From Living Life Laid Off to Working Artist?

by Mariam Williams

I recently learned that a friend of a friend has joined the self-reinvention effort in the face of the national economic freefall. She’s decided to go back to school to study fashion design. With her engineering career taking a hard hit, the friend of a friend figures that if she’s going to have to go back to school and reinvent herself, she might as well study something for which she has a passion.

I understand her logic, encourage her efforts, and even applaud her zeal, but something concerns me about all of us who have decided to use our country’s present catastrophe as an opportunity to pursue our artistic passions: where will we find jobs in our new respective fields?

As a life-long artist, I’ve confronted this conundrum many times, and it has undoubtedly contributed to why I’m not further along as a dancer, writer, painter, playwright, screenwriter, or actress. (Yes, I’ve dreamed about, thrown money at, and at some point received formal instruction in all of those areas.) I want to follow my passion(s), but I want to get paid for it (them) too. I believe I should do what I’ve been designed to do and use the gifts I’ve been blessed with, but I also want to satiate, or at least periodically feed, that side of my personality that craves the material things that only about 1% or so of those whose only full-time job is to do what I like to do, can afford to buy. I would rather get paid to do what I love than to, as another friend and artist put it, “work full-time to support my theater habit.”

“Making it” as an artist is difficult in large part because art is subjective, and not just in terms of whether it is good or bad, pretty or ugly, or liked or disliked. What constitutes an artist as one who has “made it”? Fame? Money? Mainstream acceptance? Staying true to your art even though it will cost you more than you make for the rest of your life and only your close inner circle knows your name?

Art is even subjective in terms of whether or not it’s a necessity, especially in a society whose economy is eroding. When President Obama was still the President Elect, my mother sent me an online petition to support the formation of a new cabinet post: Secretary of the Arts. Legendary music mogul Quincy Jones, quoted as saying he plans to “beg” President Obama to establish the post, is among major supporters who also include the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts. Over 200,000 people have signed the petition so far.

NPR’s story on the possibility of the cabinet position also included the dissenting voice of David Smith, a professor of American history and the author of Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy. His concern, and that of at least one blogger, is that art and government beget censorship and jeopardize artistic freedom. Many who commented on the NPR story had another concern: the cabinet position would be a waste of taxpayers’ money because we just don’t need it.

The latter concern is one reason the major supporters would argue the opposite. From what I gather (see links at the end), their focus seems to be three-fold:

  1. Increase cohesiveness. The Secretary of the Arts or Department of Culture would connect the State Department, Department of Education, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities, the Library of Congress, and the Institute of Museums and Library Services.
  2. Increase the U.S.’s visibility on the world arts stage.
  3. Educate the U.S. masses about the value of art and artists in American society.

The focus is on arts organizations and the public, but the educational aspect may be paramount to individual artists. Supporters of a senior-level culture official are looking for someone to tell the public that “nonprofit arts organizations and their audiences generate $166.2 billion in economic activity every year; support 5.7 million jobs; and return nearly $30 billion in local, state, and federal government revenue every year” (Americans for the Arts). They want the public to know that the U.S. had arts ambassadors during the Cold War, and to see, as Quincy Jones does, that “the arts have a spiritual benefit that Americans need,” and that our “emotional defense is just as important” as our military defense.

I want someone who can do number three AND create jobs for artists. If you’re not an artist, you may not know this, but art, in all its forms, is a fiercely competitive field. A 2008 report from the NEA found that about 2 million Americans identify themselves as working artists. The total number of active duty and reserve U.S. military personnel at the time of the NEA’s report was 2.2 million. Because I know that our “emotional defense” will never be seen as important as our military defense, I won’t address the difference in federal funding between the two groups.

I will, however, address federal funding of the arts in the recently-signed stimulus bill, AKA the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Here’s the good news for arts organizations, according to a press release from Americans for the Arts: “The National Endowment for the Arts will distribute $50 million of the stimulus funds to arts projects in all 50 states which specifically preserve jobs in the nonprofit arts sector that have been most hurt by the economic downturn. … Additionally … the final version removes the Senate ban on state and local governments from using any of the recovery funds to benefit museums, theaters, and art centers.”

Here’s the bad news: I didn’t see anything about art or artists on Congressman John Yarmuth’s (D-KY, 3rd District) link showing highlights of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for Louisville and the state of Kentucky. (I guess that since Louisville’s Fund for the Arts exceeded its 2008 campaign goals by 13.8%, we’re doing okay without federal money. On the other hand, 26,000 of the Fund’s donors gave from their workplace, and unemployment is up to almost 8% now.) Also, typing “art” in the search box on yielded no results. Neither did “national endowment arts,” which means that if any money for the arts is in there, it’s not highlighted among the details most people want to know, and if it’s not highlighted, it’s not that important to American society right now.*

That’s unfortunate because the NEA’s study also found that there are about 300,000 part time or seasonal artists in the U.S., and they didn’t count adults who love their art, but very rarely get paid for it. Artists who don’t work full-time as artists compete for many of the same federal, state, and local grants as full-time artists do. That money – plus the public’s disposable income and wealthy art lovers’ charitable contributions – is how the Louisville Metro Area supports over 30 community theaters while the producers, directors, performers, and crew members go to work at their “real” jobs each day. A grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women is how I paid my own artist fees to adapt a screenplay into a stage play while I worked two part-time jobs in 2007. And keep in mind that the jobs in the non-profit art sector and at museums, theaters, and art centers that will get funding could just as well be administrative staff positions as they could be artists. A well-known, well-endowed theater here in Louisville has 18 people on its artistic staff roster, 58 crew members, and 49 administrative staff members. That doesn’t count interns who do the work for college credit.

We live in a society in which art is undervalued. Even as I write with new fervor, launch a freelance writing service, and hope that the 65,000+ media and advertising jobs that have disappeared since the beginning of the recession return, I think about how so many new artists will support themselves, and I wonder if a Secretary of the Arts could save me from living life laid off.


*To see provisions for the arts, go to and see pages 57-58 of the entire ARRA bill.

© Mariam Williams, aka The Pink-Slipped Girl, and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mariam Williams and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off or, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Any use and/or duplication of any photo contained within this blog without express and written permission from Mariam Williams is strictly prohibited.


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Filed under Arts and Culture, Economy, Health, Layoffs, Lifestyles, Mental & Emotional Health, money, Recession, stimulus bill, Unemployment

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