The precarious lives of artists in Los Angeles

LAAC Newspaper (Photo by and courtesy of Josh Schaedel)

LOS ANGELES — Last Saturday, July 9, dozens gathered at The Fulcrum, a small publishing house and gallery in Chinatown, to celebrate the launch of the first Los Angeles Artist Census (LAAC) newspaper. Covering the walls were spreads of the unassuming, elegantly designed publication, which juxtaposes infographics about the quality of life for artists in LA—such as income, housing, expenses, and health care—with photographs, quotes, and personal reflections.

LAAC was launched four years ago by artist Tatiana Vahan, who was frustrated by the lack of specific data on the life experiences of visual artists in the city. It grew out of her Bar Fund project, a fundraising initiative through which Vahan and others raised funds by bartending at private viewings and other arts events. “I started Bar Fund in response to the rising cost of living in LA,” she told Hyperallergic. “There was an expanding art scene, but there wasn’t a significant increase in funding for artists.”

Over the course of two grant cycles, the Bar Fund raised over $17,000 and awarded grants to 15 Angeleno artists. As a member of the grants panel, Vahan noticed that hundreds of applications kept repeating the same stories, of artists struggling with finances, stable housing and health care.

“We had to collect data to be able to tell these stories,” she says. “This information did not previously exist [to the LAAC], which is crazy. It’s so fundamental to any industry.”

There are other surveys that also cover the arts, but they take different approaches, such as the Otis College Report on the Creative Economy, which offers a macro view and examines visual and performing arts, film, architecture, design, and fashion across California. The LAAC is more detailed and focuses solely on LA’s visual artists, which it defines as anyone who self-identifies as such and spends at least half the year in LA County.

LAAC Newspaper (all photos Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Vahan and a small team of mostly volunteer artists, writers, and designers spent the next two years developing the project, creating and testing the survey, and working on public relations and distribution. They started the survey on February 10, 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, and as a result had to end it early six weeks later, but were still able to collect 1,525 usable responses. This resulted in a “snapshot of what artists were experiencing as they entered a global economic and health crisis,” Vahan notes, adding that artists were grappling with many of the challenges highlighted in LAAC well before the pandemic.

Working with data analysts, they have collated the findings into nine “Data Dispatches,” each focusing on a different topic, from “Basic Necessities” to “Art Earnings” and “Healthcare.” A “Quick Report” provides an even more condensed summary, highlighting data on job insecurity, debt burdens and the challenges these pose for LA-based artists: 49% of employed respondents had no benefits, 40% had difficulty accessing benefits or afford healthcare, and 46% earned less than $30,000 in 2019. These reports were published on the LAAC website and shared through their newsletter and social media.

From the start, Vahan and her collaborators recognized the limitations of traditional data research and sought a more integrative approach with a variety of voices. As a result, Vahan was cautious about writing a set of recommendations derived from the data, as is usual in reports of this nature. “This was created as a foundation for artists or anyone to organize on,” she says.

LAAC newspaper with photos by Ian Byers-Gamber

In accordance with this approach, Vahan wanted to make the data obtained from the census available to a wide audience. “There are so many data reports online about the art world, but they’re buried in PDFs online,” she said. “Part of accessibility is bringing that information into spaces where people unfamiliar with data are entering artists: galleries, nonprofits, community spaces, bookstores.”

Working with report co-author Cobi Krieger and designer Neil Doshi, Vahan has put together a compact 20-page newspaper that includes charts and graphs with quotes from notable thinkers such as Trinh T. Minh-ha and anonymous survey respondents, as well as photographs balanced by Angel Alvarado, York Chang and Ian Byers-Gamber.

“Our priority was the reader,” Krieger told Hyperallergic. “It couldn’t be a technical report. It had to be enjoyable, user-friendly and understandable.”

“Ultimately, artists communicate through material,” Fulcrum founder Josh Schaedel told Hyperallergic. “Especially during the pandemic, we’ve been inundated with so much digital information that you need something tangible … People don’t take it seriously until it’s an object in space with them.” In addition to distributing it to art spaces across Los Angeles, Schaedel will later bring copies of the paper to the San Francisco Art Book Fair this week.

Tatiana Vahan (wearing orange) at the launch of the LAAC newspaper at The Fulcrum on July 9th

Vahan has other projects in mind, such as a series of artist-made zines that would present the data in different ways, but they are dependent on funding. She says she applied unsuccessfully for more than a dozen grants before receiving one from the California Arts Council in March that allowed her to print 1,000 copies of the newspaper. “We have so much more data on arts assistants, on evictions and gentrification, on artists as parents, on people represented by galleries, etc.,” she said. “Imagine what we could do if we had enough money?”

Since LAAC was formed and the data it collected was released, Vahan has been contacted by several community arts organizations in other cities, Vahan says were interested in conducting similar surveys, e.g. B. Chicago and Detroit.

“To me, this speaks to the importance, relevance and necessity of this information, a fundamental need that exists for this industry and community,” said Vahan. “It used to be like that, but now more and more people are realizing it.”

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