoff for arts advocates and champions of artists as workers and citizens. Nearly two out of three respondents shared the opinion that, quote, “Artists who work or live in their area make it better to live,” and roughly one third affirmed that it doesn't necessarily make communities better, but artists certainly don't make them worse. Of note, those percentages didn't change significantly from 2019 to 2022. In 2022, however, over half of adults expressed the perception that artists uniquely contribute to U.S. communities healing and recovery from the pandemic. Fifty three percent in open-ended responses offered specific ways that artists promote that healing and recovery. I will say, Jo, that one of the surprises of the study to me is that it found virtually zero differences in social or demographic characteristics as playing a factor in the likelihood of respondents to identify positively with artists. As the authors say, quote, “Most adults in the United States across its many socio demographic groups and perceptions of artists, roles, and communities view artists as being able to contribute to the healing and recovery of communities directly and positively from the pandemic.”

Jo Reed: Well, that does seem to be good news for how artists are viewed in public policy circles.

Sunil Iyengar: Yes, I think it is and, to that end, I'm keen to watch the panels and presentations at the January 30th NEA Summit called “Healing, Bridging, Thriving: A Summit on Arts and Culture in Our Communities.” That event will be co-hosted by the White House Domestic Policy Council, where I'm sure the function of artists as change agents helping communities to thrive will be one of the many topics discussed.

Jo Reed: And listeners will be able to watch the live webcast of the summit. And you know what? We'll have a link in our show notes.

Sunil Iyengar: That's great.

Jo Reed: Sunil-- Sunil, thank you so much.

Sunil Iyengar: A pleasure.

Jo Reed: That was Sunil Iyengar. He's the Director of Research and Analysis here at the National Endowment for the Arts. You've been listening to Quick Study. The music is “We Are One” from Scott Holmes Music. It's licensed through Creative Commons. Until next month, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

In today’s episode of Quick Study, we consider evolving public perceptions of artists as community members and change-makers, based on nationally representative survey data.

Here’s a link to the January 30th summit Healing, Bridging, Thriving: A Summit on Arts and Culture in our Communities co-hosted by the White House Domestic Policy Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.