LOS ANGELES — Last Saturday, July 9, dozens gathered at The Fulcrum, a small publishing house and gallery in Chinatown, to celebrate the launch of the first Los Angeles Artist Census (LAAC) newspaper. Tacked to the walls were spreads from the modest, smartly designed publication that juxtaposes informational graphics about LA artists’ quality of life — such as earnings, housing, expenses, and healthcare — with photographs, quotes, and personal reflections.
The LAAC was started four years ago by artist Tatiana Vahan, who was frustrated by the lack of specific data on visual artists’ life experiences in the city. It grew out of her Bar Fund project, a grant-making initiative through which Vahan and others collected donations by bartending at openings and other art events. “I started Bar Fund in response to the rising cost of living in LA,” she told Hyperallergic. “There was an expanding art scene, but there wasn’t a significant increase in funding for artists.”
Over the course of two grant cycles, Bar Fund raised over $17,000, providing grants to 15 Angeleno artists. As a member of the grant panel, Vahan noticed the same stories coming up over and over in hundreds of applications, of artists struggling with finances, stable housing, and healthcare.
“We needed to gather data to be able to tell these stories,” she says. “This information didn’t exist prior [to the LAAC], which is crazy. It’s so fundamental to any industry.”
There are other surveys that also cover the arts, but they take different approaches, like the Otis College Report on the Creative Economy, which offers a macro view, exploring visual as well as performing arts, film, architecture, design, and fashion throughout California. The LAAC is more granular, focusing solely on visual artists in LA, which it defines as anyone who self-identifies as such and who spends at least half the year in LA County.
Vahan and a small team of mostly volunteer artists, writers, and designers spent the next two years developing the project, building and testing the survey, and working on outreach and distribution. They launched the survey on February 10, 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States, and had to close it early, six weeks later, as a result, but they were still able to collect 1,525 usable responses. This resulted in providing a “snapshot of what artists were experiencing going into a global economic and health crisis,” as Vahan notes, adding that artists were struggling with many of the challenges highlighted in the LAAC well before the pandemic.
Working with data analysts, they boiled the results down into nine “Data Dispatches,” each focusing on a different theme, from “Basic Necessities” to “Art Earnings” and “Healthcare.” A “Quick Report” provides an even more stripped-down summary, highlighting data on employment insecurity, debt burden, and the challenges these present for artists living in LA: 49% of employed respondents had no benefits, 40% had difficulty accessing or affording healthcare, and 46% made under $30,000 in 2019. These reports were posted on the LAAC website and distributed through their newsletter and on social media.
From the beginning, Vahan and her collaborators acknowledged the limitations of traditional data research, aiming for a more inclusive approach that features a multiplicity of voices. As a result, Vahan was wary of authoring a series of recommendations gleaned from the data, as is common in reports of this kind. “This was created as a foundation from which artists or anyone could organize,” she says.
In keeping with this approach, Vahan wanted to make the data gathered from the census accessible to a wide audience. “There’s so many data reports that exist online about the art world, but they’re buried in PDFs online,” she said. “Part of accessibility is bringing this information into spaces where people who are not familiar with data, where artists, enter: galleries, non-profits, community spaces, bookstores.”
Working with report co-author Cobi Krieger and designer Neil Doshi, Vahan put together a compact, 20-page newspaper that balances charts and graphs with quotes from notable thinkers like Trinh T. Minh-ha and anonymous survey respondents, and photographs by Angel Alvarado, York Chang, and Ian Byers-Gamber.
“Our priority was the reader,” Krieger told Hyperallergic. “It couldn’t be a technical report. It had to be pleasant, user friendly, and relatable.”
“Ultimately artists communicate through material,” Fulcrum founder Josh Schaedel told Hyperallergic. “Especially during the pandemic, we’ve been inundated with so much digital info thrown at us, you need something concrete … People don’t take it seriously until it’s an object in space with them.” In addition to being distributed in art spaces throughout Los Angeles, Schaedel will be bringing copies of the newspaper to the San Francisco Art Book Fair later this week.
Vahan has more projects in mind, such as a series of artist-created zines that would present the data in different ways, but they are contingent on funding. She says she unsuccessfully applied for more than a dozen grants before securing one in March from the California Arts Council that allowed her to print 1,000 copies of the newspaper. “We have so much more data on artist adjunct teachers, about eviction and gentrification, artists as parents, those repped by galleries, etc.,” she said. “Imagine what we could do if we had enough funding?”
Since starting the LAAC and releasing the data collected, Vahan says she has been contacted by several municipal arts organizations in other cities that have been interested in conducting similar surveys, such as Chicago and Detroit.
“To me it speaks to the importance, relevance, and need for this information, a fundamental need that exists for this industry and community,” Vahan said. “This was the case before, but now more and more people are recognizing it.”