Survival of the Artist: Money doesn’t grow on Palm Trees

It seems like it wasn’t that long ago that articles like this and this were coming out about how Southern California is drawing artists from New York and elsewhere thanks to its booming art scene and affordable rents. Today, this seems laughable as rents have skyrocketed and gentrification spreads to every last nook of Greater LA’s sprawl.

I regularly have conversations with my artist friends about the challenge of making enough money to cover rent with a day job, or two, or three, while trying to carve out time and space for our art practices.

A few years back, artist Tatiana Vahan was one such artist, having recently completed her MFA and struggling to find sufficient work to cover the ever-increasing cost of living in Southern California. With her rent coming due, and with no steady employment, she picked up a bartending gig for an opening reception at what was, at the time, a new gallery called Francois Ghebaly. In that one night, she made her rent in tips.

This experience, along with her own conversations with friends going through similar challenges, caused a light bulb moment for Vahan and bar-fund was created: a grant for artists funded by tips collected at gallery receptions.

Between 2017 and 2019, 29 artists have bartended at 66 openings, those tips were collected into the fund, which was then distributed to selected recipients through an open call process. The artists who worked as bartenders were the jurors and selected the grantees from the submissions.

Bar-fund distributed a total of $17,520.28 over two years. This artist-run effort accounted for a significant portion of total funds available to LA County-based artists through an open submission process.

Vahan reflected that she wishes “that everyone that applied to the bar-fund grant could have received the grant.” The project highlighted the financial precariousness of local artists and the disproportionate amount of financial support for artists. Bar-fund’s application included questions about each applicant’s employment and past grant awards, and the nearly 400 applicant responses highlighted the challenges artists are facing while trying to create a viable art practice.

“There are so many LA-based artists that have been validated by the art world in some way, and that are still struggling to have their basic needs met,” Vahan said.

This is confirmed by findings in a recent survey taken by Allison Agsten, the Laura Zucker Fellow for Policy and Research: “Seven hundred sixty three Los Angeles artists responded to a survey for this report, revealing affordability to be a major issue in the area. In total, 89% of artists living in Los Angeles [County] said they found housing affordability to be a very serious concern and 90% said the same of studio affordability.”

Running bar-fund reinforced what Vahan already knew from her own experience and, in turn, informed another project she was starting to develop. Recognizing that there is a lack of data about artist debt, housing, employment and healthcare, Vahan got to work on the Los Angeles Artist Census to start to collect this information. The data will be used to shape policy and advocate for change, “creating transparent, community-customized and interpreted, research that will be publicly available to policymakers, funders, the art world and general public, for years to come.”

Information collected from the Los Angeles Artist Census will help point funders and public officials towards the needs of artists. The potential impact of this project is enormous and has its own poetry having grown from a tip jar into an exponentially larger act of generosity towards artists.

“It’s been an incredible experience to see something take shape and grow its own legs,” Vahan said. “I did not anticipate the reach that bar-fund would have—a testament to the need for more unrestricted artist grants in our city. I am hoping that the census snowballs in a similar way so that we can really map the needs and resources of artists in LA County.”

Me too.

Round-up of Recommendations:

Donate to the Los Angeles Artist Census! They are currently preparing the survey to be launched in spring of 2020. There is a lot of work that has already been put in, and much more to come. This is a valuable project for all Los Angeles artists, so send some money their way if you are able.

To go further into recent research on affordability of Los Angeles for artists, read Allison Agsten’s full report.

My own project—The Artist’s Office—has a subscription service for artist grant deadline notifications and reminders. Los Angeles County Artists who subscribe to “Just the Money” will receive email reminders about available grant and award opportunities with plenty of time to apply, and reminders along the way. Don’t miss another chance to get a grant.

The Center for Cultural Innovation’s Quickgrant deadline is coming up on December 15th. These grants are for working “with a consultant, coach, or mentor around a learning topic that supports administrative and/or business skill-building” and are offered every month. This upcoming deadline is for activities taking place after January 15th, so it’s a great time to plan for those New Year professional growth goals!

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Virginia Broersma is an artist and operates The Artist’s Office. She lives in Long Beach and along with her studio work, organizes opportunities for information sharing, relationship building often through shared meals, and offers a variety of services aimed to help artists identify and pursue the opportunities available to them, including a subscription service for artist deadlines. Her work can be seen at virginiabroersma.com and on Instagram @theartistsoffice and @virginiabroersma.
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