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NEA Report on Unemployment Rates for Artists

posted by Christopher Howard — Mar 09, 2009

Unemployment rates are up among working artists and the artist workforce has contracted, according to new research from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Artists in a Year of Recession: Impact on Jobs in 2008 examines how the economic slowdown has affected the nation’s working artists. The study looks at artist employment patterns during two spikes in the current recession—the fourth quarters of 2007 and 2008. Not unexpectedly, this downturn reflects larger economic declines across the nation: a Commerce Department report from late February noted a 6.2 percent decrease in the gross domestic product in the last quarter of 2008. The ten-page publication can be downloaded as a PDF.

Among the findings:

  • Artists are unemployed at twice the rate of professional workers, a category in which artists are grouped because of their high levels of education. The artist unemployment rate grew to 6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008, compared with 3 percent for all professionals. A total of 129,000 artists were unemployed in the fourth quarter of 2008, an increase of 50,000 (63 percent) from one year earlier. The unemployment rate for artists is comparable to that for the overall workforce (6.1 percent)
  • Unemployment rates for artists have risen more rapidly than for US workers as a whole. The unemployment rate for artists climbed 2.4 percentage points between the fourth quarters of 2007 and 2008, compared to a one-point increase for professional workers as a whole, and a 1.9 point increase for the overall workforce
  • Artist unemployment rates would be even higher if not for the large number of artists leaving the workforce. The US labor force grew by 800,000 people from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2008. In contrast, the artist workforce shrank by 74,000 workers. Some of this decline may be attributed to artists’ discouragement over job prospects
  • Unemployment rose for most types of artist occupations. Artist jobs with higher unemployment rates are performing artists (8.4 percent), fine artists, art directors, and animators (7.1 percent), writers and authors (6.6 percent), and photographers (6.0 percent)
  • The job market for artists is unlikely to improve until long after the US economy starts to recover. Unemployment is generally a lagging economic indicator, or a measure of how an economy has performed in the past few months. During the prior recession (2001), artist unemployment did not reach its peak of 6.1 percent until 2003—two years after economic recovery began nationwide.

As an example of how arts jobs intersect with the larger economy, consider the construction industry. Industry-wide declines, which began in 2006, have contributed to the shrinking job market for architects. While this group usually has the lowest unemployment rates among all artist occupations and all professionals, architect unemployment rates doubled, from 1.8 percent in fourth quarter 2007, to 3.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008. Unemployment in the designer category also doubled, from 2.3 percent to 4.7 percent. This broad category includes interior, commercial, and industrial designers whose work is closely associated with the construction industry. Eighty-three thousand designers left the artist labor market during that time period.

The contraction of the arts workforce has implications for the overall economy. A May 2008 NEA study revealed there are two million full-time artists representing 1.4 percent of the US labor force, only slightly smaller than the number of active-duty and reserve personnel in the military (2.2 million). More recently, a National Governors Association report recognized that the arts directly benefit states and communities through job creation, tax revenues, attracting investments, invigorating local economies, and enhancing quality of life. There are 100,000 nonprofit arts organizations that support 5.7 million jobs and return nearly $30 billion in government revenue every year, according to a study by Americans for the Arts.

The NEA Office of Research and Analysis produced Artists in a Year of Recession: Impact on Jobs in 2008 using published and unpublished data from the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. The research note measures unemployment rates among workers who self-reported an artist job as occupying their greatest number of working hours per week, whether the employment was full-time or part-time.