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Artists Count

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Massachusetts is home to cultural powerhouses that help fuel the 'creative economy.' The Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Museum of Fine Arts, for instance.

But there are also thousands of individual artists, who form the state's 'creative workforce.'

Measuring the economic impact of these independent painters, musicians and filmmakers can be difficult, though.

WBUR's Andrea Shea reports on a new tool that's helping to generate statistics about a population that isn't easy to count.

ANDREA SHEA: The web-based survey...called 'Stand Up and Be Counted'...is something like a census. While high-profile artists such as James Levine or James Taylor are welcome to fill out the 17-page questionnaire, it's really designed for independents who don't necessarily make a living making their art.

Sound of restaurant

ANDREA SHEA: Artist Brian Patrick Adams splits his time between his studio and waiting tables at James's Gate, a restaurant and pub in Jamaica Plain. His bright, three-dimensional pieces often hang on the walls here. The restaurant doubles as a gallery. Adams is the curator.

BRIAN PATRICK ADAMS: I do find that most artists that I know it's a hybrid of the occasional sale, along with you know, the part time this or the freelance that, so it's definitely a tight rope walk and it's definitely a difficult act.

ANDREA SHEA: The fact that so many artists file taxes based on their 'day jobs' also makes it difficult to count the number of artists in Massachusetts, according to Kathleen Bitetti.

KATHLEEN BITETTI: We're kind of a lot like homeless folks in the sense that it's hard to find us.

Sound of sewing machine

ANDREA SHEA: Bitetti is an installation artist. She uses her sewing machine a lot and works here in her South Boston apartment. Bitetti is also the Executive Director of the Artists Foundation. The 'Stand Up and Be Counted' survey is her creation. She says she found a huge information gap when she was advocating for legislation that would help Massachusetts artists get healthcare. Bitetti...who has four jobs...couldn't come up with an accurate average income figure for artists in the state. She hopes the new on-line survey will help paint a fuller picture of what she calls a largely invisible population.

KATHLEEN BITETTI: What their education level, family size, if they have dependents, if they're a student, if so what kind of student...who are you...we ask where they create their art work... FADE...

ANDREA SHEA: To date more than 1,000 artists have completed the questionnaire based on last year's tax returns. 62% of them are visual artists. Just under a quarter do their art full-time. About half of the respondents are over 50 years old. 79% always vote. Bitetti says these numbers should help politicians, as well as grant-makers and artists.

KATHLEEN BITETTI: It can be a way to survey, it can be a way to do an economic impact study, and it can be a way to do a head count. We're hoping the filmmakers will see this as a way to count who's here, we're hoping that local cities and towns can help get the word out cause they can figure out how many musicians do we have, what do they need? So it's a really interesting tool and the goal is to have this and give it to other states.

ANDREA SHEA: In fact this artist survey is modeled after one conducted in another state...Minnesota...two years ago. 10,000 artists responded to 'Artists Count' and the final numbers helped push legislation for artists.

REPRESENTATIVE ERIC TURKINGTON: Numbers matter.

ANDREA SHEA: Massachusetts State Representative Eric Turkington is the Chairman of the Committee of Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development. He says artists are a key element in the state's creative economy, but politicians in the State House want proof from any industry.

REPRESENTATIVE ERIC TURKINGTON: Big dogs eat first...which is true, especially in this building. Biotech comes in, they define their industry, they define their economic impact they define the number of jobs and they walk out with a billion dollar bond issue. Other industries do the same thing. The arts community hasn't.

ANDREA SHEA: And that might be because many artists don't want to.

Sound of walking up stairs

ANDREA SHEA: Mliz Keefe keeps a second floor studio in Jamaica Plain, but she pays the bills by working at her brother's law firm.

MLIZ KEEFE: I'm an individual, I'm a painter.

ANDREA SHEA: For Keefe being an artist isn't about filling out forms or crunching numbers.

MLIZ KEEFE: I'm getting up and making my own decisions I'm making my own life around my art work and trying to do my best by it and outside of that I don't think I need to be counted.

ANDREA SHEA: Like Keefe many artists prefer to operate under-the-radar. Survey creator Kathleen Bitetti recognizes this fact and says 'Stand Up and Be Counted' does guarantee anonymity. And she adds the number of people who've responded so far only begins to scratch the surface.

This program aired on April 2, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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