The idea of the “starving artist” still looms large in the cultural unconscious, particularly in a city like Los Angeles, where creatives are engines of the economy. Prior to the pandemic, according to Otis College’s annual Report on the Creative Economy, creative industry workers generated $203.2 billion in total economic output in Los Angeles.
The trope of the impoverished artist—a person who struggles to pay rent, works multiple dead-end jobs to make ends meet, dodges bill collectors—romanticizes the idea that financial instability is an intrinsic part of an artist’s life. It also perpetuates the notion that artists must create work for the sake of art alone, with little expectation of monetary reward.
For Tatiana Vahan, the tension between the economic precarity of many artists’ lives and the enormous capital they generate in L.A., became the subject of a project that is part data investigation, part art project, and part advocacy. Launched and fielded one month before the pandemic began, the L.A. Artist Census provides a snapshot of the economic insecurity felt by a large swath of artists in the city.
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Vahan was inspired to launch the survey when she read about the Hammer Museum’s $180 million planned expansion and the $750 million renovation underway at LACMA. “Artists create the content for this industry—the artwork and programming—but they have no safety net,” says Vahan. “What is the responsibility of these institutions to the artists they supposedly serve? That was the fire for me.”
The results of the survey are a snapshot of the art community’s struggle for financial stability even before COVID-19 shut down galleries and museums across the city. “My gut is that it’s worse [now], says Vahan, citing how many artists had to leave L.A. because of job loss. Otis backs up her suspicion, reporting the fine and performing arts in L.A. lost 15,900 jobs because of the pandemic. According to Vahan, many of the artists who remained were lucky enough to have support from their families, or “are good at roughing it, but that doesn’t mean they should,” explains Vahan. “Do we want an art scene that only has generational wealth?”
For collaborator Cobi Krieger, who serves as managing director of the L.A. Artist Census, the survey may be the starting point for a larger conversation about the nature of institutional—and, by extension, societal—protection for artists. “The infrastructure to support artists doesn’t do much to offer any sort of sustainability. That says something about society,” says Krieger.
“Do we want an art scene that only has generational wealth?”
Even before the pandemic, the financial outlook was bleak for artists. According to the L.A. Artist Census, 51 percent of artists were looking for work and for those with jobs, 49 percent had no employment benefits, 61 percent had no paid sick leave, and more than three-quarters had no paid time off at all.
While Los Angeles has never been an affordable city, artists face even more economic challenges than most. The two biggest challenges cited by respondents were cost of living (61 percent) and housing affordability (47 percent). Healthcare is also a challenge with two out of five respondents reporting they had difficulty affording or accessing healthcare.
Nearly a third of artists (30 percent) reported they went without a basic necessity because of a lack of funds, and of those, 61 percent chose to forego healthcare or medicine, 44 percent went without food, and 28 percent lacked housing.
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The survey was intended to be open for three months but was closed when the pandemic hit for fear of skewing the results too greatly. Despite pulling the survey from the field early, the L.A. Artist Census still received over 2,000 responses. Vahan hopes to repeat the survey soon—in both English and Spanish—to be able to collect longitudinal data on the impact of COVID-19 on artists.
This isn’t Vahan’s first foray into art as a social practice. In 2018 she launched Bar Fund, an initiative that pooled tips from volunteer bartenders at art events and museum openings to redistribute the funds, creating a community-based alternative to traditional grant opportunities. Like Bar Fund, which was artist-driven and artist-decided, the survey for the L.A. Artist Census was also written by artists to answer questions institutions may be wary of asking, such as how many nonprofit arts organization fundraisers they have donated work to and the value of the work.
These kinds of questions have a significant impact for artists. Vahan and her collaborators want to explore the disparity between artists and the rest of the art world. For instance, when artists donate their work to a fundraiser, they can deduct the value of the materials such as paint and canvas used to create the work but if collectors donate the same work, they can deduct the value of the work itself—a huge tax advantage that accrues to the collector class rather than the artists creating the work.
Vahan’s hope for the L.A. Artist Census is that it doesn’t just expose the economic vulnerability of artists but that it becomes a trusted, reliable, and citable resource for artists, public policy wonks, and academics. According to Vahan, many of the respondents had shown at museums or had gallery representation yet were still experiencing financial instability. Ultimately, the data is a starting point.
“It’s a building block for infrastructure and funding,” Vahan says. “If we don’t have the data, institutions providing funding don’t know what they’re giving it to. This helps shed light.”
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