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Artists’ Incomes: Nothing Much and Shrinking


by Jerome Weeks 11 Mar 2009

CultureGrrl looks at the fine print in the National Endowment for the Arts’ recent study of artists’ jobs in the face of the recession. As you might guess, it’s not a pretty picture. But the blogger compares the figures with an earlier, bigger NEA report, Artists in the Workforce: 1990-2005. Here we learn, not just […]

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CultureGrrl looks at the fine print in the National Endowment for the Arts’ recent study of artists’ jobs in the face of the recession. As you might guess, it’s not a pretty picture. But the blogger compares the figures with an earlier, bigger NEA report, Artists in the Workforce: 1990-2005. Here we learn, not just about jobs, but about incomes, which is a very different metric.

“Here are some fun facts from that report:

—There are (or were in 2005) about 2 million artists (i.e., people for whom art is the primary occupation).

—Some 35% of those were self-employed (compared to only 10% of the total workforce). But in the subcategory of “fine artists, art directors and animators,” a much larger portion, 55.6%, was self-employed.

—Median income of artists from 2003-2005 was $34,800. But you have to read the fine print: Income is the total that the artist received from ALL sources, not just art.

—Median income of full-time artists was $45,200, compared to the higher median income for full-time (general) professionals of $52,500.

—Some 45% of all artists did not work full time all year. Their median income was $20,000.

What all this means is that, art-stars notwithstanding, choosing a career in the creative arts, more often than not, involves financial sacrifice.

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  • sarah jane semrad

    Thanks for posting this. Most artists I know are motivated by something other than money. Further, I believe several of the artists I know are going to be a-ok during this time. Artists in general are people who build their real-life social networks around other people, bartering and getting creative when money gets short. This sets a lot of artists up to survive during times like this – whether they’re doing art or maybe something else.

    My heart goes out to middle management + folks who have sacrificed relationships and family for “financial security” only lose their real life social networks revolving around things that cost a lot of money – country club dues etc. Ever the optimist, I think as a whole we can all learn a lot and make some real changes in our lives that re-align priorities and values.

  • Yes it does now. But as provincialism goes away, the arts will be more and more treasured and people can make a living from them.

    For me an important step in this, is for the NEA to shift from supporting art groups, to supporting art centers – that that community can stock with the artists, writers, musicians, etc. that they want. Instead of rewarding a lucky few, it gives everyone art of all kinds and allows all artists a fair place to show or perform their works. And for traveling artists/performers – a place to perform in most cities.

    • sarah jane semrad

      Jerome: “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect of a society that its truly committed artists, its best artists, can make a living at it.”

      Agreed agreed agreed.

      I’m suggesting that even though times are hard right now, a fair number of artists I personally know will be ok…. due to their creativity in general – at art and/or just navigating life.

  • Unfortunately, choosing rewarding careers *often* means making a financial sacrifice. In today’s economy, now more than ever, art is considered a “luxury” item and is often in the first tier of cutbacks, both personally and societally. The best way to support artists of course, is to buy art within your means. So if that means going to your local art fair and buying a $20 item or visiting a high end dealer and buying a $10,000 work – then do it.