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Artists in survival mode as market crumbles

As galleries cut back and sales plummet, many artists are struggling to scrape by with odd jobs.

By Matthew ShaerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 13, 2009

New York

BY ALL ACCOUNTS but one, Fred Cray is a successful, thriving multimedia artist. He studied at Yale University's prestigious graduate school and has several solo exhibitions under his belt. He is the recipient of the Pollock-Krasner grant, and in 2003, he won a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation. He lives in Brooklyn, in a three-story house with a rooftop garden, and spends up to 10 hours a day in his studio.

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Mr. Cray is represented by a well-regarded Manhattan gallery, and his work – when it sells – still commands a substantial price. But like many artists, he now lives in a state of alarm, threatened on one hand by the deepening recession and on the other by the cratering art market. The mood, he says, is "worse than anything I've ever experienced before. The severity of it is enough to induce panic."

Last week, the National Endowment for the Arts released research showing that artists are now unemployed at about twice the rate of other professional workers. Approximately 129,000 artists were out of work nationwide in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to the report – up 63 percent from the same period in 2007. The NEA estimated that the figures might have been worse had thousands of artists not left the workforce due to retirement, a desire to pursue outside opportunities, or general discouragement. And the forecast for the next few years is no brighter. Sunil Iyengar, the director of research and analysis at the NEA, said unemployment was a "lagging economic indicator," and that the figures can still rise even months or years after a general economic recovery. Artist unemployment, for instance, did not reach its zenith until two years after the 2001 recession, when the markets had regained their strength. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Sunil Iyengar's name.]

"There's a reason for the severity of these numbers," Mr. Iyengar said, referring to the NEA report as a whole. "Artists are entrepreneurs in terms of their employment character. They're the equivalent of small businesses – they require a lot more investment up front. They're already in a pretty precarious situation. And in a market like this, artists are really hit pretty hard."

Meanwhile, arts institutions across the country are struggling to stay afloat. According to USA Today, theaters from Utah to Kentucky are resorting to public pleas for financial assistance. In January, the Los Angeles Opera laid off 17 employees; that same month, the city's Museum of Contemporary Art announced plans to reduce staff by 20 percent. Here in New York, the world-renowned Carnegie Hall sliced its performance schedule by 10 percent.