Caution: Artists At Work

by Leah Falk

Who makes a living as an artist? Jeff Koons. Lena Dunham. Does Gwyneth Paltrow count? As you cash the $50 check from a group exhibition or crack open your “payment” of two contributor’s copies of a literary journal, it’s easy to feel cynical about your ability to pay the bills. The fact is it’s never been easy to make a living making art. Recall all the biographies of painters and poets that end “…died penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave.” But tracking who actually does can tell us quite a lot about who artists are in relation to the rest of the work force, and thereby society. Just as important to the artist collective BFAMFAPhD, whose new report, based on US census data, tracks the demographics of working artists across America, is what the data on working artists tells us about what kinds of arts institutions, networks, and resources our country needs.

BFAMFAPhD, which is made up of working artists — including one who happens to be a data analyst — presents statistics that won’t entirely surprise you, if you pay attention to the rest of the world, or if you read the NEA’s 2005 “Artists in the Workforce” report. Out of 2 million arts graduates in the nation, only 10% make their living primarily through the arts. The rest of us have day jobs. Plenty of artists, especially those who don’t require rehearsal time, are okay with that, but for the collective, this imbalance suggests that students matriculating in arts degree programs are being fed the overly optimistic belief that they’ll be able to pay back their — often astronomical — student loans by working in the arts. On the other hand, the myth that majoring in the arts in the first place dooms you to a life of unfulfilling underemployment seems to be statistically, if not anecdotally false, according to another big survey by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project.

You might attribute the falloff in arts activity from graduation to the working world to the fact that the arts are a competitive field: may the best man win and all that. But it’s hard to square that idea with the racial demographics BFAMFAPhD found, which suggest outsize inequality: 85% of “working artists” in the U.S. — defined as someone who makes their primary income through art — are non-Hispanic whites. In New York City, that percentage falls to 74%, but that’s roughly double the proportion of non-Hispanic whites in NYC’s general population. Jeff Koons, indeed.

A pause for full disclosure: I have a dog, or maybe a bear, in this fight. Having doodled and scribbled my way through elementary and middle school, mostly thinly disguised Mary Downing Hahn fanfic, I became what BFAMFAPhD calls an “arts graduate.” I went on to get an MFA in poetry, then a day job that had little to do with poetry.

After a brief rebellious phase in college, when I decried a vague notion of “academic poetry,” getting an MFA seemed like a destiny. Although I enjoyed the experience so much that I now run a blog dedicated to writers who have been through similar programs, in a way I see my post-college MFA-tunnel vision as symptomatic of a certain juxtaposition of generation, education, and class. Others I knew who went the same route had attended pre-college programs in the arts, both free and expensive; had received mentorship from college professors, older students, and private teachers; and learned early on that there was a system of recognition for work done well. In short, we depended largely on institutions to validate our activities, even if we felt most alive while reading and writing (or dancing or practicing Bach) alone in our rooms. This culture of institutional validation is most entrenched among the middle and upper-middle classes — see exhibit “SAT” — and it’s a wonder, given its power, that young artists who grow up in poverty or in other marginalized circumstances ever make it to art school at all.

Could those artists do without the institutional validation and just get to work? Could I have become a writer without an MFA? Sure. A writer is someone who writes (and, cf. Gertrude Stein, ceases to be a writer when she is not writing). But then I wouldn’t have had the three years I spent getting and giving book recommendations, writing collaborative poems over pints of beer, and blushingly introducing two of my favorite writers at their invited readings.

And that is precisely the collective’s point. The greater the number of artists going through degree programs, the more working artists privileged with a received vocabulary of critique; access to a particular set of professional publications, people, and conferences; and the business savvy increasingly essential to navigating their field, especially in an era where artists of all kinds do more of their own promotion. Crucially, too, the more artists go through degree programs, the greater the professional competition for both networked and un-networked artists. If an artist doesn’t have access to the cultural capital of the art world via a degree program or old-fashioned nepotism, she moves in other circles. Sometimes she’s “discovered,” or is an “overnight success” or “crosses over” or any number of other dirty words used to pretend someone hasn’t been working as hard as they can, day after day, invisible as America was to Columbus until he bumped into it.

It’s not that someone owes us something for pursuing art, for seeing beautiful things and wanting to make them, too — we chose this life, and we knew it wouldn’t be easy. The organizations who bother to gather data on artists recognize that they are no more hard working and no less hardworking than any other human who’s dedicated to his job; that artists deserve to eat and afford their rent no more and no less than a cab driver or a hedge fund analyst or a university instructor. The updating of these data is revelatory, as the release of the NEA’s first study was in 2005, because it makes the claim that artists demand no more of their country than any other working person, are no more useless or useful than anyone else, and don’t deserve attacks by politicians who want to charge them more for their degrees or get rid of the institutions that support them.

But the radical interpretation of these data is that artists do owe something, and are owed something, but not to or by the government, exactly: rather, we owe and are owed by each other. We have to do better by other artists. That’s not all we need, of course; note that the longer, more comprehensive study on how artists make up the working fabric of our country was spearheaded by the NEA, chaired then by poet Dana Gioia, a “working artist” himself. That’s the same organization a few of our recently-elected representatives think is just gravy.

A poet I admire talks about two approaches to sharing information. One she calls feminist, and the other she calls probably nothing very good at all. She encountered the latter approach while speaking to a fellow poet who had a plum gig at a university somewhere; when she asked him for advice on how to seek a similar position, he told her he wasn’t comfortable talking about it. That is, he was keeping his hard-won professional knowledge to himself. Another prominent writer was more generous, introducing her to an agent or advising her on how to write a book proposal. The content of the advice doesn’t matter; it’s the choice between letting privileged information continue to travel in the same privileged circles and leaking it so that the unprivileged can become privileged.

40% of working artists, according to the report, have no degree of any kind, making an artist at least 40% just someone who makes art, not a bachelor or master or doctor of anything. If you’re an arts graduate struggling to become a working artist, that number might make you wonder who the gatekeepers are, anyway, and what gate do they guard that you’re supposed to want to pass through? BFAMFAPhD can’t answer these questions for you, but wishes we were all a little bit feminist about the whole thing. If artists with and without degrees got together and formed “worker and producer cooperatives, affordable arts institutions, and resource sharing networks,” we might discover that we were the material our institutions were made of: that just by getting together in a room and creating something, we could become an institution.

Leah Falk got her MFA at the University of Michigan. She writes poems and runs the blog MFA Day Job.

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