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Daniel Grant

Daniel Grant

Posted: May 19, 2010 04:14 PM

How Do You Define 'Artist'?

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The question of what is art has long occupied theorists and philosophers, but the issue of who or what is an artist is no less vexing. The topic arises for studio or residential space set aside exclusively for artists or when artists are counted in a census or required to pay income taxes. Then, there are surveys done by economic, social and cultural researches (artists' employment, artists' health care coverage and needs, the economic benefits of creative communities, and other related enquiries) that create a methodological problem for those looking for information. As opposed to other occupations that require a license, permits, state testing or even reported income, the label artist seems more like a value judgment, which is why employees of tattoo parlor (tattoo artists), comedians and exotic dancers (performance artists), chefs (culinary artists) and graffiti artists have all claimed the mantle at one time or another.
An artist is someone who makes art. Societies of artists have perhaps the loosest definitions, admitting new members on the basis of the quality of an individual's work or, in some cases, simply paying annual dues. According to the bylaws of the National Watercolor Society, "Associate Membership is open to anyone," and the same is true at the American Watercolor Society, as well as the Florida Watercolor Society and the Garden State Watercolor Society, with the only exception that those last two groups require members to be state residents. There are generally two levels of membership - associate and signature, the latter requiring juried selection of an individual's work into one or more of the group's shows and would more clearly identify that person as an accomplished artist - but the hierarchical distinctions between the two designations (the signature member has the right to vote at board meetings and may use of a society's initial letters after his or her name) appear to matter more to other artists in the same realm than to anyone else, such as collectors, gallery owners, critics, curators, researchers, the government. There is no requirement in any of these groups that the creator of the art be a full-time artist or even have any professional aspirations. Missie Dickens, for instance, a past president of Watercolor USA Honor Society, earns her living as a registered nurse, painting in her spare time.
An artist is on the job. The federal government identifies artists as professionals in two separate ways. The Bureau of the Census (whose date is used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Endowment for the Arts and other agencies) makes a broad national survey every 10 years, inquiring among other things about sources of paid employment during the census week. People with more than one source of income are counted occupationally in the job at which they worked the greatest number of hours during the census reference week. Because the focus is on paid employment, rather than the amount of time spent in the studio or a desire to sell art, many artists are likely to be overlooked - that is, not counted as artists. On an individual basis, this doesn't matter - census information is kept confidential, and no dealers will throw artists out of their galleries, because the Census Bureau didn't classify them as artists - but there is a national policy downside. Municipal, state and federal legislators are less likely to appropriate money to the arts or to create laws that benefit artists is this group is significantly undercounted.
Artists exhibit art. Although the federal agency makes use of Census Bureau data, the National Endowment for the Arts has conducted its own surveys of artists in various visual and performing over the years. In the fine arts realm, its 1984 "Visual Artists in Four Cities" (Houston, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.) study identified artists by their level of activity, counting those who had exhibited in some gallery or other art space in those cities during the course of several years.
An artist turns a profit on his or her art. If the Census Bureau takes a sweeping view, the Internal Revenue Service takes a narrow one, examining individual taxpayers' returns, and the federal agencies has its own definition of artist as a professional. There are nine criteria that the IRS applies in order to separate professionals from hobbyists (professionals may deduct their expenses, hobbyists may not):
o Is the activity carried on in a businesslike manner?
o Does the artist intend to make the artistic activity profitable?
o Does the individual depend in pull or in part from income generated by the artistic work?
o Are business losses to be expected, or are they due to circumstances beyond the artist's control?
o Are business plans changed to improve profitability?
o Does the artist have the knowledge to make the activity profitable?
o Has the artist been successful in previous professional activities?
o Does the activity generate a profit in some years and, if so, how much of one?
o Will the artist make a profit in the future?
The artist need not answer "yes" to every question in order to legitimately deduct business-related expenses - including art supplies and equipment, studio rental, travel (mileage, airfare, parking, tolls, meals and lodging), educational expenses (conferences, master classes, museum membership) and the cost of advertising and promotion (business cards, brochures, photography, postage and shipping) - but the IRS demands proof that an artist make a genuine effort to earn a profit in three years out of a five-year span.
Artistic credentials, which don't usually matter to collectors, critics, dealers and curators, may help an artist make a case that he or she is a professional for tax purposes. These include earning a bachelor's or Master's degree in fine arts, membership in an artists' society, the experience of teaching art, inclusion in Who's Who in American Art or some similar directory and an exhibition history.
An artist is someone who requires an artist's studio. A variety of private and public agencies certify artists' eligibility to rent or buy live-work loft space apartments that have both residential and studio components. Artist Certification committees have been set up to evaluate applicants' need for space and their qualifications as serious, rather than professional, artists. According to artist certification guidelines of the Boston Redevelopment Authority in Massachusetts, "Any artist who can demonstrate to a committee of peers that they have a recent body of work as an artist, and who requires loft-style space to support that work, is eligible." The definition that these committees use is quite flexible, focusing on subjective factors ("...the nature of the commitment of the artist to his or her art form as his or her primary vocation rather than the amount of financial remuneration earned from his or her creative endeavor," in the words of the Artist Certification Committee of New York City's Department of Cultural Affairs) rather than a set of hard numbers (exhibitions, sales, awards, memberships, commissions), which would tend to disqualify most applicants. There is no written definition of artist at Artspace, the Minnesota-based developer of live-work spaces for artists around the country, and ad hoc certification committees at various sites look at applicants' work ("they're not making qualitative judgments, though," said Artspace spokeswoman Sarah Parker) and attempt to gauge the individual's reputation within the arts community.
An artist is someone whom funding agencies call an artist. Public agencies and private organizations also provide money for individual artists, but nary a one posts a definition of who an artist is. "We put this into the hands of our panel members," said Julie Gordon Dalgleish, program director for artist fellowships at the St. Paul, Minnesota-based Bush Foundation, which provides money for artists residing in Minnesota, North and South Dakota and certain counties in northwestern Wisconsin. "We exclude certain things," such as straight journalism from the literature category or instructional videos from the category of film and video, but "we accepted an application from someone who braids hair. We would look at a tattoo artist, if we felt there were a strong vision, creative energy and perseverance." By we, she meant the panels that review artists' applications for fellowships and decide who receives money. Panel members regularly debate the questions of whether or not a craft artist is an artist, but that topic has a decades-long history. More recent concerns involve new media, digital art that cross categories of two-dimensions and three-dimensions.
Similar to the certification committees, panelists examine artwork for its seriousness of commitment, but their primary goal is to determine what the artist wants money to do and if the artist has the experience to carry out his or her goals. The relevant credentials this time may be if the artist has completed a similar project in the past, received awards from other grant giving organizations and has established some sort of artistic reputation.
Artists are people who call themselves artists. According to Marcel Duchamp, the artist defines art, and it seems increasingly true that nowadays artists also define who and what they are. Definitions by nature are confining and restrictive, while art and its makers seek to be expansive and inclusive: It may be simpler to state what makes an artist a professional than what defines an artist. Artist has become a universal statement of creativity or, in the case of a culinary artist, someone who does something well. Socially, artists are often defined by the positive (freedom-loving, convention-defying) or negative (egotistical, bohemian) characteristics that other people attribute to them. Part of an artist's job is to understand how artists are seen and what is expected of them, whether that be a certification committee that wants to see the art, a funding source that wants to read an artist's proposal or the government that wants to see receipts.