Photo above: Featuring artist, Chris Jones. Photo by Ish Holmes
By Jessyca Holland, Executive Director, C4 Atlanta
Do you know an artist? Maybe a friend or a cousin? Do you remember when a song expressed in verse and music what you could never express in words alone? Do you ever think about the power behind the iconic images of Tiananmen Square and The March on Washington? An artist was there to capture those moments. When you see a mural, or a live performance do you think about an artist who woke up, hugged her kids or a loved one, packed a lunch, and went to work? Art and culture permeate the fabric of our daily lives – but what about the artists who create the work you experience every day?
Back in November, the Atlanta Regional Commission held a forum to highlight the findings of the 2017 Arts & Economic Prosperity Study. The report highlights were specific to the city of Atlanta and metro area arts nonprofits. The results painted a picture of a strong economic sector, the kind of data that we as advocates often use to justify the importance of our industry. However, one question during the Q&A portion of the forum stood out to me. Angela Harris, Founder of Dance Canvas, asked if the numbers about employment included data about livable wage. My organization, C4 Atlanta, has a vision for Atlanta artists to earn a living making art. To say that we also think about wage is an understatement. We think about how our organization and partners help artists to go from surviving to thriving. Do the people making art earn enough money to buy homes, raise children, buy food, and pay bills?
Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data combined with National Endowment for the Arts findings show that arts workers earn about $11,000 less annually than their peers with the same amount of education. Same education. Same student loans. While there is very little data about artists’ wage in Atlanta, we do know that many of the artists (if not most) earn money by freelancing. We also know that artists are typically underemployed, not unemployed. Artists work on a freelance basis in all of the industries represented in Atlanta, yet they are severely underinsured. Juxtapose this against the economic impact of arts and culture in metro Atlanta. The numbers we like to cite are only as good as the questions we are asking. Wage is an important indicator of a strong economy, and when it comes to peoples’ livelihoods, we could be asking better questions.
Artists bring so much more to our community than we may realize. There are artists working to comfort children in hospitals, artists honoring our civil rights leaders, artists using their voices to bring awareness to social issues—they are the place-makers and the place-keepers of Atlanta culture. I know artists who work in prisons to address recidivism, and artists who create moments of delight for all to share. There are artists coming through the ranks in Atlanta now and if they cannot earn here, they won’t stay here. What part of our cultural identity will we sacrifice if we cannot attract and retain artists, who in turn attract and retain a creative workforce vital to our growth as a city?
Years ago I was at a state-wide conference and we were asked to learn the name of just one local farmer. So my suggestion: learn the name of one local artist (who isn’t famous). You will learn about a person who works long hours and who is highly skilled. Today’s economy presents artists with many hidden opportunities. C4 Atlanta is proud to offer artists the skills and tools they need to navigate a confusing landscape to find and pursue those opportunities. Our hope is that other sectors will begin to see artists like they see other workers—as people who working every day to achieve a little piece of the best Atlanta has to offer.