We believe that a healthy arts ecosystem should provide opportunities for everyone to participate in the arts at their own individual level of skill and interest. This includes allowing more “scarce” opportunities – like making art for a living – to be available to those people for whom it matters most (i.e., making art is most meaningful) and whose work in the arts offers the greatest benefit to others – by connecting to a large audience, winning acclaim from experts, adding something unique to the cultural diet of humanity, or improving people’s lives in other meaningful ways.
Why We Care
We suspect that economically disadvantaged individuals in particular face a variety of obstacles when seeking to actively pursue careers in the arts, including:
- costs of making/producing art (e.g., materials, rehearsal space)
- indirect costs (e.g., transportation, child care)
- lack of time (due to the need to earn a living)
- inability to take needed financial or social risks (such as student debt for an arts degree, moving to an urban area)
- societal pressure (from social and/or professional environments that treat participation in the arts as a diversion from more economically productive activities)
Then there is the question of tangential income sources – such as a family help or inherited wealth – enjoyed by many who pursue arts careers. If an arts occupation is attractive but probably low-paying, and there are socioeconomic inequalities in the road to becoming a professional, logically that line of work will beckon more people from affluent backgrounds.
So do all the people who have the most to contribute really have the opportunity to pursue a career as an artist? And socioeconomics aside, to what extent are barriers to arts careers shaped by other societal factors – such as race/ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, and/or geographic variables (e.g., urban vs. rural residencies)?
What We Know
… about economic realities and secondary income:
- The day-job phenomenon is especially true for artists who support single-income households. For example, Australian artists who don’t rely on the income from a partner spend more time on non-arts work.
- Others develop a backup plan. Nearly half of artists in the U.S., according to BFAMFAPhD’s “Artists Report Back,” hedge their career bets by majoring in another subject, and arts students pick up more minors and teaching certificates as part of their backup planning.
- The career path of an artist is fraught with economic risk. There is a long gestation period with high opportunity costs and greater variability in earnings than those working in other fields, and so a greater degree of uncertainty and instability. Artists are also five times more likely to be self-employed.
- Even after establishing a successful career, artists experience the biggest drop between income during childhood and income during adulthood among the 31 careers in a national longitudinal survey.
- Socioeconomic backgrounds play a major role: professionals in “arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations” were about 60% more likely than average to have a father who attended at least some college (55.9% vs. 34.5%), and 70% more likely to have a mother who attended college (55.9% vs. 32.6%).
- Governmental interventions to support artists can be effective, but also come with some strings attached, such as being subject to censorship, systemic perpetuation of cultural inequality, and diluting diversity of cultural expression and creativity.
… about formal education for arts professionals:
Are artist careers mediated by access to higher education? Research indicates that the need for a formal arts degree in order to make a living as an artist is debatable, and the benefits are variable:
- The “Artists Report Back” study claims that 84% of working artists in the United States don’t have a degree in the arts, and about two-fifths don’t have degrees at all.
- Although not necessary to become a successful professional, an arts degree could help an artist reach a higher level of industry success or make a full-time living as an artist.
- A Danish study indicates that a formal education does reduce the rate of attrition (i.e., abandoning an arts career) for musicians, actors and writers, but not necessarily at the same rate for visual artists and dancers.
What We Don’t Know
Unfortunately, much of the evidence currently available on the topic of socioeconomic status and access to arts careers is indirect and based on incomplete data. The vast majority of research on artists’ livelihoods only examines artists’ current socioeconomic status, not their status at the time when they were deciding what career to pursue (and earlier). We thus don’t know much about how socioeconomic status at different life stages might affect people’s decisions about pursuing an arts career. In addition, while the evidence is consistent with the idea that the high risk of pursuing an arts career deters people from lower education and income backgrounds, we don’t know the extent to which risk really does play a role in the selection of majors, or for that matter whether the level of interest in pursuing arts careers varies across socioeconomic background and other demographic categories. The data and analyses that we do have point to socioeconomic status as one factor, but not necessarily the most important one, in determining whether or not someone will earn a living wage as an artist.
Other key questions we have include:
- What differences exist across artistic disciplines in relation to different career trajectories, opportunities, and potential financial successes?
- How does secondary income (such as spousal or other family support) affect the opportunities and careers of individual artists?
- How does the availability of a social safety net – such as access or lack of access to affordable health care – affect the distribution and uptake of opportunities to earn a living as an artist?
- To what extent do disparities of opportunities and support for artists from different racial, gender and orientation backgrounds currently exist? And what, if anything, has helped to reduce these disparities?
- What are the differences in access between “very scarce” arts career opportunities – i.e., making a living from the arts – and merely “scarce” opportunities for artists who have more than one income source or who present work in public but not necessarily for money?
How to Use this Information
A few action items to consider:
- Synthesize existing research on disparities of opportunities in arts careers by gender, sexual orientation, and race/ethnicity.
- Seek a better understanding of professional opportunities by arts discipline – and also why any differences may exist.
For funders and artist residencies
- Commission current research on the questions referenced above to support more strategic thinking and supportive programs in the sector.
- Be cautious about assuming that supporting artists is the same as supporting socioeconomically disadvantaged populations in other sectors. Although artists may earn significantly lower incomes than professionals in other fields, they may come from or have familial access to wealth, which provides a security net not available to others.
- Consider how funders (and advocacy agencies) can play in a role in protecting artists from censorship risk in the face of variable government support – especially in places like Poland or Hungary where democratic institutions exist but are fragile and under threat.
Who Can Afford To Be A Starving Artist? (2016)
The key to success might be risk tolerance, not talent.
This article explores the economic realities involving who can actually take up an arts career – those who deserve it, those who really want it, or those who can afford it?
The BFA’s Dance With Inequality (2016)
Most arts majors come from money. Most artists didn’t major in the arts. What does that say about the sector?
A BFAMFAPhD study raises questions as to whether higher education is an arts incubator or a waste of precious prime time.
When Artistic Education Matters (2017)
Arts degrees don’t seem to have much impact on income from the arts. But do they affect how long people stay in the field?
A Danish study demonstrates how formal education can reduce attrition rates for artists in some disciplines (music, theater, literature) more than others (dance and visual arts).
The State: A Friend Indeed to Artists in Need? (2016)
Internationally, governments can play an important role creating occupational equity for the arts – but there’s a catch.
This article explores the different results of state-aided arts programs in global locales ranging from Scandinavia to the former Soviet Union to North America.
TEDx Talk (2011)
“Never Heard of ‘Em”: Why Citizen Curators (not Daddy’s Money) Should Decide Who Gets to Be an Artist
A transcript of a speech by Createquity founder Ian David Moss, who argues that a hypercompetitive marketplace ultimately limits opportunity for economically disadvantaged artists.
Artists Are Not Alone in Steep Climb to the Top (2013)
It’s an old story: when they’re not creating, many artists spend their time at another job that brings in a steady income.
This article outlines the many ways creative artists navigate the ever-changing economy.
Supply is Not Going to Decrease (So It’s Time to Think About Curating) (2011)
Providing stewardship for a world in which supply of creative content is exploding and will never shrink.
Why institutions and funders should focus their resources on producers and artists who can actually make a difference.
Cover image: Warhol Dollar, by Incase via flickr