04/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Artists Face Tough Times In Economic Downturn

All of us are worried about the economy. All of us know people who have lost their jobs, or young people who can't find jobs. Endowments are down at universities and foundations; savings and retirement funds are down for individual Americans. Day to day, decision by decision, life is harder for many of us than it has been in a long time. But two recent studies reveal that a bad situation is even worse for our performing and visual artists.

Studies by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) show that unemployment among artists rose sharply in the last months of 2008. There were 50,000 more unemployed artists in the fourth quarter of 2008 than in the fourth quarter of 2007, an increase of 61 percent in a one-year period. The artist unemployment rate was twice that of other professional groups. And many individual artists simply left the arts workforce during this time, which suggests an even higher unemployment rate than is otherwise reported. These findings are dramatized in another study by a Ford Foundation initiative, Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC). LINC's researchers found that slightly more than half of the employed artists in the country experienced drops in income from 2008 to 2009; 18 percent of the artists surveyed said that their incomes were down by 50 percent or more. Things are bad, but things are worse for artists.

Remarkably, in times like these, extraordinary ideas are often born and become realities. In the depths of the depression, Roosevelt's New Deal included programs in the arts which were actually the federal government's first concrete and coordinated effort to support cultural life and cultural contributions to the country's well-being. The Public Works of Art project (PWAP) and the Treasury Department's "Section of Fine Arts" employed artists to work in public buildings--schools, museums, government buildings--creating paintings, murals, sculptures, facades and design. In 1935, The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created to put the unemployed back to work. It added workers in music, theater, writing and increased employment for visual artists, architects and designers.

According to cultural writers Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard, within a very short time, "some 40,000 WPA artists and cultural workers were employed in projects throughout the United States." The artists worked in communities large and small, inspiring local arts, engaging with children, honoring the stories, sounds, personalities and diverse traditions that made up America. They were paid to inspire, to educate, to illuminate realities and raise hopes. In the depths of our own time, Obama and the federal government could think about doing something just as imaginative, just as useful, to help artists and the country.

There have already been some steps in this direction, actually. Obama's campaign "Platform in Support of the Arts" (an unusual and much lauded document from a presidential candidate) reads in part that he "....supports the creation of an 'Artists Corps' of young artists trained to work in low-income schools and their communities." That idea, it is said, is being studied now by the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

In the financial stabilization initiatives that characterized the new administration in its very first months in office, fifty million dollars was assigned to the NEA specifically to preserve jobs in the cultural sector. This is important thinking that verges on a big idea--the idea that artists need jobs, and that when they have jobs they serve the society dynamically. Not only do artists add art and cultural product to American communities, but also--as studies and innovative programs by the NEA and Americans for the Arts demonstrate--artists and designers and architects make dynamic contributions to the country's infrastructure, providing ideas and inspiration to repairs, renovations, transportation systems, buildings, construction. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has been particularly active in enlisting artists in the revamping of their communities and in adding artists and designers and architects to America's spaces and places. The point is that bad times provide an incentive to take a big idea like the WPA seriously again, to put it into action in a broad and inclusive way.

This could be a big idea that prevails even beyond bad times. Even in the best of times, artists are amongst our most underpaid and under-rewarded citizens. Two-thirds of the artists responding to the LINC survey report incomes of under $40,000 in a good year, and most artists hold down "day jobs" in addition to doing their own work just to reach that mark. Artists, according to the NEA, are generally more educated than the workforce as a whole, but they earn less than workers with similar levels of education. Fewer artists have full-time jobs than other workers. They are three and a half times more likely to be self-employed--without the benefits that can come with other jobs. Good times or bad, artists must frequently be satisfied with less.

What does this mean? By generating jobs for artists now, in this economy, we can help to meet immediate needs. But we can achieve much more. Placing artists, designers and architects in jobs in their neighborhoods, in cultural centers, in public spaces, in parks and schools and hospitals, in construction and repair sites or wherever they are needed will help them and help our communities in this time of trouble. But we may also find that this is a good idea at any time. Perhaps an experiment now in employing, placing and trusting artists will actually lead to a program in doing this, in changing the status and usefulness of our artist citizens in the good days to come.

WPA might stand for "We Pay Artists." In doing so, we demonstrate our appreciation for them as citizens, as contributors to democracy, as purveyors of knowledge, expression and aspiration, and as builders of our infrastructure.