Arts & Culture » Culture

Mixed Media: Measuring the State of the Arts Economy


In her portrait, "Jenn" stands slightly contrapposto against a brick wall next to a dribbling drainage pipe. Dressed in fireproof-looking clothes and heavy work boots, an ornately painted welding mask hangs from her right hand. According to a caption at the bottom of the portrait, "I WAS angry about being harassed in the workplace. I AM self-employed, happier, and curious again. I HOPE TO BE a fabricator. I hope to make beautiful and useful things."

"Jenn" is one of 20 photo portraits in Carissa Sindon's SEEN exhibition, which opens First Thursday, Aug. 6, at Evermore Prints. Sindon said the series "documents the lives and aspirations of Boise residents."

Just as SEEN catalogues who some Boiseans are, where they've been and what they hope to be, a recent Boise State University study measures the state of the arts economy in the City of Trees. Researchers and city leaders will study the data in "The Working Artist: Boise's Hidden Economy of Creators" to guide arts programming with a goal of making Boise more hospitable to creatives. Boise Department of Arts and History Director Terri Schorzman described it as a frank assessment for stakeholders.

"I think it's very honest news, and it's not surprising news. We have some holes and areas where we do things well," Schorzman said. "We need to help create structures that help this class survive."

The study, conducted with the participation of more than 550 respondents, delivered mixed findings. While it concluded that 30 percent of Boise area "creators" have graduate-level arts educations and 25 percent are between 25 and 35 years old, it also indicated many artists live at or below the poverty line, with 34 percent reporting earnings of less than $20,000 per year.

Most Boise artists—73 percent—reported producing their work from home, rather than at studios or other "maker spaces." Working a part-time job at Boise law firm Skinner Fawcett, LLP, hasn't discouraged Sindon, who said she has been supported by friends, family and co-workers. Whatever deprivations come from pursuing art are worthwhile, she said.

"The beauty of what I'm doing now is, I took the leap of faith to do this project," Sindon said. "I had to be, like, 'OK, I have this art idea.' And I went for it, and the universe is abundantly supporting me right now."

Boise has a variety of tools at its disposal when it comes to supporting artists. In 2015, the Department of Arts and History awarded more than $75,000 in grants—Sindon received a $3,000 grant to produce SEEN—and the city's spending on public art projects like traffic box wraps, murals and large-scale artworks has been robust. Boise also engaged the public on how to best use its assets, holding open workshops in late 2014 to crowdsource its five-year cultural plan; but Schorzman identified the lack of maker spaces and artists' low incomes as challenges. In November 2014, the city closed the popular Boise 150 Sesqui-Shop and has been on the lookout ever since to establish a similar venue where it can host local artists at low cost.

As for creatives' low earnings, "it tells me that we in the humanities are overeducated and underpaid if we've got that kind of youthful energy and education and poverty wages," Schorzman said.

The Boise State study couched Boise's artists in terms of what researcher and Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning Amanda Ashley described as their "human capital." Rather than seeing artists and the arts as separate from economic factors, Ashley said her study shows that Boise-area creatives are as fully integrated, economically significant and statistically measurable as any other section of the job base—and they have a role to play in city building.

"There are so many myths about how artists make a living. It's very different from other occupations and work forces," Ashley said. "The arts are not at the periphery of how we look at economic development."

Boise isn't the only city taking an interest in the value added by educated creatives. Niagara Falls, N.Y., has offered to help young people pay off their student loans in exchange for moving there. More germane to the question of artists, Detroit, Mich., activists launched the Write a House program, which gives away a home to a writer moving to the city. While other mid-sized cities have struggled to attract young artists, researchers learned that Boise's creatives are largely native, with half of artists working near the North End and downtown neighborhoods. They're loyal to the area, with 75 percent of respondents saying that they'd like to stay in Boise.

That loyalty could have something to do with non-governmental arts supports. Boise features a host of residency programs like those at Surel's Place and Ming Studios, in addition to independent arts granting organizations like the Alexa Rose Foundation, which was founded in 2014 and announced April 15 that it has up to 20 grants between $250 and $5,000 available to visual artists living in Ada and Canyon counties. Galleries like the Visual Arts Collective and Evermore Prints give creatives exposure. These and other organizations help provide access to money, education, supplies and maker spaces—and they're relatively young: Nearly half of Boise's arts organizations are fewer than 5 years old. What's more, 53 percent of artists surveyed reported starting or helping to start arts organizations or arts businesses, with 65 percent of the respondents indicating that arts and cultural-sector organizations support their career development.

Researchers are interested in how to best incubate that culture.

"Seventy-five percent of these artists want to stay in Boise, even though there are some challenges in doing so. How do we build an even stronger arts ecology?" said Ashley.

While the study sought to quantify the factors that affect Boise's arts economy, Sindon said some of those factors are internal and less tangible.

"I've designed my life this way. I've worked for this. I've been focused on this. People are supportive of me. My parents have been very supportive of me and my workplace has been very supportive of me as an artist," Sindon said. "It didn't just fall in my lap."