Still from Ford Foundation grantee rafa esparza's performance "building: a simulacrum of power" (2014) (photo by Dylan Schwartz, courtesy the artist and the Ford Foundation)

When we glorify the idea of a struggling artist, we are perpetuating the notion that artists are meant to be poor; that they do not deserve a living wage. When we look to artists for hope, healing, and help within our communities in the form of social services beyond arts programming, but take their labor for granted, we are stipulating that being an artist is not a real job. These narratives are particularly entrenched in the US, and we must push back on them in order to mitigate harm. Creatives, artists, and storytellers are workers who deserve the dignity of a living wage for their major contributions to our social fabric and economy. Artists help us process social, racial, and environmental upheaval, imagine new ways forward, and prompt meaningful action. Yet in too many ways, philanthropy and the broader nonprofit industrial complex in the US are failing them.

A suite of recent studies by Yancey Consulting, Americans for the Arts (AFTA), and Collaborative Consulting Group reveals the harsh blows the COVID-19 pandemic dealt to creatives as well as systemic vulnerabilities and inequalities creatives faced before the pandemic. According to AFTA, 95% of creatives lost creative income, their total income fell from about $33,000 to $13,500 (about $800 above the poverty level), and 55% depleted their savings. Respondents who were disabled, transgender, people of color, and have less formal education experienced disproportionately negative economic impacts.

Under our creativity and free expression program, the Ford Foundation invests in arts organizations and storytellers to shape a more just society. A recent evaluation led by SMU DataArts of our arts and culture portfolio shows, on the one hand, that dignified wages and sufficient financial resources are the two most pressing areas of concern for artists. On the other, the arts organizations we support overestimate the extent to which they provide critical income and support to artists.

Ford Foundation grantee Jerron Herman’s “IWBWYE” (2019) (photo by Mengwen Cao, courtesy the artist and the Ford Foundation)

Here are nine ways art funders and philanthropies can strengthen their support of artists:

  • Yield more decision-making power to artists

Artists know best what they need to advance their art and to thrive — hire artists as grantmakers and advisors. Support organizations that are founded and led by creatives.

Invest in artist-led funds such as the Constellations Culture Change Fund at the Center of Cultural Power, a $23 million, three-year initiative to support creatives of color and cultural strategy organizations.  

  • Center artists most impacted by inequality

Employ an intersectional approach to center artists impacted by economic inequality, racism, ableism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, and xenophobia. This also means reflecting on who holds leadership positions and who has access at every level of your organization. Join us at the Disability & Philanthropy Forum and Grantmakers United for Trans Communities to learn more.

  • Strengthen collaboration among arts funders

Help build on the momentum of initiatives like Artist Relief, a coalition of national grantmakers that came together to deliver $25 million in funding and resources to artists during the pandemic. Invest in the Intercultural Leadership Institute partners, collaborating service organizations rooted in Black, Indigenous, and people of color cultures and aesthetics.

  • Engage non-arts funders working on issues of shared concern

Break down funding silos. Integrate creative strategies across social justice movement work, from civic engagement to climate justice to migrant justice. Look to emerging artist-led, cross-movement efforts such as Culture Surge, Harness, and For Freedoms as models and partners for the issues you care about.

  • Provide as much flexibility as possible to artists you support

Often, project-specific grants are limiting, operationally and creatively. Offer unrestricted, multi-year support to artists to ensure they have agency and can plan ahead for their artistry and their lives. Support debt relief. Offer dollars for inflation. Add funds for access needs. Fund sabbaticals. Fund space and time for wellness and healing.

  • Explore guaranteed income and artist employment programs

We are in a moment of radical experimentation to increase economic stability for vulnerable communities. One compelling model is Creatives Rebuild New York, a three-year, $125 million effort that will provide 2,700 New York-based artists guaranteed income and employment opportunities at community organizations.

  • Add value beyond grant dollars

Beyond your grant dollars, funders can connect artists to tools for research, technologies, financial planning, collective bargaining strategies, partners, and other resources. The recent wave of union organizing in museums and cultural organizations must be acknowledged and supported. 

  • Hold grantee organizations accountable

Consider artist and staff compensation and benefit levels as part of your grant application and reporting processes. Pay attention to how grantee organizations engage artists and workers in shaping economic decisions that impact their lives. Direct them to key resources and programs. For example, the Working Artists and the Greater Economy Certification, which establishes minimum payment standards.

  • Fund interventions that support and protect artists

Support organizations that play a vital role in enforcing labor laws and social protections for creatives. Connect artists to the advocates, policy groups, and academics who work to realize a 21st-century labor policy at the federal, state, and local levels. Strengthen these intervention efforts through capacity-building and strong strategic communications. 

These artist-centered approaches, recommended at a moment of extreme change for the arts sector and broader workforce, recognize and celebrate the humanity of artists as cultural workers, alongside the value of their art. We envision a future where all artists have equal rights to labor protections, social protections are guaranteed, and artists can shape the policies and economic systems that impact their lives.

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Rocío Aranda-Alvarado

Rocío Aranda-Alvarado is an art historian and curator. She is currently a Senior Program Officer in Arts and Culture on the Creativity and Free Expression team at the Ford Foundation. Her curatorial work...

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Lane Harwell

Lane Harwell (they/he) is an artist, educator, and nonprofit and philanthropic leader working to advance mission-driven organizations on the frontlines of social change. They are currently on the Creativity...

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