Recession Biting Artists in the (Canv)Ass

By Lauri Apple in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 5, 2009 5:30PM

starving-artist1.jpg In these recessionary times, galleries are closing down, auction houses are getting millions less than normal in sales for even big-name masterpieces, and starving artists are starving even more. Recently we asked a few dozen artists and gallerists how they were surviving Great Depression II: The Internet Edition. Here's what they told us:


Kirby Kerr, Rotofugi Designer Toy Store & Gallery: It's really too early to tell. October was definitely a little slower than normal, but we're running strong at the moment. As long as you're showing good work, there will always be an audience for it, regardless of the economy.

Derek Erdman, artist: I'm actually doing better than usual.

"How is/has the recession affected your livelihood as an artist?"

Joel Ortiz, Happy Dog Gallery: The recession hasn't affected us in any direct way. Audiences for "art events" are notoriously fickle (the market being largely dictated by trends), so if there's a drop in, say, turnout, it hasn't been noticeable. However, our gas bills are obviously fluctuating because of the "war."

Nadine Nakanishi, Sonnenzimmer: Everyone is cutting promotional budgets, and so the poster community feels that pressure. It's been very slow for over two months, and there isn't any hint that it will change anytime soon. But all around it seems to be hitting everyone like a chain reaction. It's good, because it makes us all interconnected.

Joey Potts, artist: Yes, the recession has been affecting my livelihood as an artist. It seems that people are not venturing out to openings, and that they are definitely more cautious about spending money on artwork. At the moment I am looking toward not only galleries, but other venues, to push my artworks. I am also finding ways to extend the value of my pieces by making prints and/or licensing the images. Right now it’s not just about making new art, but about taking pieces that I have already done and finding new ways to present them to a mass market at an affordable price. I currently have archival prints available, and I am putting together a product gallery through a brand-new, invitation-only print-on-demand platform
called Artsprojekt.

Robin Kyle, Phaiz Gallery: Phaiz is a patron-based platform where the artists are commissioned for site-specific installation work. We have a limited-edition fashion collection for sale that collaborates with each installation. The revenue from the fashion meets only a small percent of the overhead costs Phaiz incurs each month. I know -- sounds a little crazy, but it's really an exposure opportunity for the artists and the audience to enjoy.

The recession may allow slightly lower commission fees for Phaiz, which might enable a few extra perks for the installing artists or help raise the bar further on the quality of artists Phaiz can bring to Chicago.

Aaron Delehanty, artist: I remember going to a lecture a few years ago and the guy gave a history of how art moments like the Renaissance were due in part to times of market excess; the opposite of that (recession/depression) created times of non-progress in the arts. I am a bit worried that we have entered such a moment.

Students are not signing up for my class as much. The class used to pay for such artist things as supplies, but not as much anymore. I also am dealing with a collector who has fallen behind in his payments, as well as other money that is owed to me, and I have no idea of when it'll come. So money stress is causing me to not understand the worth of my output.

All of this is having the effect of me feeling hopeless as an artist, and I am beginning to firmly believe that art has no place in the overall recovery of an economy -- it doesn't even enter the discussion. This leaves any recovery out of my control.

KS Rives, artist: I'm too busy hustling to make ends meet to even answer these questions!

Jeff "Kingdom" Kilpatrick, artist: The recession - or, more realistically, "The Second Great Depression" (c'mon admit it, it is looking that bad) -- has affected my livelihood as an artist greatly. As an artist, I make most of my money from commissions -- i.e. portraits, custom paintings for interior designers, stuff like that. I do gallery shows, but commissions are my bread and butter. So, last June, I started getting one cancellation after another. I had been booked with work up until the New Year, but that all started to dwindle to nothing by September.

A lot of my clients are probably people you'd never think would be affected by the downturn in the economy: portfolio managers, lawyers and large business owners. But they have been, with lay-offs, salary cuts and just plain belt-tightening. To keep the jobs I did have, I had to cut my prices in half and be more creative when it came to looking for new sources of revenue.

I have been doing some house painting and home repair stuff to make ends meet. I've looked into applying for grants for artists, but since my student loans are in default I'm not eligible. I've thought about getting a real job, but if I did, the student loan company would take about 2/3 of my check. They're pretty aggressive, and you wouldn't believe the kind of calls I get from their collectors. I'm actually better off just making money in the cash underground. I guess I'm forced to remain an artist/house painter.

Alpha Bruton, artist/consultant: I filed bankruptcy five years ago. I have been able to support myself full-time as an artist and art consultant. It has been very difficult getting new grounding since obtaining my degree from the School of the Art Institute. The pay rate is horrible here in Illinois for art management positions.

Things started getting progressively worse when would-be collectors started diverting funding to Katrina and other natural catastrophes, and then when the state cut 30% of the funding from the Illinois Arts Council budget. Some of the organizations that I contract with lost funding. I contract as a vendor through Chicago Public Schools; they lost funding not only for the arts, but also for certified teachers. The principal could not justify bringing me back when she was losing staff positions.

Fortunately, I have a background in art administration, and am able to develop programming and write my own grants to fund my positions in these schools. I have stayed afloat these past five years because I live in a space that is supportive of artists.

How could City Hall help?

Derek Erdman: I don't want the city getting mixed up in my affairs. Free paint brushes would be nice, though.

Joel Ortiz, Happy Dog Gallery: Services would help a fledgling gallery if they were to take a legitimate business path. Otherwise, it would be wonderful if there were more programs suited for those desiring a nonprofit route.

Andrew Rigsby, artist: Three things would help greatly: 1. Access to cheap or subsidized store fronts for exhibiting. (We recently had to abandon our space because of lack of sales etc.) 2. Any promotional help would be awesome, be it money for cards and advertising or any other thoughts. 3. Grants or any other financial assistance to help with bringing artists and their work to Chicago.

Joey Potts: I feel like if the city were able to lower taxes on purchased artworks, or give incentives like tax breaks for supporting the arts, than that could potentially help out artists, galleries, and organizations that support the arts.

Augustina Droze, muralist: The city could offer more targeted leads on calls for public art as well as reminders to update image registries. They could also offer a class on how to best respond to a Request For Proposal (RFP). If there was one source where I could post my portfolio and all of the different agencies and groups who were looking for a public art piece could look, it would ease the congestion.

Kirby Kerr, Rotofugi: That's a tough one. As much as some sort of handout would be nice, I'd rather see that money spent on public art that benefits the whole city, or helping the less fortunate, or even taking care of potholes.

Nadine Nakanishi, Sonnenzimmer: What would help us is actual, small print jobs for our studios. Which again means people organizing shows, be it art shows or music shows. This activity feeds back into our venture here at Sonnenzimmer. Also, it would be awesome if the city would be like the WPA and commission public art like in the 1950s. Raising the level of solidarity in these times would be great, too. But that means the government would have to stand behind a revitalization of America as a whole. The Olympics bid is still open, and a lot of budget is going towards that; it would have been for example cool to bring in the artists for something like that.

Robin Kyle, Phaiz Gallery: Sure, promo would be a great help. But the reality is, the Chicago economy is going to feel the pain of unprecedented shrinkage, and the city will probably have devastating issues on their hands. So, Phaiz plans to swim its own little path. Let us know if the city ends up handing out fins.

Aaron Delehanty: Art is only viable in a community that has the time and money to appreciate it, and when it comes to the importance of it -- I just don't know anymore.

Jeff "Kingdom" Kilpatrick: I don't imagine the city being able to do much for artists at this point. I mean, they can't even afford to plow side streets, much less worry about how to help artists. And the state of Illinois is in such terrible shape fiscally, I can't see any help coming from there. A lot of my fellow artists keep talking about the possibility of Obama doing something like what FDR did with the creation of the WPA. But even if Obama did that, it would probably be a long ways off. For now, it's every man for himself. This is a time in history that will test not just artists but everyone. I'm actually optimistic, because the kind of struggles we are facing usually have the effect of producing great and meaningful art.

Alpha Bruton:
To take city funding from development and make it available, not as a short-term loan, but as funding to create art districts that are viable to artists, is something that the city should consider in each of its wards.

Chicago Artists Month is a great promotional event for artists, arts organizations, and galleries. The Department of Cultural Affairs is doing an outstanding job in promoting the arts as tourism for the City of Chicago. However, when it comes to funding the individual artist and creating jobs for artists it is lacking in support - there’s not enough funding to go around fairly. Those funding sources ask artists to spend dollars in advance, and be reimbursed. They ask you how you are supposed to sustain the project after funding has been granted. Artists that I know are always investing in the love of their art form, breaking even -- if that -- and donating so much time and energy into endeavors we hold dear to our hearts, that it almost compromises our art integrity.

It would not be so bad if the arts were written into state reform bills, and the city actually put us to work, as we are the tread of the city and its efforts to bring folks here from all over the world to Chicago.

Illustration by Milowerx Media.