Assessments of the cultural sector frequently center on the impact of artistic consumption on cities: on the myriad — and somewhat quantifiable — ways in which artistic and cultural offerings contribute to the urban economy, for example, or boost civic engagement. But what if metrics of cultural sector health were instead tied to the needs of artists, asking whether cities were fostering conditions adequately conducive to art-making and artists’ wellbeing?
A newly released sociological report by artist, writer, and Portland resident Bean Gilsdorf addresses this critical blind spot as it explores the detrimental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on artists in Portland’s metro area. Seeing Visual Artists: A Portland Pandemic Report synthesizes data from local visual artists with existing research in culture and economics. At 56 pages, the quantitative and qualitative study sheds light on the financial and psychological precarity experienced by art makers in Portland, a city that bills itself as a creative haven and is home to the fourth-highest concentration of artists in the US.
“This project was about connecting the dots,” Gilsdorf told Hyperallergic. “There’s so much information about art’s deep impact on individual and collective wellbeing, but it never seems to be contextualized with facts about who artists are and what they need to produce their work. Likewise, the civil advantages that art confers aren’t often linked to financial profiles such as the amount of money allotted to regional arts funding, or how much of a city’s economic progress can be attributed to the arts. My goal was to create a more comprehensive picture.”
For the report, which was published by the Center for Art Research at the University of Oregon with support from an Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, Gilsdorf administered a 16-question survey to Portland-based visual artists between March 29 and April 17, 2021. The 381 respondents, a statistically significant fraction of what Gilsdorf estimates to be a population of 4,294 visual artists in Portland, answered queries about the pandemic’s impact on their art practice, physical and mental health, financial security, and access to work and living spaces. Respondents had the opportunity to elaborate on their answers, and their words are interspersed throughout the report.
86% of artists surveyed felt that the pandemic had disrupted their practice. Mental health was a major issue, with 64% of respondents citing anxiety that affected their ability to produce artwork, and 58% citing depression. On top of having to take on additional caretaking responsibilities (23% of respondents, a group that was weighted toward women), artists experienced the cancellation of exhibitions (41%), public presentations (32%), and sales (12%). “This was the project of a lifetime and a heavy blow to lose,” one artist said of a rescinded commission.
“In addition to the concomitant loss of direct income, the cancellations of production residencies, combined artist-in-residence/teaching positions, visiting-lecturer positions, and other such opportunities may stall an artist’s career,” explained Gilsdorf in the report. Though she abstained from taking the survey herself, Gilsdorf told Hyperallergic that she personally experienced the loss of art-editing and writing gigs, a canceled solo show, and group shows that were either canceled or postponed.
Over a third of Gilsdorf’s respondents reported that studio space had been a serious concern over the past 12 months. About half of the artists surveyed said that they had trouble affording, or simply could not afford, a studio in Portland, where costs for commercial and domestic real estate alike are on the rise. Housing insecurity was another issue for some artists over the past year, with 18% of respondents characterizing it as a grave concern.
Only 8% of respondents said that their entire income came from their visual art practice. When asked how they earn money outside of art-making, 26% of those surveyed revealed that they had a full-time job, while 43% were part-time or gig workers. The latter category, already vulnerable by virtue of a dearth of job protections or healthcare benefits, saw employment opportunities dry up during the pandemic: 31% of respondents said that their freelance gigs and work contracts were cancelled.
Artists found themselves relying upon unemployment benefits, emergency grants from arts and cultural organizations, and personal assistance. Overall, 58% of respondents said that the pandemic had affected their employment. “Job security? None, and it could all evaporate,” said one respondent.
“How do we make a city that’s good for artists?” Gilsdorf asks in the report’s conclusion. And, specifically, what about a Portland that’s good for artists? Crucially, she first notes that putting basic social welfare measures in place — such as establishing affordable housing, ensuring job security and a living wage, and mitigating the burdens of health care and childcare — “will benefit artists among the general population, because the difficulties that many artists contend with are the same difficulties that all people in lower income brackets face.”
“Yet there are problems that are unique to artists, and the city needs to examine and acknowledge these as well,” Gilsdorf continues. Using research data, the report makes a series of recommendations tailored to the needs of artists, focusing on the spaces where they create and exhibit work, as well as the sources of funding upon which their art and livelihoods depend.
While 8% of respondents said that their practice didn’t require a studio, for many artists, securing an affordable, reliable space to work is essential. Citing a 2018 policy proposal that died on the vine, “A Plan for Preserving and Expanding Affordable Arts Spaces in Portland,” Gilsdorf underscores the importance of incentivizing commercial property owners to provide creative spaces, whether studios or live-work spaces, below market rate. That proposal, she says, should be revisited.
It’s not just about providing space for artists to create, though. Artists need direct access to funding, too — and not only in the form of project grants. Gilsdorf suggests that Portland offer emergency grants and entrepreneurial low-interest loans for artists, many of whom embark upon the notoriously under-compensated career path burdened with debt from undergraduate and graduate programs. While existing grant opportunities for Portland’s artists are largely tied to the production of specific projects, Gilsdorf advocates for grants that instead provide artists with funds for general operating support, from purchasing equipment to paying rent on a studio.
Gilsdorf points out that Portland’s art institutions — spaces where artists exhibit work and where they are also often employed— suffer from underfunding, as well, noting that despite the cities’ comparable population sizes, there is a $12 million gap between the operating budget of the Denver Art Museum and the Portland Art Museum. Corporate funding of the arts is lower in Portland than it is in other cities, too, despite Portland’s burgeoning industry. Local government, she suggests, could facilitate conversations between leaders in the arts and leaders in other sectors, and promote sustained cross-sector engagement by incentivizing initiatives such as paid artist-in-residence programs.
Whose hands does Gilsdorf want Seeing Visual Artists to end up in? “Ideally, it would be read by artists, in order to know that many of their difficulties relate to specific policy issues, and are not just due to personal circumstances,” she told Hyperallergic. “This might be a key to artists advocating for themselves politically, collectively — and feeling confident when they seek support for their work, particularly in non-arts sectors.”
She hopes that the report is also seen by regional-government officials, for whom it might demonstrate how entwined the arts are with general quality-of-life measures; arts administrators, who can help connect artists with public and private funding sources; and museum executives and board members, who are empowered to implement new allocation and distribution models.
Also on her list are museum and non-profit curators, who can encourage strategies that support artists beyond commercialized or gatekeeper models; private and corporate philanthropy departments who are interested to know why they should contribute to their region’s cultural communities; and art collectors, whom she hopes to encourage to patronize local galleries and buy with an ethos that includes the community’s long-term health.
Editor’s note 11/14/21: The excerpt of an earlier version of this article misspelled Bean Gilsdorf’s first name; the error has been corrected.