When “artists” means 90% non-fine artists

Patricia Cohen reported that an NEA “Study Says Artists Have Higher Salaries” (NY Times, October 30)—in fact, claiming that the average artists’ earnings are higher than the average worker “by nearly $4,000.”

“Average” is not equivalent with “mean,” yet it would be very easy to misinterpret the headline that most artists are better paid than everyone else. Or to assume that the artists referred to are fine artists.

But the NEA’s “Artists and Arts Workers in the United States” report’s data sets (the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey) are particular, and what it means—and what it doesn’t mean for visual artists—is quite revealing upon investigation.

First, the survey is based on those who identify primarily as artists:

To be counted as an artist, survey respondents must have identified a job within one of these 11 occupational categories as accounting for the most number of hours worked in a given week. In other words, being an artist is their “primary” job.

Many visual artists have day jobs; those who spend most of their time as teachers, curators, or art handlers would not be counted in the survey.

Second, the category “artist” is comprised of many who may not self-identify as artists.

There are 2.1 million artists in the United States.
· More than a third of those artists (39 percent, or 828,747 workers) are designers—a category that includes commercial and industrial designers, fashion designers, floral designers, graphic designers, interior designers, merchandise displayers, and set and exhibit designers.*

The idiosyncratic boundaries of inclusion is illustrated here: curators and art installers (who are often artists) are not be included, yet exhibit designers are. Almost half (49%) of respondents are in design and architecture—typically salaried occupations that are quite technical. Would the announcement that “Designers and Architects have Higher Salaries” be surprising?

How many survey respondents are visual artists? Less than 10%.

· Fine artists, art directors, and animators make up 10 percent of all artists (212,236 workers).

Fine artists make up less than 10% of survey respondents.

Whether fine artists make up 1% or 9% of survey respondents is impossible to tell. It’s even possible that, in this case, “artists” means 99% non-fine artists.


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