by James A. Bacon
Forget about art for art’s sake. Let’s talk about art for economic development’s sake.
A couple of days ago I lauded the City of Richmond’s efforts to create a downtown arts district. (See “Richmond’s Wine-and-Brie Path to Community Development.”) I was thinking mainly in terms of the effect that a cluster of artists would have in improving the region’s quality of life, making Richmond city a fun — dare I say it, even a cool — place to live. It turns out that I may have sold the arts district short by neglecting to observe that artists also make decent money and contribute to innovation.
A research update to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts, “Artists in the Workforce: 1990-2005,” suggests that artists aren’t all of the starving variety. Indeed, the median wage/salary for artists — a group ranging from architects, producers and writers on the high end to dancers, photographers and “other” entertainers on the bottom — averages out to be $43,230. That’s 10% higher than the average wage.
Artists are highly entrepreneurial: they are 3.5 times more likely than the total United States workforce to be self-employed. They also are better educated — more than half have a bachelor’s degree. However, they also are less likely to have full-year or full-time employment, which accounts for their having lower median incomes than workers with similar education levels.
Not surprisingly, New York and California have among the largest concentrations of artists in the country, although the top honors goes to Washington, D.C., with 3.1% of the population. (That’s “artist,” not “con artist.”) The home state of Broadway counts 2.3% of its residents as artists, while artists comprise 2% of the workforce in LaLa Land. Virginia lags the national average: only 1.3% of its workers are classified as artists. Virginia stands out artistically speaking only in one way: It has a high concentration of writers and authors. (Ironically, Virginia ranks way below average in the book publishing occupational cluster.) Richmond, for what it’s worth, has a high concentration of dancers.
As economic geographer Richard Florida has observed, artists are a key component of the “creative class” that contributes disproportionately to innovation and entrepreneurial activity. In the case of Richmond, the artistic cluster seems to be tied closely to the advertising/marketing industry segment. We’re not talking “high tech” here — a will ‘o the wisp for a region like Richmond. But encouraging the growth of Richmond’s artistic community strikes me as a sound economic development strategy that builds upon existing assets (the Martin Agency, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the VCU arts department) and contributes to the growth of a robust creative class.