Thursday, February 3, 2011

Has the recession been good for artists?

Actually, in many ways, yes

Posted By on Thu, Feb 3, 2011 at 2:40 PM

click to enlarge Cinqué Hicks - JOEFF DAVIS

Recession? What recession?

According to conventional wisdom, Atlanta's arts scene should be all but dead. As the story goes, when economic times are hard, arts and culture are the first activities to get the heave-ho as private and public belt tightening squeeze the life out of artists and nonprofit arts organizations.

But there's a problem with the conventional wisdom: exactly the opposite appears to be happening. A casual look around Atlanta reveals that after years of deep freeze, more arts projects are springing up in the city than any time in recent history.

A groundswell of new arts organizations is enlivening Atlanta from the bottom up. Scarcely a week goes by that some new arts production group, some new publication, festival or financial support vehicle isn't announcing that they've arrived on the scene. And although it's true that Atlanta's legacy arts institutions recently have suffered cutbacks and hardships, the once unspeakable idea that new arts activities might be fueled by the down economy is starting to seem more plausible.

click to enlarge BurnAway raised funds at the "Lot and Parcel" exhibition last June - JASON TRAVIS
  • Jason Travis
  • BurnAway raised funds at the "Lot and Parcel" exhibition last June

To name a few notable new entrants that have come up as the economy has gone down: Virtual gallery Dashboard Co-op provides a platform for new artists. NEXT Atlanta does the same for a smaller number, but wider variety of new artists. The Westside Arts District formally unites several galleries in an area already becoming a significant commercial and leisure destination.

New organizations to support art activities have emerged in the form of Possible Futures, a philanthropic outlet; arts research group C4; the Creative Community Housing Project, an extension of the Atlanta Creatives Project; community arts center WonderRoot; and the National Black Arts Festival's new art collector's guild.

New arts events range from the tongue-in-cheek World Wide Art Federation art battles to the increasingly serious Gather Atlanta to the family friendly Midtown Festival of the Arts.

A flurry of new art prizes (Artadia, Hudgens, and MOCA-GA's Working Artists Grants); public art initiatives (Art on the Beltline, Luminocity Atlanta and Flux Projects); and new publications and websites (CommonCreativ and BurnAway with its newly minted 501(c)(3) nonprofit status) have all fueled a growing flame.

SCAD's deFine Art program this year will bring performance artist Marina AbramoviÄ , new media artist Paul D. Miller, and others to Atlanta for a week of lectures and performances. And even the High Museum has been splashing around in the local art pool with a series of parties and events specifically designed to showcase Atlanta talent.

And this is just in the visual arts. Similar energy has enlivened the local literary, theater, dance and music communities as well.

"National Arts Index 2010," a new report released in January by national arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts, says that Atlanta's not alone in the proliferation of new organizations. Nationwide, the number of arts support groups and nonprofits continues to rise as it has done since Americans for the Arts began keeping track more than a decade ago. Although researchers do expect a dip when the most recent figures become available, the ability of arts organizations to multiply in a variety of funding climates is remarkable.

The number of working artists nationwide has also risen steadily for the last 10 years. And — you might want to sit down for this — the incomes of artists in inflation-adjusted dollars have risen modestly through the recession, even as other workers' incomes have remained flat or fallen.

Among arts advocates it's a truism that more funding from big sources — governments or corporations — leads to more, not to say better, art. But the recent increases in creative activity have all come at a time when state and local funding for the arts has been in steep decline, and federal funding has remained relatively stagnant, according to the report. Corporate funding and most sources of private philanthropy have been on the wane as well. In fact, foundation funding has been the single dramatic exception to this rule.

So have we had it wrong all along? Does major funding inhibit rather than encourage grassroots art activities? That's almost certainly going too far. But these figures do show that the straight line often drawn between big funding and healthy arts communities in actuality has a good deal more bends and kinks in the path.

Even the Americans for the Arts report suggests that the dominant nonprofit model as we've known it may be nearing the end of its life; it recommends that organizations adapt and try out new forms as entrepreneurial arts incubators and nonprofit/for-profit hybrids. Atlanta itself has seen the arts thrive with the help of relatively small-scale funders and grassroots efforts, such as Louis Corrigan's Flux Projects and Greg Spence's Addo Foundation that are able to deploy limited resources efficiently, meaningfully and with surgical precision.

To be sure, it's also worth noting that the "Index" measures quantities, not qualities, of art. The report has no indicators for "creative riskiness" or "extent to which art encouraged the thinking of new thoughts." The report tells us that there are more artists around; but it doesn't tell us if they're making anything worth seeing and hearing.

Still, whatever the long-term pattern turns out to be, the "Index" shows that artists are finding ways to not only survive, but to thrive in difficult economic terrain. As those of us who care about the long-term health of the arts contemplate the road ahead, we must remember that the funding equation is a complex one whose players and roles will necessarily change over time. In order to seize opportunity we must be willing to look for it in new places and with new eyes.

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