“Old World Inspirational Sign,” by Flickr user Nicholas Raymond

It’s no secret that embarking on a professional career in the arts requires a degree of boldness in the face of economic uncertainty. The prevailing stereotype of the “starving artist” indicates that people do so anyway – either willing to forego comfort for creativity’s sake, possessing alternative income (such as a day job or family help), and/or confident that their talent and drive will see them through. But how long do they stick with it before throwing in the towel – or professionally shifting gears? As the Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote: “Necessity is stronger far than art.”

A study from 2016 assesses the odds of artistic longevity through the prism of academia: does a formal education enhance one’s chances of making it (and staying) in the arts? Using data gathered by Statistics Denmark, “Artistic education matters: survival in the arts occupations” analyzes more than 27,000 employment records between 1996 and 2012 across five categories of Danish artists: visual artists, choreographers and dancers, composers and musicians, film/stage actors and directors, and writers (including journalists).

Authors Trine Bille and Søren Jensen estimate the impact of a formal artistic education on the length of artists’ careers in each of these groups. (The definitions of “relevant education” and “relevant industry” for each arts group are specified in an appendix to the report.) Among their key findings:

  • Formal education reduces the rate of attrition (i.e., abandoning an arts career) for musicians, actors and writers.
  • The same correlation is not seen among visual artists and dancers, though these samples are smaller.
  • Exit rates – especially early in a career – vary between artists in different fields.

Methods of Inquiry

The Bille/Jensen report leverages Statistics Denmark, an agency that collects a remarkable census of all Danish citizens covering employment, income, industry, age, and gender, among many other topics. Made possible via a personal identification number associated with every Danish citizen, this is arguably the most robust longitudinal dataset we’ve ever encountered at Createquity. For its purposes, “Artistic Education Matters” homes in on people ages 18 to 70 (excluding pensioners) who have a positive income primarily generated by work in one of the five defined arts categories over the 17-year time frame of the study. Exit rates are marked by a ‘‘definitive exit from the artistic labor market’’ – a shift in occupation that continues throughout the observed period without a return to arts employment.

Via a literature review, the authors point to several hurdles in the arts labor market, including an excess supply of artists, paltry average income, skewed income distribution, and a low overall survival rate, with just 20% of the subjects remaining in their fields after ten years. “Compared to other fields of employment,” they write, “the arts seem to be a risky business.”

Bille and Jensen’s conclusions focus on artistic survival rates – the odds of remaining in an arts profession – more than income levels. Indeed, they cite a host of cultural and economic literature indicating that artistic education does not have a significant impact on income, noting that many artists are self-taught and theorizing that “indefinable” factors – such as talent, creativity, and ambition – may contribute more to higher rates of payment than formal training does. (Despite this conclusion, Bille and Jensen perform their own analysis of income levels in the dataset and find that, at least for Danish musicians, actors, and writers, a relevant education actually does positively affect earnings. Income from self-employment is not included in the study, though, so we should take those results with a grain of salt.) While acknowledging that “higher income makes [artists] better able to live from their arts,” “Artistic Education Matters” concerns itself mainly with education’s effect on longevity – not financial success per se – in a chosen arts field.

Bille and Jensen employ the Cox model of regression analysis to to investigate what factors predict longevity in the marketplace as an artist, controlling for income level, relevant experience (i.e., working in the field in which the artists studied), other experience, additional employment, and demographic variables such as gender and age.

Motley Crews

Overall, across the five artist groups studied, only about 20% remain in their chosen occupation after 10 years. The report makes clear, though, that the impact of an arts degree varies considerably by discipline. Below we discuss which groups benefit most from a relevant education, from most to least:

  • Writers: the authors note that “it is not possible to separate authors from journalists” in the dataset, and this is the largest group, with 14,943 subjects. About 20% have a relevant education: for them, the exit rate after five years is 20%, compared to more than 60% for those without a writing degree. Bille and Jensen note that journalism in particular “functions more like an ordinary labor market, where an education may have an important signaling effect to employers.”
  • Actors: the sample of 3,813 “film, stage, and related actors and directors” shows this group to be most vulnerable to an early exit. While Bille and Jensen note that “an actor can get a job without any formal education or other experience,” 16% of the actors had in fact formally studied their craft. At the five-year point, only 45% of those with a relevant education had left the field, compared to 75% of those without.
  • Musicians: the sample of 3,161 “composers, musicians, and singers” shows 34% with a music degree; among this group, 55% left after five years, compared to 70% for those without. The authors note relatively high barriers for entry in this field: “technical skills may have an impact on the survival.”
  • Dancers: The group of “choreographers and dancers” has only 296 subjects; just 9% of them have formal dance training, and this is said to have “no impact on staying in the profession” (the five-year exit rate difference is less than five percentage points). However, the authors note the small dataset: “The problem is that there are very few observations for this group.”
  • Visual Artists: Among 4,851 “sculptors, painters, and related artists” (including workers commercial fields like advertising) the authors report that just 2% have a formal arts education, “which means that most of these visual artists were autodidacts.” Based on this small sample, the formal education “seems to have no impact” on an early exit.

Bille and Jensen also cite data from a 2005 French study – Gender differentiated effect of time in performing arts professions (Coulangeon et al), which investigated survival function estimates for musicians, actors, and dancers in France from the mid-1980s to 2000. Both studies indicate that the most vulnerable period of attrition for all artist groups is in the two years following entry to the labor market; the Danish study, with a wider dataset, shows an even more dramatic early exit rate than the French study.

What Else Might Be Going On?

An obvious and tempting conclusion to draw from these results is that, yes, an arts degree is valuable, at least if one works in music, theater, or literature and if one’s goal is to stay in the profession for as long as possible. Yet for all its specificity, this analysis leaves several key questions unanswered and hypotheses unexplored. Among them are:

  • Are these results simply an indication that people who bother to get a formal education in the arts are more committed to their chosen art form in the first place? Could there be a sunk-cost effect where people feel like they ought to stay in an arts field longer if they invested substantial time and resources getting trained in it? Especially since, for most, that probably also meant not getting a degree in some other field?
  • Are the conclusions about visual artists and dancers – that formal education has little impact on longevity – simply a reflection of limited data for those groups or is there something more to this than first-glance results?
  • Is it possible that people who survive the longest in the arts have alternative income streams (such as family help) that wouldn’t be reflected in this dataset?
  • What is the relationship between survival in the arts and financial success? The authors note that a relevant education correlates with higher salaries for three of the arts groups – musicians, actors, and writers – and these are the same groups in which education is seen to increase longevity.
  • What role does self-employment play in all this? Unfortunately, the authors chose not to include income from self-employment in the analysis due to challenges with the dataset, which could have skewed the results in unpredictable ways.
  • Would we see these same types of results looking at similar data from a different country and/or a different time frame?

The Bille/Jensen study would have benefitted from a closer examination of these hypotheses as they relate to the Danish dataset. With its literature review and emphasis on longevity, this report adds a helpful lens to research gathered by Createquity last year in “The BFA’s Dance with Inequality” – which cast some doubt on the importance of arts degrees for lower-income students – as well as our 2016 article “Who Can Afford to Be a Starving Artist?” But because the study is light on analysis of socioeconomic factors and personal wealth – particularly the role that secondary income support plays in extending an artistic career – it doesn’t illuminate its subject as much as it could.

Then there are socio-political aspects such as government support for arts education: Denmark has a robust social safety net compared to, say, the United States, which may play into arts longevity. Getting a formal arts education in Denmark – where university education is free and living costs are buttressed by a system of grants – does not entail the equity barriers found in countries with high, generally unsubsidized university costs (especially at the graduate level).

Still, with an extraordinarily comprehensive national dataset, thoughtful analysis, and pinpointed conclusions, Bille and Jensen make a strong case for the connection between formal art education and longevity in an artistic career, especially for those working in music, theater/film, and literature. This should be good news to arts school students and grads who hope to spend their lives doing nothing else.

  • HA Beasley

    Another major factor to analyze is the artist’s parental status. In the U.S., the high costs of child care and health insurance, mixed with highly variable performance and rehearsal schedules, make it nearly impossible for parent artists to sustain a career in the performing arts without a partner whose job carries health insurance and a schedule allowing them to take on some of the night hours of childcare. For artistic subfields that require touring or travel, these demands intensify. Many educated female artists seek alternate careers 5-10 years into the field because of such practical family demands. I would love to see a study on how many parent artists return to their primary artistic career fields after their children have left the home.