LOS ANGELES — In early February, artist Tatiana Vahan launched a Los Angeles Artist Census — something that makes a lot of sense in the exploding Angeleno art community. In addition to being an effort in data collection, Vahan also sees the census as “a social practice art project” that could help Los Angeles artists empower themselves. The survey, which serves to “identify and map the needs of local artists,” is the first of its kind in a city whose artist population ranked in at number one nationwide in 2017 and continues to rapidly expand.
When Vahan came up with the idea for the census, she had just come off the heels of a successful grant fundraising project, bar-fund, in which she, along with a team of artist volunteers, raised a total of $17,635.24 tending bar at local art events. This money was then redistributed in the form of 15 artist grants given out over the past two years. Averaging just over 1,200 dollars each, the individual grants were relatively small, and, while not specifically need-based, bar-fund did contain questions pertaining to finances, asking applicants if they had a day job or if they were looking for work. The tales that followed, of applicant’s financial woes derived largely from the inability to find adequate employment, shocked Vahan.
“That same day I was looking over applications I saw an article in the LA Times about the Hammer receiving 50 million dollars in gifts for its expansion,” said Vahan, “and I knew there was a need for this [census], that there was a disconnect between local artists and direct financial support.” Vahan is careful to say that the census is not about villainizing or downplaying the importance of the Hammer or any other art institution, rather that she looks forward to working with institutions and other spaces to support local artists on multiple levels. In February, they canvassed at Los Angeles’s Frieze Art Fair, and Vahan also recently partnered with the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA), whose new programming space, the Field Workshop, is currently hosting the census’ office. She remains vague about specifics but says that in the future she would “like to create a platform from which artists can organize and fundraise,” and is looking into possibilities for creating an endowment.
Vahan looks to projects such as Project Row Houses in Houston as a model for how a piece can transition from a personal passion project to one run by and for the community, and readily admits that she is “learning as I go.” For instance, while initially she and her question-building team — made up largely of local artists and arts professionals like Corrina Peipon, Agnes Bolt, and Eric Andrew Carter — attempted to write the census collectively, they quickly realized that getting 10-plus artists to agree on the semantics of every question was unsustainable and instead split into pairs and reviewed, rather than wrote, the questions together in the end.
The questions focus largely on financial data, and range anywhere from the fairly expected “For how long have you been making your artwork?” and “How closely related is your current paid job or work experience to your art educational training?” to the more loaded “To what extent do you feel burdened by your debt payments?” and “Have you ever been displaced due to a ‘no-fault’ or ‘no-cause’ eviction in Los Angeles County?” — a practice common in neighborhoods being actively gentrified.
When asked about possible uses for the data, Vahan points to this last question, suggesting that this kind of information could be used by organizations such as the LA Tenants Union in the future; however, no such talks are currently under way. Like many art projects, the census has more potential than practical uses at this stage of its life, and how the information it collects will manifest concretely remains to be seen.
The survey for the Los Angeles Art Census can be found on the website.
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