Reflecting on the Labor of Artists

While many have a holiday, Labor Day is a work day for the arts. Dancers dance. Musicians make music. Performances and festivals, and nightclub acts, and arts centers, are generally all open for business.
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Labor Day has come and gone again with all its incongruities. It is a day when we celebrate laborers and the work ethic... by taking a day off. It's a national day of leisure where we heap well-deserved praise on workers, many of them working all around us, many of them right there working to help us enjoy this very national holiday.

Despite extensive television and print advertising showing the ecstatic faces of school children of all ages preparing for the new academic year by purchasing shoes and electronics, kids of all ages were depressed yesterday. I was always depressed on Labor Day and, come on, almost everyone else was too. Summer is over. Labor begins. Teachers are even more depressed. I know, I come from a teaching family. It has been this way for the more than 100 years since Labor Day began.

While many have a holiday, Labor Day is a work day for the arts. Dancers dance. Musicians make music. Performances and festivals, and nightclub acts, and arts centers, are generally all open for business. And the artists and arts administrators needed for the magic are right there to make the magic happen as they are every day.

The first Monday of September is a day when arts workers are explaining to their parents and spouses just what exactly it is that they do and why they can't come to the picnic. Just like restaurant workers, nurses, police, store clerks and firefighters.

Today's holiday was for many a well-deserved day to lie back in a hammock, sip a long stemmed glass of something cool, gaze at a piece of sculpture, read a book, see a film, go to a concert or a live show.

But I hope we all remembered that the hammocks and glassware are often handmade by American craft artists, the sculptures are done by people who feel just as hot and sweaty as anyone in a metal foundry forging away. And while many of the performing artists were working, their work was preceded by the writers and media artists who created the scripts and books and technical productions they relied on. The music, and acting, and dance was made by men and women who take risks every day (and often again every night) hoping that their work will please others, but most importantly satisfy their own high standards.

Ask any artist or arts manager the last time he or she felt relaxed and you'll hear, "relaxed, what's that?" Their labors are real, but they are labors of love.

And so as we return to work, I salute the 2.2 million artists that our U.S. Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics actually count as making their living as artists. I applaud the many millions of other artists, actors, craftspeople, dancers, who don't make the federal list because they can't derive the majority of their income from their art work but from whom we benefit every day in choruses, theaters, and design. There are 2.6 million full-time equivalent jobs supported by the expenditures of nonprofit arts and culture organizations, and 5.7 million jobs when the impact of audience expenditures is counted in. That's big -- bigger than most people know.

The arts industry received and richly deserved the $50 million investment it got from Congress through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act last year, and that alone saved or generated 1,408 jobs. And these jobs have yet to be fully tabulated so they should reach close to twice that number. These are real, tangible jobs -- arts jobs -- that we can point to and list the name of the worker who was helped. These folks paid bills, bought groceries, paid taxes, just like all the other workers from the other industries that got help. Was $50 million a painfully paltry sum? Sure. It should have been a billion dollars. Did it make a difference? Ask any one of the 1,408.

My Labor Day this year was in San Diego speaking at Art San Diego 2010 where a group of community leaders are trying to start a national level contemporary art fair, to create new markets for the work of artists and new jobs in the city. The labors continue here and in cities all across the US and, once again, the arts are right there in the lead.

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