Home caregivers, fast food workers and adjunct faculty work all in multibillion-dollar industries yet struggle for livable wages and fair labor practices. Artists are no exception. The arts are affected by the vulnerability, instability and elitism in the economy as defined and measured by current econometrics. Artists must often work on an empty stomach.

The $730 billion-a-year art industry in the U.S. represents 4.2 percent of U.S. goods and services, with 4.8 million workers and a $26 million trade surplus. According to the National Endowment for Arts, in 2012, 42 percent of funds in the arts came from individuals, 41 percent from sales and subscriptions, 13 percent from private foundations and 4 percent from public sources. In 2007, annual U.S. government spending on the arts per citizen was $0.41. By comparison, Germany spent $20 a year per citizen, England $77 and Australia $269, respectively.

However, existing statistics are misleading and do not address all variables that give the arts their genuine shape and substance.

Existing statistics unduly lump together incongruent activities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics places Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation under the supersector Leisure and Hospitality, which includes live performances, events and exhibits, as well as hobbies, recreational interests, aerobics, spectator sports, gambling and hundreds of other marginally related categories.

Dirk Philipsen, author of “The Little Big Number,” suggests that current econometrics fail to measure the full value of the arts. According to him, art is sometimes valued when linked to something else, like literacy or return on investment, with no intrinsic value itself. “That’s like defending kissing because it gives you stronger lip muscles for eating soup neatly,” wrote Peter Greene in his article “Stop ‘Defending’ Music Education” for the Huffington Post.

A gap exists between what we measure and what we value. We measure extrinsic impact, for example, by the number of jobs created or dollars spent. We value intrinsic impact, in terms of intellectual discovery, identity and community. According to “The Gift of the Muse,” a study published by the RAND Corporation, a public policy research organization, “we have encouraged ourselves to miss the true impact of art: empathy, intellectual stimulation, emotional resonance, social connection.”

In the U.S., the tendency is to fund larger, established, traditional institutions, such as museums, symphonies, and ballet. Though smaller arts organizations collectively serve a larger public than the largest organizations combined, they cannot collectively qualify for funding.

Like smaller institutions, individual artists have no common voice and little access to funding or shaping funding policies. For an artist to apply for the majority of available grants, they must have a fiscal sponsor, a nonprofit that will receive and disperse the funds. The artist-sponsor relationship is perceived as better than working for free, but it is not without its flaws.

Over 113,000 art-related U.S. nonprofits are tax-exempt, which is a form of public subsidy. Tyler Cowen, author of “Good and Plenty,” suggests that such subsidies make the art industry more bureaucratic. The salaried bureaucrats are not always in sync with the arts.

In “Public Money and the Muse,” essayist Joan Jeffri writes, “too many of these institutions view artists as part of their inventory but not their constituency,” leaving artists in “a limbo-like position where he or she is of an institution without being in it.”

Even well-paid contract labor in the arts is often denied job security, professional development, social standing, project ownership, return on investment or even legal rights. In fact, a few years ago, I was asked to sign a contract that defined contributing artists as “Third parties” and specified, “Third parties have no rights.” Writing about art trends that need to end, author Kriston Capps of The Atlantic suggests, “artists should be a partner in creating public spaces, not a subcontractor.”

Below are some steps toward developing more ethical labor practices in the arts.

 1. Measure what we value.

We need data and econometrics that reflect values not prescribed by current Gross Domestic Product parameters. Working Artists and the Greater Economy, W.A.G.E., is a U.S.-based advocacy group that examines labor issues in the arts, with a focus on regulating the payment of artists as well as the relations between artists and the institutions that contract them. Perhaps the framework W.A.G.E. has developed, combined with the New Economy values of accessibility, sustainability and democracy, could be a starting point for harvesting more insightful statistical information.

2. Fund risk-taking.

The arts would be better funded if they were treated like other research and development industries. Public funding could function like venture capital, supporting what no market will commence or sustain. In the U.S., venture capital backed revenues are close to 21 percent of U.S. GDP. A framework for artists to access more of this venture capital should potentially be explored.

3. Speak up.

Artists, like all workers, could assess personal or collective complicity in current labor practices. Artists —  the content providers —  are the informed voices that can influence broader cultural frameworks. Unless artists find a voice, the narrative will continue to be imposed, not chosen. Artist Andrea Fraser writes that artists need, “to recognize our participation in the economy and confront it in a direct and immediate way in all of our institutions, including museums, galleries, and publications.”

No one works better on an empty stomach.

bruceheadshotBruce McKaig is a professor in the Art & Art History Department at Georgetown University. 

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