The Artist as Professional

Two weeks ago I logged in to a live webcast of a Cultural Workforce Forum held by the National Endowment for the Arts. (View the webcast here.) Its purpose was, broadly stated, to explore the condition and role of the artist in America’s real economy. 

Last week I attended two days of deliberations by seven external arts experts who awarded the second round of Creative Workforce Fellowships to 20 Cleveland-area performing and literary artists. This was the second round of artist fellowships awarded this year.  Visual arts fellowships were awarded earlier in the fall.

All these events provided revelations, validations, and raised questions.  Here’s what I’ve been thinking about as a result.

Is everyone (or could everyone be) an artist?  Workforce data is collected by the Office of Management and Budget and updated every 10 years.  Occupations are self-reported and anyone can declare themselves an artist whether they are paid for their work or not, whether they belong to a professional association or have had professional training or not.  The number of Americans who self-report their profession as ‘artist’ is astounding and growing as Baby Boom retirees leave the office and the machine shop and take up photography, needlepoint, pottery, as a hobby.

How does this inflate or distort the perception of the professional artist sector in the eyes of the public?  I think a lot.  Especially when we hear too many advocates for arts education declaring that all children are ‘born artists’ and every human being has inherent creative abilities that are lost without ongoing opportunities to express themselves in school. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I passionately support arts education.  I firmly believe that we all have the ability to think and act creatively and that having hands-on experience in the arts will make us all better, more productive human beings: just as hands-on experience in doing geometry and algebra problems will make us better able to manage our financial and physical lives.  But just because we can solve an equation, we don’t call our selves mathematicians. And just because we have the inherent ability to vocalize and move our bodies, few of us would claim to be singers or dancers when asked what we do for our living. 

The mistake that is made by too many arts education activists is in not championing the fact that some of us, frankly, have a level of given artistic ability above and beyond the normal, and that these individuals deserve the right to have these talents developed.  And that those who have subjected themselves to rigorous training of their abilities deserve the same level of regard and respect as do experts in any other field. 

Not everyone can be called an ‘artist’ in the same terms of skill and accomplishment.  We easily acknowledge that doctors, lawyers, machinists, mathematicians, chefs, race car drivers, scientists, etc., are professionals in their fields by virtue of some natural ability, an affinity for the work they do and the highly specialized training they have undertaken to become experts.  We should define and acknowledge artists the same way and expect a demonstrated level of skill and accomplishment before we confer or assume that title.

Thankfully, one place where the perspective on and the respect for professional training and accomplishment in the arts is well understood and regarded is right here in Cleveland. 

We know about our professional training academies: Cleveland Institute of Art, Cleveland Institute of Music, Oberlin and Baldwin Wallace Conservatories, dance, art and music programs at local colleges and universities.  So we understand and support the professional training of artistically talented individuals.  But now we also acknowledge the accomplishments of the most promising and experienced artists among us through the remarkable fellowship awards made possible through the public funds managed by Cuyahoga Arts and Culture and administered by the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture.

Just as fellowships in science, medicine, engineering, etc. acknowledge the stellar accomplishments of individuals in these fields and help these experts advance their work, so too, now,  Cleveland has acknowledged the value of the accomplished artists among us and is supporting the advancement of their work on behalf of an ever-more-robust creative workforce and innovative cultural climate. 

Few if any local municipalities provide the level of public recognition and support that Cleveland now does with these remarkable fellowships.  Congratulations and Bravo/Brava to the 20 newly named Creative Workforce Fellows.

I would be remiss if I did not also acknowledge the 50 year-old Cleveland Arts Prize, founded by the visionary Martha Joseph and Klaus George Roy.  The Arts Prize has been lauding local talented individuals for five decades, through an internal selection process that has recognized more than 100 arts patrons, arts institutions and late-career and emerging artists in our community. 

A final word.  Wouldn’t you think that, with this level of creative talent in our community, Cleveland would be an inherently more innovative, risk-taking, entrepreneurial city than it is?  There is a disconnect between the conservative, timid outlook of our civic leadership and the visionary energy and talent of our creative workforce.  Imagine what could happen if we instilled some of our creative ability into the civic and political realms here.


  1. OneCoolMom

    Well, there seem to be 2 distinct ‘types’ of civic leaders here…the ‘conservative and timid’ are also the polite and civilized. Then we have the brash, mouthy and too-often crooked. Always looking out for their (and their cronies) self-interests.
    What we really need (and need to put out the word that we’d support) are smart, polite, civilized people who aren’t afraid to go to ground and meet the crooks on their level, if need be.
    As long as we the electorate don’t vote for and then support good people, regardless of their gender or race or religious denomination, we’ll just stay stuck and toothless as always….

  2. treena

    could get this to ‘play,’ but will try to access it off their (NEA’s) website.
    Thanks for the heads up anyway.

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