Monday, February 16, 2009

How does a recession impact on artwork and art jobs?

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872 by Thomas Moran
213.36 cm (84 in.), Width: 365.76 cm (144 in.)
Department of the Interior Museum, Washington, D.C. (image sourced from wikiedpedia)

How does a recession impact on the art world?
  • What happens to the way artists are employed and remunerated?
  • What happens to the sort of art that gets produced?
  • Does subject matter change or stay the same?
  • Do sales patterns change?
  • What actually sells?
In my view these are not only fascinating questions, they are also ones that a lot of artists think about even if they don't always ask them out loud. For professional artists it's obviously essential to address such issues to make sure income continues to be generated and that they can survive the downturn.

On Saturday there was a really fascinating article by Dorothy Spears on this topic in the New York Times - Tough Times Call for Shrewd Artists - which is a RECOMMENDED READ.

This looks at various points in the history of the USA when the economy 'crashed' and highlights how artists and latterly the government responded.

I've summarised it below and I've also added in more points and links dug out from a variety of websites plus I've also provided links to what's been happening this month in relation to the economic stimulus package and support for arts jobs.

The panic of 1837

Thomas Sully (1783-1872 - born in Lincolnshire; emigrated to the USA) was a portrait painter. The impact on him was that people who commissioned portrait started to fail to pay up. It highlights how he went from painting Queen Victoria to more commercially oriented paintings

The crash of 1873

The 1873 was triggered by the weight of civil war debt and was followed by a long depression of 5+ years. Painter Thomas Moran (1837-1926 - born in Bolton, UK; emigrated to the USA) first made his name painting the monumental landscapes of the American West and was one of the foremost landscape painters of his day.

His paintings of Yellowstone are said to have been decisive in debate about the creation of the Yellowstone National Park and are important in the cultural history of the USA. As well as being a notable artist, apparently he was very business-like and attuned to commercial considerations and after the crash, he switched to more commercial smaller works - typically of Long Island and Manhattan and Venetian Scenes. (Small is of course relative when you've been producing paintings measured in feet!) . I also note from the NGA site that he started producing Prang chromolithographs of Yellowstone - which presumably made them more affordable - and illustrated Hiawatha.
Fully aware of changes in the market, Moran told a Denver reporter in June 1892, "I prefer to paint western scenes, but the Eastern people don't appreciate the grand scenery of the Rockies. They are not familiar with mountain effects and it is much easier to sell a picture of a Long Island swamp than the grandest picture of Colorado."
NGA website - Thomas Moran feature
A Long Island River (1908) by Thomas Moran
50.17 cm (19.75 in.), Width: 76.2 cm (30 in.)
Private collection (image sourced from wikipedia)

In later life Moran is reported as having produced paintings of the canyon that were used as promotional tools in hotels, offices, and railroad cars in exchange for rail passes and hotel accommodation. Additional images were distributed on calendars in guidebooks and brochures, even on stationery.

Do take a look at the excellent gallery of his work set up on the National Gallery of Art website to see his amazing landscapes of the West and to note the change in later years. You can also see more of his works on the Atheneaum website (sorted in date order) and here.

Wall Street Crash 1929 and Depression

The article comments on diverse responses to the Depression.
  • The Museum of Modern Art opened its doors 10 days after Black Monday 1929. The article compares the attendance figures for its opening show of "fashionable" paintings C├ęzanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Van Gogh [MoMA Exh. #1, November 7, 1929-December 7, 1929 - 47,203] with those for the next show 2. Paintings by 19 Living Americans [MoMA Exh. #2, December 12, 1929-January 12, 1930 - 27,924.
  • Prompted by the article I dug out the Archive of Exhibitions at MOMA 1929-1939 which indicate they were not only cultural - they were also linked to initiatives designed to help the economy recover such as the National Exhibition of Art by the Public Works of Art Project [MoMA Exh. #35, September 19-October 7, 1934] This link explains the Public Works of Art Project
  • This link provides a history of the New Deal Art Projects and the article in Survey Graphic provides a great deal of detail about how projects worked and what was produced as a result
WHEN the CWA admitted artists suffering from the depression to a place in its program, last December, the federal government suddenly found itself fostering a burst of creativeness in the fine arts that is unique in the history of democracies.
Art Becomes Public Works by Florence Loeb Kellogg Survey Graphic, Vol. 23, No. 6 (June, 1934), p. 279
  • The article also highlights how in the mid-’30s the Works Progress Administration emerged as a financial patron of struggling artists. The aim was to also make art more central to everyday life. It involced artists in creating murals
  • commercial illustration was also identified as a way in which artists could make a living
When the Great Depression hit, president Roosevelt’s New Deal created several public arts programs. The purpose of the programs was to give work to artists and decorate public buildings, usually with a national theme.

The first of these projects, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), was created after successful lobbying by the unemployed artists of the Artists' Union. The PWAP lasted less than one year, and produced nearly 15,000 works of art.

It was followed by the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (FAP/WPA) in 1935, which funded some of the most well-known American artists.

Several separate and related movements began and developed during the Great Depression including American scene painting, Regionalism, and Social Realism. Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, Ben Shahn, Joseph Stella, Reginald Marsh, Isaac Soyer, Raphael Soyer, and Jack Levine were some of the best known artists.
Visual Arts of the United States - New Deal Art
  • Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975; taught Jackson Pollock ) is highlighted in the article as an artist whose response involved travelling around the country and making lots of sketches - recording life and the positive aspects of people's responses to the challenges of the Depression. Along with Grant Wood in Iowa and John Steuart Curry in Kansas, he was a founder of what came to be known as the Regionalism movement which is an American realist modern art movement that was popular during the 1930s. Wood wrote that Regional artists interpret the physiography, industry, and psychology of their hometown.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Regionalist art was widely appreciated for its reassuring images of the American heartland.
Wikipedia - Regionalism (art)
  • others commented on how other artists documented suffering and endurance.
The credit crunch of 2008

The story so far on the economic front has been and continues to be that we are at the edge of a systemic economic meltdown. Last week in the USA, the US House of Representatives and Senate finally approved the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 which is a $787 billion economic stimulus package which is the 2009 version of the New Deal (with a further $2.5 trillion rescue plan for the financial system!).

In the process of agreeing this stimulus package there was quite a debate about whether jobs in the arts were real jobs. The House of Representatives proposed a $50 million funding package for the NEA to support the arts and artists which the Senate initially rejected. Advocates involved in the debate included Americans for the Arts and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.
The House's version of the stimulus bill included the $50 million for nonprofit arts groups, with the NEA to send $20 million of it to state arts agencies, and distribute the rest via its own grant-making pipeline. The Senate's proposal contained zilch, incorporating an amendment from Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn that specifically excluded museums, theaters and arts centers from receiving stimulus bucks, lumping them among other "wasteful" and "non-stimulative" destinations for federal money aimed at saving jobs.
Arts funding: a cliffhanger in Washington
This process of the decision-making was reported in some detail by the LA Times Culture Monster blog - as follows. The posts make a very interesting read.
[Late Update] Finally, the New York Times did a 'wrap up' job with this article in today's edition Saving Federal Arts Funds: Selling Culture as an Economic Force - which recognises the lobbying done by various arts groups to get the money passed.

So far nothing has happened in the UK which equates to this sort of package.

and finally - two questions for readers of this blog

In the credit crunch story of 2008/9/? associated with current challenges:
  • What role are you going to play in supporting the arts and protecting jobs for artists?
  • What's going to be your story about how the recession has impacted on your art? Will you be changing what you do and how you produce it?


  1. Parsons School of Design in New York is affiliated with The New School for Social Research. Art students take their studio courses at Parsons and fulfill their academic requirements for graduation at the New School. I was privileged to have had a sociology course at the New School in a room graced by murals painted by Thomas Hart Benton during the Great Depression. It's great to know that during that time of strife and suffering the public saw fit to invest in art and inspiration.
    One note, Benton was an opponent of modernism. Pollock said Benton's traditional teaching gave him something to rebel against.

  2. Great survey of the issue, Katherine. As a self-employed artist, selling primarily from my studio, I will continue business as usual. I will be thinking more about saleable work. For the past 8 years or so , I have not placed much importance on what is accessible, knowing that most of it did sell eventually. I may be making mild concessions to subject matter; minor & subtle considerations. If I get any more backed up than I am all ready for wall space, I will not frame everything...I can store it away for the future.

  3. I can easily say the economy has seriously impacted everyone I know, most especially those who work for themselves and have small businesses. I don't know what role I can play in protecting jobs for artists, but as far as what I am going to do ~ I plan to stay the course, complete my last commissions. Afterwords, should commission work dry up I will use the time to get a bulk of new work together, something I've needed to do for some time.

  4. Any survey of art during a recession would be incomplete without mentioning that hard times can potentiallly spark off xenophobia (cross boarder exchanges being the stuff of cultural enrichment) & heavily repressive state control of art such as in Nazi Germany in the 1930's & early 1940's.

    This recession can't stop cross boarder cultural exchanges as we now have the internet.

    On a personal note, I've recently said no to an exhibiting opportunity in the USA as I don't think it's worth neither the risk nor the effort of bringing a solo exhibition across the Altantic whilst this ecomonic gloom continues. A lot of small businesses getting hit are also lossing their float as well as their profits, ie their cash to invest in their new projects.

  5. I think the main lesson we learn is it's all happened before and it's almost always necessary to change the way we operate in order to cope

    As Adam suggests, what will be interesting this time is the way the Internet plays a part in both the downturn and the recovery. (My personal view is that the downturn has been that much faster and harder because of techonology and the ease of communication)

    Like Adam I'd be very wary of speculative investment in new ventures which could cost a lot for little return.

  6. Tina - viewing the downturn as a great opportunity to develop new work is a very good way tackling what might otherwise feel like a very negative time.

  7. I'm just wondering if anybody is feeling like the very fact of the downturn might stimulate new subjects or a new focus for them - in relation to what's happening?

    We've had a spate of what I'd call "banker paintings" here in London in the last five years or so (anonymous men in suits and/or braces striding around standing around looking important!!!). I can't imagine they'll be selling well in future except as darts boards.

    Who would you paint instead?

  8. I am very happy to have found your informative site with such stimulating topics.
    I have made the decision to allow this downturn to push me to work smart. I am saying yes to all opportunities, including painting in a studio open to public viewing. I am allowing local current events to influence my subject matter, abandoning my "purist" standard for a more open mind. I find I am enjoying the process and I expect I will grow as an artist.

  9. Katherine - I think you're on to some excellent points here, and there are some issues that all artists need to be thinking about.

    As artists, we all know how important the arts are to the overall wellbeing of society, and to each of us as individuals. And, some smart world political leaders and business leaders have recognized that creative minds are just as important as the analytical minds for well rounded solutions to modern problems.

    But, art as a product, and thus our value as artists, is undervalued by financial policy makers and individual consumers. Some oversimplify this by stating that art is a luxury item that will suffer in an economic downturn. But, as long as the government and big business are throwing huge sums of money at projects of questionable value - defense and other sectors - and as long as people are throwing lots of disposable income at entertainment and technology, why shouldn't art have a more prominent place?

    I think the big question for artists (because nobody else is going to answer it for us) is this: how can we update our artistic product and it's delivery/distribution, and our marketing, to be more relevant in the modern world?

    Of course I have my own ideas about the answer, and I'm working hard on something that I think will be a big step in the right direction for some artists. Hopefully my project will open some doors for many artists, and expand our market reach. More importantly, though, it might get more people thinking about more different angles to solve our current predicament.


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