Taking Stock: A DIY Guide
Portland, Home of DIY
Visual artists in Portland — and I am one of them — have been particularly challenged by upheavals to our scene in the last few years: The nationally recognized Art Gym at Marylhurst University closed (in 2018), as did the 111-year-old Oregon College of Art and Craft (in 2019), leaving fewer places for artists in the region to exhibit and work. A handful of galleries with national and international connections had closed, too; then last spring, the mayor’s office announced a nine percent cut to the Regional Arts and Culture Council’s $4.2 million budget. In April 2020, the pandemic shutdowns were moving into their second month; with the entire world upended, countless communities faced catastrophe, among them Portland’s already-fragile visual art scene. Trapped at home, I wrote a grant proposal to the Andy Warhol Foundation that took the form of a series of questions:
Almost a year later, when I was fortunate to receive funding to support this project, I realized that some of the queries I had posed weren’t truly approachable without first understanding what artists in Portland really needed. It’s not difficult to find institutional perspectives on the arts: Across the US, organizations and funders at federal, state, and regional levels publish reports annually. But I wanted data specifically about Portland’s visual artists, information about their ages and genders, whether they could easily afford their housing and studios, if they worked freelance or salaried jobs in addition to their art practice. I wanted to know if the uncertainties and shifts of the pandemic had interrupted their practices or jeopardized their careers.
Considering what they contribute to the economy, to the well-being of their communities, and to the capability to imagine other possibilities for our lives, I believe that artists deserve greater visibility — to be seen, understood, and respected. While institutional reports are valuable, they come with their own agendas. Further, there is a growing rift between what makes a city “good for the arts” at an institutional level, and what makes a city good for artists. Many organizational reports have little to do with what artists actually need to live and work, so to find my answers I made a survey, organized and analyzed the responses, contextualized them within related studies, and published my own report. What follows is not a definitive guide to conducting a survey (which I hope more artists will do) but one of many viable ways to gather information in your own region. It is, if you like, the didactic companion to the introspective and illustrative essays in this issue of the magazine.
How-To (I Love the Internet)
I sourced almost everything I needed for free on the internet. Conceptualizing and writing the survey came first: Via some basic searches, I found excellent information on survey best-practices from Harvard University, Pew Research, and the National Center for Biotechnology Information. With these guidelines in hand, I drafted my questions in a word-processing program so that I could easily play with the order of the questions (and make sure that they were edited for clarity, grammar, and spelling). Once I had my list finalized, I transferred everything to a Google form (you can read the questions here) and wrote an introduction.
To make sure that the questions were understandable and appropriate, I recruited sixteen beta testers across a range of ages, genders, and ethnicities, asking them to take the survey and then answer a second set of questions that evaluated the survey for clarity and relevance. I paid these folks $25 each for their labor and, where possible, incorporated their feedback.
The most onerous part of this project was calculating my sample size (i.e., how many respondents I needed for the survey to be valid). In order to draw accurate conclusions and make predictions, it’s essential to get a sufficient number of responses to a survey. But there isn’t a single information source for how many visual artists lived in Portland in 2020. In the end, I used data from various sources: a 2008 report from the National Endowment for the Arts for one estimate; a 2017 Quartz analysis of US Census data for another; and general population counts for Portland in the years that those two reports were published. Then I compared those numbers to current population data and used them to find the approximate number of visual artists in Portland now (for a more detailed description of this process, see the final report). I plugged this number into a sample size calculator and got my target response number: I needed a minimum of 351 responses if I wanted data with a 95% confidence level and a 5% margin of error, which is the industry standard for surveys. Next I had to decide: how long should this survey be open? For this project, I opened the survey on Monday, March 29, 2021, and closed it on Friday, April 17, 2021 — giving respondents slightly less than three weeks to submit. My intuition told me that creating a sense of urgency around the survey would garner more answers than a longer open period, but to pull it off I’d have to create a buzz.
To accomplish this, I brainstormed people who I could ask to help me disseminate the questionnaire. I compiled lists of Portland artist friends and colleagues, then hunted down contact information for other local visual arts connectors: gallerists, curators, critics, and college-level instructors who might be willing to forward the study to their networks. In all, I emailed eighty-nine people with a short introduction and a link to the survey. I also posted links on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The March 29 launch felt a lot like throwing a party and not being sure if anyone would show up! To my relief, people were happy to share the link. I made sure to post regular notifications on social media as benchmarks were reached, and to post and DM thank-yous to colleagues who had shared the survey on their channels. Their support for the project was critical to its progress and it was important to acknowledge that — then and now.
When the survey closed, I had a total of 381 responses. Success! Now I needed to tabulate the answers, look for interactions between them, and read all the optional comments. After more Googling, I realized that there were a few data visualization programs that would help me make sense of the responses (as a visual artist myself, I feel more confident when data is presented in charts and graphs than I do with raw numbers). However, these programs require the data to be imported from an Excel spreadsheet, and it needs to be “clean” — that is, free of typos, extra spaces, and duplicates so that the visualization program can read it effectively. Luckily, a colleague of mine knows Excel and cleaned the spreadsheet in about four hours.
Now in possession of “clean” data, I downloaded a free two-week trial of a data visualization program called Tableau. A few tutorials later (heaven bestow its light upon all the people making these things!) I could drag-and-drop the data points to make visuals for my report. Tableau also helped me spot trends or unexpected interactions between the answers.
With my visualizations successfully visualized, I was at last ready to write my report. I included an overview of related literature I had read in preparation for the project (such as reports on the arts economy from Americans for the Arts, and a study on well-being as related to the arts from the University of Pennsylvania), because I wanted the Portland visual artist data to be presented in context — but if you don’t love research you could skip this step, because gathering data is a lot of work on its own.
Since the Warhol Foundation doesn’t host arts writing on its site, I found a home for the report with the Center for Arts Research at the University of Oregon (but you could post yours as a Google doc or host a downloadable PDF on your website).
DIY ≠ Do It Alone
If I had to do it over again, I’d change some of my approaches to the project. Early in the process, I followed advice to limit the ethnicities on the survey to the six categories used by the US Census, the rationale being that I would be better able to map the Portland data onto preexisting data for comparison. But after the survey was launched, I received feedback from two respondents that made me wish I had used a more expansive model. If I ever create a similar project, I will include a MENA category and will make it possible to check more than one box, plus have an optional field where people can type answers if they prefer. It will make aggregating the answers slightly more difficult, but it’s worth it to make everyone feel welcome.
Second, I would format the Google form differently. On my survey, I had two questions that allowed respondents to “check all that apply” from a list of possible situations. Each time a respondent checked multiple boxes in the list to indicate “yes,” all of that data was added into a single field, instead of being put into separate fields. This meant that these answers all had to be divided into individual Excel columns by hand on the back end, which was labor-intensive.
Finally, I’d reach out to potential collaborators. Early on, I considered contacting a professor at a local university who had come up in a Google search for data visualization, but at that stage in the project’s development, I wasn’t confident that anyone else would share my enthusiasm for this undertaking. Now I wish I had at least introduced myself, because he might have had helpful advice for me, or been willing to connect me with advanced students who would be interested in a real-world task. In fact, I think this kind of project would be perfect for a small team or a collaborative cohort. There’s no reason why do-it-yourself — that is to say, outside of the auspices of an institution or arts organization — needs to mean that you do it all by your lonesome.
The issues and challenges visual artists describe in this survey aren’t unique to Portland: ever-rising income inequality, sharp increases in the costs of pandemic living, and a commensurate loss of spaces and resources for the arts are issues across the US. While city- and state-level arts organizations grapple with their increasing precarity, they’re asking questions like, “Do we try to prop up the old models for survival, or do we experiment with new ones?” The answers can only be truly found when we understand the major concerns of the artists who live there. I think of artists in cities like Cleveland, Tacoma, Detroit, Nashville, Memphis, and Baltimore: On the whole, do they need more access to studio space? Or is a lack of affordable housing a pressing issue? Perhaps artists in your city require direct funding to stabilize their lives, as opposed to project grants? Let’s find out. Self-empowerment is one of the keys to resiliency, and we stand to gain so much from speaking directly with each other.