Jaime’s Elephant

In the midst of the blogosphere’s reaction to Rocco Landesman’s remarks about supply and demand, Jaime Dempsey of the Arizona Commission on the Arts opened the door on an important issue for artists that is too often ignored.  With her permission, I excerpt large portions of her open letter to Chairman Landesman here:

…. I for one take serious comfort in the uncomfortable conversations. It is high time the American arts sector takes steps to shape and direct its destiny, rather than waiting for external forces to decide its fate.

Still two of your assertions gave me pause. [Only one of them is excerpted here. For the full post, click here.]

Regarding “examining our arts infrastructure”:

Your post stated that we’ve got “5.7 million arts workers in this country and two million artists.” I’ve already seen these figures making the rounds in blogs and comments. … I find these figures to be intensely troubling, for several reasons.

The first of which is that, while the idea of outsized bureaucracies at the expense of populist opportunity in any sector causes a lot of political and social excitement, in this context, it is misleading at best. There are several factors contributing to the lopsided administrators vs. artists ratio which are widespread and broadly accepted. These factors, more than the figures themselves, require deeper consideration by arts leaders and policymakers.

Studies of arts sector jobs tend to broadly count arts workers and narrowly count artists. “Arts workers” counts often include architects, advertising professionals, graphic designers – certainly artists in their own rights but definitely not administrators of nonprofit arts programs, people who presumably we’re talking about when considering the nonprofit arts infrastructure and the potential redistribution of the arts dollar.

….I suspect most American artists don’t derive their primary income from their creative pursuits, and I strongly suppose most people do refer to the source of their primary income when asked about their careers. … I suspect many of the 5.7 million arts administrators are themselves artists who derive their primary income from work in the nonprofit arts sector. Or even more likely, that any census of professional employment is full of artists whose primary income is derived from other sectors entirely.

…None of these individuals would list “artist” as their primary occupation, yet all contribute greatly to what Bill Ivey is calling the “expressive lives” of their communities. There just aren’t enough opportunities, or enough demand, you might say, in Arizona communities – and I think in most communities – to make a living wage with reasonable safety nets as an artist at this time.

And still we have to talk about the elephant in the room: access to affordable health care and some modicum of professional security can now literally mean the difference between life and death, for artists and everyone else. One only has to look to the issues currently facing states’ public healthcare rolls to get a sense of what can happen to friends and neighbors who find themselves ill and out of work.

Art works, yes, but if you are an artist with relationships – anyone depending on you – or you aren’t blessed with good health for the entirety of your life, and you need a life that works, you must have access to the safety nets often only accessible through an employer. (Thank heavens for Fractured Atlas and all of the resources they provide related to this issue.) If affordable health care were in greater supply in this country, I suspect the number of Americans who would choose “artist” as their primary profession would increase substantially.

Inside and outside of the arts, policymakers are unwise to underestimate the ways that an absence of affordable health care prevents Americans from engaging in creative, entrepreneurial risk – in a time when we need the leadership of creative entrepreneurs most.

Thank you for opening the doors to this conversation.

Jaime Dempsey
Deputy Director
Arizona Commission on the Arts

Jaime’s elephant, that the self-employed entrepreneur, be they artist or inventor, does not have access to affordable healthcare is an infrastructure lacuna that negatively affects all of us, both within and without the arts sector.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is director of Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Programs at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, including its award-winning arts entrepreneurship program, Pave: http://pave.asu.edu The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of ASU. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix and "like" the Pave Program in Arts Entrepreneurship at http://www.facebook.com/pages/pave-program-in-arts-entrepreneurship/386328970101 Find Pave's journal, Artivate, at http://artivate.org
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5 Responses to Jaime’s Elephant

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