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How artists build careers, and why Minnesota stands out

Researchers have found that Minneapolis-St. Paul posted the highest rate of increase in our artist workforce during the years of the Great Recession, 2006-09, years when the top three arts-workforce cities barely held even.

photo of artwork in hospital room
Image: Priscilla’s Garden ©, Vara Kamin’s Impressions of Light, Inc.
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia MRI Suite
Last week I spent a day at University of Colorado’s College of Arts and Media. I’d been invited by their dynamic dean, Larry Kaptain, to present my decades’ long work on artists’ careers. We started  over lunch with the dean and half a dozen of his faculty members. We met with the provost, who posed lots of intriguing questions about how an arts and media school can serve its larger community. How can they position their students for careers in a rapidly changing visual and electronic world? How to prepare them for nontraditional work settings – as entrepreneurs, consultants, and short-term employees as well as full-time positions.

My talk followed. I showcased artists who have fashioned careers by taking their work beyond the studio to make a living and contribute to communities near and far. Minneapolis’ Vara Kamin, for instance, discovered over time how to replicate her large, colorful and engaging paintings, created in her former studio in the California Building in northeast Minneapolis, for backlit installations. Hundreds of Kamin’s backlit images have been installed in hospitals and health care settings throughout the U.S. Check out her website:

Projecting charts, tables and maps, I shared working artists’ high rates of self-employment, uncommonly high migration rates, cross-country and between rural towns and cities, and over the life cycle. Examples: For Minnesota, in child-rearing years and after retirement, artists leave the Twin Cities metro for Greater Minnesota homes in surprising numbers, while younger artists throng to the Cities. Nationally, self-employment rates are highest among writers, visual artists and musicians, 65 percent, 57 percent and 41 percent respectively. Performing artists, designers and architects less so, yet three times as likely to be self-employed as the national workforce as a whole.

And where artists work. The artist-rich industries: film, radio and TV; journalism; photography; colleges, universities and K-12 schools. Others work in industries where they form a small share of the workforce – musicians, for instance, in eating and drinking establishments. And where artists live: They’re much more likely to live closer in to central cities than the urban work force as a whole, especially performing artists.

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I’ve served for 10 years on the National Advisory Board for the wordy Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. We’ve been surveying arts graduates of colleges, universities, conservatories and arts high schools, documenting how artists rate their training and where and how they are working now. About half of our respondents work in the arts, and another half work in other industries. Of the latter, may attest to how their arts training has helped them in their careers.

I also explored, from a California project I led, how arts organizations hire their workforce. Artists formed the vast majority of people (57 percent) who were paid by California arts nonprofits, but most work as temporary contractors. Fundraisers, administrators and programmers account for the rest, more often on salary but a surprising share also on contract.

Minnesota’s artist workforce

Ann Markusen

How does Minnesota’s artist workforce compare with other places? Among the 30 largest metro areas in the U.S., Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco host the largest contingents of artists in their workforces, followed by five metros hosting 20 to 40 percent more artists than the national average: Washington, D.C.; Seattle; Boston; Minneapolis-St. Paul; and San Diego. In follow-up work done by Texas researchers on the great recession, they found that Minneapolis-St. Paul posted the highest rate of increase in our artist workforce during the years of the great recession, 2006-09, years when the top three barely held even.

What explains Minnesota’s growing arts ecology? Our generous arts funders, many artists’ centers, our Artspace artist housing and presentation spaces, and our Minnesota State Arts Board’s generosity. The latter, bolstered by Legacy funding since 2009, has surely enhanced our artist-friendly environment. And artists are flourishing outside the Twin Cities as well, from Duluth to Rochester and in small towns like New York Mills and Fergus Falls.

I closed by talking about the many interviews with artists I’ve conducted over the past 16 years. And how I only really learned about their challenges by interviewing them about their teachers and gatekeepers and by reading, listening to or viewing their works, and taking in performances. And how the other social sciences help us to do so, especially anthropologists and sociologists. My favorite project? My study with Ojibwe writer Marcie Rendon of Native Artists in Minnesota, funded by McKnight; analysis and lots of artist profiles are available here.

In the Q & A, many people joined in. Students worrying about their futures — not just finding work but being able to afford to live in Denver and Colorado. Faculty wondering how they can link their expertise with faculty and degree programs in the sciences, engineering, medicine and social sciences. All in all, it was a wonderful day of energy, visionary thinking and learning by all, including me.

Economist Ann Markusen is an emerita professor from the University of Minnesota. In recent years her research and consulting have focused on artists, arts organizations and creative placemaking. She lives with her husband, Rod Walli, in Red Clover Township, Carlton County.


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