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Census Paints Picture of Artists

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008

Although it may not appear that way here in Washington, there are more working artists than lawyers in the United States, and their numbers are growing.

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A study of census data released yesterday by the National Endowment for the Arts found that nearly 2 million people earn a living as artists, compared with 1.7 million who listed artist as an occupation in 1990. (The country has 1 million lawyers.)

The Washington region has the fourth-highest number of artists among the top 50 metropolitan areas in the United States, trailing Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. More than 47,000 people -- out of a civilian workforce of 2.7 million -- work as artists in the Washington area, according to the study. By comparison, there are 140,000 working artists in the Los Angeles/Long Beach area.

In the District alone, there are almost 10,000 people who identify themselves as working artists, according to the survey. In 2000, 2.82 percent of city workers said they were artists. That number grew to 3.49 percent by 2005.

The growth in the number of artists here doesn't surprise two veterans of the local art scene, who say the quality of life has been a major magnet.

"There's no question that a larger number of theater professionals have chosen to live here, rather than stop here," said Stephen Richard, the former executive director at Arena Stage, who is now a vice president at the planned National Children's Museum. "There are more theaters that are paying and can keep the actors in body and soul. Then there are a fair number of auxiliary occupations such as faculty at the colleges, as performers and in the voice-over industry."

Carolyn K. Carr, the deputy director and chief curator at the National Portrait Gallery, said, "I am not surprised when you think about it. This is a great museum community. We have arts schools here at the Corcoran and [University of] Maryland that attract people. Many of the artists work at the museums, and when we have a staff art show it is amazing."

Artists now represent 1.4 percent of the U.S. labor force, said Dana Gioia, the NEA chairman. In 2000 the census counted 1.93 million working artists. Follow-up studies from 2003 to 2005 raised that number to 1.99 million.

"Artists now represent a major economic occupation," Gioia said. He estimates that the aggregate income of artists is now $70 billion.

Artists, despite being twice as likely to have a college degree as other workers, are seriously underemployed and earn less than other professionals. For instance, 55 percent of employed artists work full time, and 28 percent work fewer than 35 hours a week. Nearly 35 percent are self-employed.

The number of artists more than doubled between 1970 and 1990, two decades that saw growth in museums, theaters, small symphonies and dance companies in many regions of the country.

The rate of growth has now slowed, he said, "because we may have reached a point of stability. It reflects the maturation of American culture."

Arts-related work in electronic media is allowing artists to live outside urban centers where they have traditionally congregated. "There is an increased ease of making a living outside the metropolitan areas," Gioia said. Vermont has more writers than any other state, more musicians live in Tennessee than anywhere else, and as many architects live in Colorado as Massachusetts.


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