Public Issues | Visual Arts

State of the Community

Everyone wants to know, just how bad is it? And not just on a national level. Locally, they want to know, am I the only one at my wit’s end? Are other galleries or artists hurting as bad as me? Is anyone seeing a silver linings in this whole mess?

In our February edition of 15 Bytes we asked artists, art professionals and art lovers to let us know how they are doing in these tough economic times. We’ve posted the results of this survey on page 9 of this edition (if you haven’t responded to the survey and would like to, go to our February edition).

The results of this survey, plus some anecdotal evidence we’ve picked up along the way and interviews conducted over this past week, will hopefully give us a better idea of how we as a community are doing.

Artists, who may be more used than most to tough economic times, seem to be relatively upbeat about the situation. Though for a majority of our respondents sales were worse in 2008 than in 2007, that majority was slight and twenty percent of those who responded said sales had increased by more than 25%. To deal with the tough economic times artists are making difficult decisions, getting an outside job to supplement income, or even cancelling an exhibition because of the bad market. Many are having to give up or share their studios. Despite this, most artists are still optimistic. Overall, their creative output hasn’t suffered during the tough times and the majority say they are excited about the future.

Private businesses may be hit the hardest as they feel the immediate and direct effect of the drop in consumer spending. The private sector of our community has already seen its first casualty of the crises. Wasatch Frame Shop (and gallery) has closed its doors. Owner Bill Barron says he already had plans to move into work with renewable energy, but the economic downturn is what influenced him to make the move now. Others are close to making similar desicions unless landlords will work with them to lower rents during the recovery or they can find a viable partnership to help cover costs.

One gallery owner I talked to said that while the people who normally buy art in order to decorate their homes are taking a wait and see attitude, the true collectors, addicts at heart, are coming in as frequently as before. They may be putting on layaway what previously they would have paid for up front, or they may be looking for smaller, more affordable pieces, but the true art lovers are still coming in for their fix.

This may point to one silver lining in the economic downturn: an aesthetic weeding process. As reported in the national news, now that a lot of new collectors, are losing the fortunes that enabled them to make show-off purchases, many works that used to be out-of-reach for most are finally coming on the market to the true collector. Also, we may see a similar weeding process in artists, separating the dilettantes and hobbyists from the committed professionals. And, as one artist pointed out, with less money to be made, the temptation to copy or sell-out may decrease.

Not all the news in the private sector is bad. Susan Meyer recently opened up a new gallery in Salt Lake City (350 South 200 East #100) — something that had been in the works before the crises hit. She laughs and says she’d prefer to be doing this expansion in 2011 (i.e. after the recovery), but she is still excited (those familiar Meyer’s Park City gallery will recognize Susan’s taste in art in the new gallery, but she does plan to introduce new talent at the Salt Lake space).

Most art professionals see the current economic conditions as tough but not insurmountable. Governmental organizations, and the non-profits they help support, are waiting to see what their budgets for the 2009 fiscal year will be. Most organizations are having to make cuts into their programming. Nancy Boskoff, director the Salt Lake Arts Council, says that like all departments in the city their budget has been affected, but not dramatically. They plan not to cut any programs, but there may be fewer services within the programs.

Budget cuts at the Utah Arts Council have been more dramatic. The Arts Council budget is determined by the Utah Legislature, which has a constitutional mandate to balance the state budget. Along with other state agencies, the Arts Council was asked to make cuts at the end of 2008 because revenues were less than had been predicted. And for the 2009 fiscal year state agencies, including the Arts Council, have been asked to make additional cuts of 15%.

At the Utah Cultural Alliance Legislative Forum on March 2, Margaret Hunt, Executive Director of the Utah Arts Council, and Allyson Isom, the Deputy Director at the Department of Community and Culture, were invited to discuss these current budget decisions and how they will impact the cultural community. After overviews of the budget process were presented the Forum entered its question and answer period and the temperature in the room quickly rose. Emotions were high for many of the more than thirty-five people present, most of whom were representing one cultural organization or another. When Salt Lake Magazine writer Dan Nailen blogged about the meeting later that day he titled his article, “When Utah artists eat their own.” At one point my five year old “assistant,” who wasn’t following the conversation but could hear the tone, turned to me and asked “Why is everyone so mad?”

Multiple subjects were brought up but the central issue, and clearest answer to my assistant’s question, was: the Folk Arts Program. As Isom and Hunt explained in their remarks, the Legislature asked each state agency to provide various scenarios for how the 15% cuts could be made. One scenario presented by the Arts Council, the one the Legislature is currently considering adopting (no decisions are final until the Legislature ends on March 12th) would eliminate the two staff positions at the Folk Arts Program, a move that some are calling the “dismantling” of the program.

Hunt says that though the staff positions would be cut the program itself would not end. Grant money would still be avialable to various organizations throughout the state. Her definition of the program was not the same as many others in the room, however. When one participant declared “You can’t digitize culture. You can’t outsource culture . . . You have to have people with a heart and soul who know how to speak,” he received a spontaneous outburst of applause.

The staff positions at the Folk Arts program would be cut as a response to a short-term crises, but comments at the Forum and in a subsequent interview indicate that the cuts fit into a long-term goal of finding an outside organization that would take over the role of the Folk Arts Program. This results from a general principal guiding decisions at the Arts Council. In an attempt to slim down the size of the Council and be “better stewards” of tax-payer money, the Arts Council is looking to partner with outside organizations (whether private entities or public-non profits) who could perform some of the functions that have historically been done by the Arts Council.

No outside organization currently exists to fill the role of the Folk Arts Program, however; and many, including former directors of the Utah Arts Council, don’t believe the program should be contracted out (see an article here). The general unease felt at the Forum may not have been caused solely by concern for the Folk Arts Program (though that concern was strong and widespread) — the long-term goal of slimming the Arts Council leaves a number of questions in the minds of cultural advocates and organizations.

The variety of issues raised at the Utah Cultural Alliance Forum go beyond the scope of this article. We do plan to continue the discussion, however, so keep an eye on our blog (www.15bytes.com) — we hope to have a lengthier discussion of the issue up by March 6. If you have comments about the Utah Arts Council you can post them here.

The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.

Categories: Public Issues | Visual Arts

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