New research on equality in the arts

Yesterday, the Strategic National Arts Alliance Projeect (SNAAP), a consortium of educational institutions, released its latest report, “An Uneven Canvas: Inequalities in Artistic Training and Careers” (PDF). Long-standing issues of racial and gender parity are elucidated in this survey compiling data from over 65,000 arts graduates. I noted some interesting points:

Female alumni are less likely than male alumni to ever work as artists and to do so currently.

(page 15)

(As JW put it, female artists continuing to work as artists is sometimes a matter of a war of attrition.)

Across all racial/ethnic groups, Black graduates and Hispanic graduates are the least likely to ever work as artists—with 76% of both groups ever working in this capacity.

(page 15)

Black and Hispanic alumni are much more likely to cite both lack of access to networks and debt (including student loan debt) as barriers to artistic careers, compared to White respondents.

(page 16)

SNAAP reveals sharp disparities in earnings by gender. Among alumni currently spending the majority of their work time in an arts-related job, men out-earn women. For example, among undergraduate-level respondents who currently work primarily within the arts, 56% of men earned more than $50,000 in the past year—compared to 36% of women.

(page 17)

The Question of Who Qualifies as “Artists” in the SNAAP Study

SNAAP uses the labels “art” and “artist” to refer to a broad spectrum of practicioners, including performers and creative writers. They also include workers in fields that often hire salaried employees, such as in architecture, design, film, illustration and animation—which I would consider creative industries (see also Ben Davis’ recently published 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, 2013).

I strongly believe that the inclusion of workers in creative industries skew the data—a criticism I’ve voiced about past reports. “An Uneven Canvas” seems to make a more conscious effort to acknowledge this:

Differences in the artistic fields … partially account for some disparities between groups.

(page 19)

Gender Disparity

SNAAP does a great job investigating general trends of gender-based income disparity:

the income gap between male and female arts alumni persists regardless of how long ago they graduated from their institutions

(page 21)
SNAAP's "An Uneven Canvas," Figure 7: Percentage Earning More than $50,000 in the Previous Year by Gender and Year of Graduation (Only Alumni Currently Working Primarily in the Arts). Those who graduated in the 80s and 90s (who are likely older), clearly make more than recent grads with less post-graduate work experience. However, the key point of this bar chart is that income disparity by gender in the arts is an ongoing trend over the past 30 years. The pay difference is highest among those who earn more; for recent grads, the 10% more of men who earned $50k is also 100% more of women who earned $50k.

It’s easy to misinterpret this bar chart as showing the reduction of income, and gender-based pay disparity, over time. What it actually shows is gender-based pay disparity in 2011 according to graduation year ranges. Those who graduated in the 80s and 90s (who are likely older and further along towards maximizing their earning potential) see the highest gender-based pay disparity. For the most recent grads, the there is relatively less pay disparity in percentage points, but, in this cohort, you could also say that the number of men who earned $50k is 100% more than women. 

One salient feature of this graph is that male artistic workers out-earn females within every cohort group. …income differences are not simply the result of men’s and women’s different work commitments, but rather reflect persistent patterns of discrimination. Furthermore, these data provide compelling evidence that gender inequalities continue to exist for the newest graduates and are not simply a relic of an older time.

(page 24)

The Data We Get vs. the Data I Want to See:
Free the Fine Artist Subset

SNAAP’s wide definition of “artist” may be useful for including the majors offered at its member institutions, but its analysis can only be applied to fine artists with remote and questionable extrapolations.

The fine arts is worthwhile of analysis as its own data subset. The fine arts are exceptional. In other words, the economics of fine arts operates does not follow any logic found in other fields (see Hans Abbing’s Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, 2004).

Most pressingly, the fine arts are well-known for its huge disparities. The vast majority of artists work non-art day jobs to support their art practices, while only a tiny fraction of artists garner dramatically higher income levels from their art sales. Thanks to the media’s obsession with auction sales, gender-based income disparity is well-documented for the highest earners, but this data ignores most working artists.

SNAAP’s subset of data relating specifically to contemporary fine artists is robust, according to the interactive SNAAP Shot 2012, with about 21,000 respondents who majored in Studio/Fine Arts. This is no small data set. SNAAP should make this data set freely available, like many contemporary federal- and city-level governments, or the UK Guardian, for statisticians and information graphic designers to interpret and share.

I would love to see this data set analyzed to address questions such as:

  • What can be learned about the lives and working conditions of contemporary fine artists?
  • What percentage of fine artists’ primary means of income is from their art?
  • For fine artists whose primary means of income is not based on their art, how much of their income is?
  • How much gender-based income disparity do fine artists experience?
  • How does this change over the graduation-year-separated cohorts?
  • What are the breakdowns of racial inequality in the fine arts—how many artists of different races persist into the field of fine arts, over what period of time, and to what degree are they able to transition their art-making into a viable profession?
  • In addition to comparing people of color and women to the responses of White men, I’d like to see intersectionality integrated into this report—what can we learn about the experiences of women of color?



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.