Can an artist make a livable wage? The next generation of hopeful full-time artists weighs in
Most people who pursue a career in the arts are far too familiar with the starving artist concept. This caricature of working artists riffs off the notion that to make a living wage working only as an artist is nearly impossible. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, artists account for 1.6% of all workers aged 16 and up—nearly 2.67 million people with the career title of artist. Artists also have higher unemployment rates than the national average. Artists sit at 3.9%, while the national average is 3.4%.
According to a report from the BFAMFAPhD (a collective of artists, educators, and students), only 10% of those who study art at a higher education level go on to use their degree. Yet despite these shaky statistics, the desire to create a career based around creation continues to appeal to generation after generation of artists. As the next generation of hopeful young artists enter the workforce, they enter a tumultuous time of economic uncertainty.
Many young artists are not optimistic about being able to purchase property, afford health insurance, and, ideally, make their entire wage just from art. Despite those uncertainties, these artists push ahead to achieve their artistic goals and pursuits. The compelling call to pursue their passion is worth the uncertain risk. For Claud Jackert, this risk meant opposing their parents' initial wishes to pursue a more traditional career route.
“I wasn't able to go to art school. I actually have an undergraduate degree in political science with minors in journalism and French,” says Jackert. And so I always wanted to, but my parents, who're Midwestern pragmatists, were really hoping I could get work that would keep the lights on to pay the bills.”
Though the 24-year-old did not pursue an undergraduate in art, among their many long-term goals is to obtain a funded Masters of Fine Arts. But for now, they work as a grant writer. Jackert isn’t alone in taking on a side job to help cover the bills as they establish themselves within the arts field. Not having a steady income to be able to pursue art full-time can be a hindrance to some people wishing to move forward in the field. For Jackert, the fact they didn’t pursue an art degree in college has made the journey to get where they are all the more difficult.
While it’s true that many students who obtain an art degree eventually don’t go on to use it, those who do recognize the benefits it has provided. Chloe Greenburg, who did get an art degree, feels that while not every part of the experience was perfect, art school did provide an excellent head start in forging important connections.
“I think art school is largely about refining technical skills, but I think it's equally about finding community and building relationships that can span for decades,” said Greenburg. “I think it's really hard to find work if you're not getting in contact with people who know people.”
This game of networking telephone is how Greenburg was contacted for a job illustrating a children’s book titled, “My Autistic Mama” by Kati Hirschy. The book has gone on to be a success; it went viral on TikTok and has received warm praise across several platforms. But even with this successful start, Greenburg hasn’t quite hit the stride where art is her only income. Currently, she works at a warehouse that specializes in framing pieces. While not directly related to her goals, the job offers her more flexibility to focus on her art.
“It's definitely good to find a job that you can balance with art because I think if you work a full-time job, it's very exhausting mentally, creatively, or physically; it can be really, really hard to find time to make art on top of them,” said Greenburg.
While Jackert can still find time for their artistic pursuits, they acknowledge that it’s a process that requires more intentionality. Yet even in the day-to-day, Jackert finds inspiration through the mundane. They apply this inspiration to paintings, mixed media sculptures, craft arts, and more. Jackert hopes to establish themselves as an independent curator through practicing and understanding art.
Their curation work began with a capsule gallery in Dayton, Ohio. Capsule was an artist-run space aimed to give talented, starting artists a place to showcase their portfolios. This experience was a profound one for them. One of Jackert’s dreams is to have an even more extensive artist-run gallery someday. But they understand that they must work harder to get there because they did not come from generational wealth and didn’t initially study art.
“I do think having a gallery run by artists is a really important element of that sort of community building,” says Jackert. “When so many times you see studio spaces and those sorts of art complexes run by rather, more disinterested business types.”
While young people entering the professional art world often dream of where their careers could go, they try to avoid thinking about the grounding realities of buying a home, affording health insurance, and generating liveable income. In August 2022, the average price for a one-bedroom apartment in the United States was $1,700. Renting a studio space can be upwards of $850 a month, depending on location and the type of space you need. Combined with rising grocery prices and stagnant wage increases, the livable reality of being an artist can feel increasingly grim.
At 24 years old, Greenburg admits she tries not to think of this reality— the pressure is not too hard to have her future figured out yet. She takes the process one step at a time and has been learning the best ways to run her art as a business. As she figures out what to charge for her work, how to handle royalties, and how to ask for advancements she can turn into a weekly salary, the vision for how she would handle this in the future becomes less hazy.
Ultimately, Greenburg wishes to continue pursuing children's book illustration. Her experiments with texture and the relationship between physical and digital art have already begun to open doors for herself, and she's already lined up new projects that she hopes will continue to establish herself in her field.
Jackert has a similar anxiety about the future, but like Greenburg, they haven't been turned away from pursuing art because of this. They believe the value of art, especially curatorial spaces, is vital in helping make sense of such a tumultuous world.
“The reason that I do other types of institutional work is to maintain an income, but I think all art making is a sort of compulsion,” said Jackert. “It's not something you can necessarily turn off. You're really about it, and on that level, I rest somewhat uneasily, knowing that I'll do it either way, regardless of profitability.”
The rocky economy isn’t the only looming threat to artists today. With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) being used as a way to quickly generate digital art, discussions of how this new quick-form media will impact artists have made headway. Part of how AI generates images is by pulling from an extensive database of other works of art created by physical artists, whether they be digital or physical.
The ponderings of how AI could be used have caused some artists to worry, especially those who work in more digital settings such as animation. AI was even a hot topic in negotiations for the Writers Guild and SAG-AFTRA strike. Final agreements for both unions involved explicit statements promising AI could not replace human labor. Artists hope these limitations of AI will carry over to their intellectual property as well. People in the arts present the major argument that for AI to sophistically replace human work, it would have to capture the authentic human emotion and human element in its work. Jackert mentioned that they are interested in seeing what laws and regulations will be applied to AI in the future, but it doesn’t feel like too much of a threat for now.
“Although a pessimist doesn't believe that there's necessarily a way to put that cat back in the bag again, AI concerns me but on another level.” said Jackert. “I don't think that AI as it stands is sophisticated enough to create work that's passable to anyone looking at it on more than a cursory level.”
Greenburg hopes to continue seeing progress in AI becoming a useful tool for artists.
“I know most people are very against AI art; I think there's a way to do AI art ethically, and as long as it's regulated, we can use that to our advantage,” said Greenburg. “I actually used [AI] for one of my compositions not too long ago. I was struggling with a pose. I wanted to create this image that had a certain mood and a certain energy, and I couldn't figure out which pose would do that justice. So I entered my goals and what I need from the drawing into the AI prompt.”
The results were able to steer her in a new direction and give her adequate inspiration to complete the drawing in her style. With AI still being so recent, the full consequences and triumphs have yet to be fully established. However, precedents set by other artistic industries so far have put some worries about technology to rest.
Careers in the arts have been thought of as unprofitable long before the looming presence of AI has emerged to threaten creators’ livelihoods and originality. The starving artist trope illustrates the capitalist belief that to be a worthy pursuit, an occupation must generate monetary value for shareholders. Even though they produce incredible work, artists cannot survive without a patron or benefactor—this has been true since the era of da Vinci. Their lives are filled with struggle and pain. Some would argue that this suffering in art is what allows artists to produce greater work. But the reality of that isn’t exactly true.
“Struggling definitely does not produce better art and that is like a huge, crazy myth that has just gone on for way too long at this point,” argues Greenburg. “When I was in college, I was stressed all the time, my depression was really bad. My mental health was really bad because just the institution of college was too much. It's too stressful. But once I was out of college, I made significantly better work, especially after I kind of took some time to not make art to kind of wear off that burnout.”
This myth has been perpetuated by famous artists such as Frida Kahlo and Van Gogh, whose lives were filled with tragedy and pain yet still produced masterpieces. Many artists today would argue that you channel unpleasant moments into creative energy, but if your whole existence is painful, the ability to complete your work can become taxing. As priorities and values shift, and as younger generations develop their class consciousness, the desire to move away from this myth has intensified.
“I don't think that suffering is a prerequisite, I think, oftentimes, people make better work when they're not necessarily inherently desperate, and they're fed and housed,” said Jackert. “And I think maybe the concept speaks a little bit more to the idea that, at least values-wise right now, we believe that there's something unnecessary or frivolous about artistic labor.”
The undervaluing of art can be particularly amplified in times of economic uncertainty. As living expenses increase, fewer people can afford to purchase a new painting or sculpture. Greenburg mentioned that she recently moved away from selling her work at markets because she would often struggle to break even on the cost of having a spot at the events.
Community was the throughline in both artists’ conversations. The impact of finding and working within a local, digital, educational, or even just social, artistic-minded community provided valuable opportunities and a continuous renowned drive to continue pursuing the art that matters. Artistic communities have existed as long as art has and remain an integral to any creative profession. Whether that be professional or emotional. It creates a sense of hope that there are other people out there trying to achieve the same goals and ideas you are.
It’s difficult to imagine what a career in the arts may look like down the road, but rest assured, there will still be new generations of artists ready to take on the challenge of making their passions work. Most people pursuing a full-time art career understand the sacrifices they’ll need to make to achieve this goal, but the reward of genuinely crafting their own careers satisfies any doubts they may feel. The starving artist myth may still exist in the cultural sphere today, but down the line, many working artists hope to replace this concept with a thriving, working artist community.
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