Many artists I know do not make any money, or very little, and this is often in spite of critical success. The industry is a complicated one, with market prices built on an obscure combination of speculation, connoisseurship, personality, networks and trends. There are few to no stated standards for acceptable labor practices for artists, no guild or union for creative freelancers like the WGA (Writers’ Guild of America) or SAG (Screen Actors’ Guild) in the film industry, for example, or set payment standards like those that exist in Canada and some other countries. Neither are artists provided with benefits as a part of their professional status, and fellowships, residencies, and grants available to these artists do not often approach providing a living wage. Those working with non-object-based practices are particularly hard off as they don’t fit well within an existing gallery system. For all kinds of artists though (even very successful ones), precarity is a primary issue – instability, lack of a steady paycheck, lack of healthcare, very little ability to take time off, or to provide or afford regular childcare. This is exacerbated by the constant pressure to collect real capital while accruing creative capital (a body of work, making art world contacts, keeping up with current trends, creating one’s own exhibition and lecture opportunities, marketing one’s skill set, applying to grants, and documenting one’s work). In short, the need to constantly be working, networking, and connecting within the art world while holding other temporary and low-paying jobs. Many people do this at some point in their lives, especially entrepreneurs, but the poor support infrastructure, level of school debt, and lack of any eventual payoff for most people seems to create an especially oppressive situation for artists.
This got me to thinking about the thousands of people that graduate with MFAs each year. With government and universities assessing the economic prospects of their graduates in the face of overwhelming student loan debt, I wonder how MFA programs measure up? I often counsel many students and young artists thinking of getting graduate degrees, and I am reminded constantly of these questions:
What are the economic prospects for today’s MFA graduates in fine/visual arts?
What is the outlook for MFAs in professional, creative careers in their field?
In an effort to answer these questions for myself beyond anecdotal impressions or suspicions, I sent around a seven-question survey to my immediate network of art world professionals and students. I received 16 responses over the course of several weeks, from around the country. Though this is obviously an extremely small sample size, some revealing patterns emerged that are, at the very least, concerning. Further study is required before drawing significant conclusions, but the responses underscore the necessity of continued investigation.
1] What are you doing now? (for a living or otherwise)
38% (6/16) teaching (currently or in the recent past – all adjunct or part-time)
38% (6/16) mentioned “making work/art, developing practice”
31% (5/16) freelance jobs (babysitting, design, freelance, delivery, contract work)
31% (5/16) trying to find a job
19% (3/16) full time arts coordination jobs (Gallery Director/Curator, Events Coordinator, Full-time museum jobs)
13% (2/16) mentioned making work “when I can” or “when possible”
6% (1/16) going back to school for arts administration
6% (1/16) working as an artist assistant
Responses to this question had quite a few overlapping responses, but it was clear that very few MFA grads had full-time work. Many were cobbling things together from teaching jobs and contract work, and trying to make art or develop their practice at the same time. It struck me that none of the MFA grads that I surveyed had full-time teaching jobs (all were adjunct or part-time).
2] Are you economically stable or economically precarious? Why?
56% (9/16) economically stable
25% (4/16) are stable because they are being supported by a partner
44% (7/16) economically precarious
88% (14/16) are not making a stable living off their artwork (2/16 did not say one way or another)
More than half of respondents reported being economically stable (i.e. not in danger of defaulting on their bills), but almost half of those said that this was only the case because they were being supported by a partner. Of the “economically stable” responses, some qualified this by saying that they still worked long hours or couldn’t take family vacations, but at least could pay their bills. 44% were economically precarious, which accounts for more than just the very recent graduates, and did not correlate directly to recent graduation. Nearly all report not making a stable living off of their artwork alone. This is not a surprise (to me), but when considering how we evaluate MFA programs and the prospects of their graduates, it is a striking result.
3] Do you make money off your artwork?
69% (11/16) No
13% (2/16) Sometimes
13% (2/16) Unqualified yes
6% (1/16) Yes, as a part of design work
The majority of respondents make no money off of their artwork. To me, this question has enormous implications for how we value artistic labor in this country, and the art world’s post-industrial capitalist attitude toward artists of paying them with “cultural capital” that will hopefully lead to real capital once an artist is trendy enough. Clearly that system doesn’t work for most artists. How do we answer the question “How do we pay artists?”
4] Do you make money off of skills you learned in grad school? If yes, please give examples.
56% (9/16) Yes, Somewhat, or indirectly (fabrication/construction 2, 3D modeling work 1, gallery 1, teaching 3, curating 1, making art 2, networking 1)
38% (6/16) No
6% (1/16) “I think this is a trick question”
Artists were fairly split here, with slightly more learning some skills in graduate school that they were able to leverage into paying jobs. I found it interesting that some of the skills cited are not directly taught in MFA programs, but are rather part of an art world ecosystem (i.e. curating, teaching). The fact that 38% baldly stated “no,” however, is concerning.
5] How do you make it work?
38% (6/16) Mentioned working other precarious jobs (babysitting, retail, adjunct teaching) and fitting in art on the side
19% (3/16) working long hours
19% (3/16) depend on family or government for financial assistance
19% (3/16) Mentioned they love what they do, but that it was hard.
13% (2/16) mentioned other “art activities” than making art, like openings, lectures, panels, and discussions.
6% (1/16) mentioned poverty
6% (1/16) Feel that it is not working
From these overlapping responses, it was clear to me that many respondents felt extremely discouraged. Fourteen of the sixteen responses, or about 88%, mentioned some hardship – depending on family or government assistance, working long hours, feeling impoverished or working precarious jobs. Perhaps this is indicative of our economic situation in general these days – it is difficult to know what is endemic to being an artist and what is more a general condition.
6] Do you like what you are doing? Why or why not?
25% (4/16) unqualified yes
38% (6/16) yes, but not sure how much longer it is financially feasible/actively looking for a better job/it’s scary and complicated
19% (3/16) No
13% (2/16) No, feeling anxious, stressed, and discouraged.
Respondents could have interpreted this question in multiple ways, thinking that it referred to their precarious contract work, or making art, or teaching, etc. The majority reported liking what they did, but a majority of that group qualified their response by saying that they were not sure about the financial feasibility of their situation.
7] How is your degree relevant/contributing to what you are doing now?
31% (5/16) No
25% (4/16) Confidence in being a professional artist
19% (3/16) Necessity for teaching
13% (2/16) Contributes to the art field generally (gallery, as a manager)
6% (1/16) Meeting people
Though concerning that 31% reported that their degree was not relevant at all, I thought the reasons for why artists thought their degree WAS relevant were interesting. That it gave them either internal confidence or external credibility seemed the central two reasons for getting an MFA.
8] When did you graduate, what MFA did you get, and where did you go to school?
Graduated from 1993-2013, with the mode year of graduation being 2013
3 Design Media Arts
3 new forms/genre
3 doesn’t specify
CalArts – 2
Pratt – 2
Maryland Institute College of Art – 1
Cornell – 1
CCA – 1
University of Iowa – 1
Southern Methodist – 1
UCLA – 5
Claremont – 2
From this question, I gathered that MFA grads from CalArts and UCLA were doing better than their counterparts, so that external cred factor seemed to hold some water. This was not true for everyone, especially the most recent grads, but they overall fell more into the economically stable camps, and more importantly, seemed to be stable while functioning as artists. Other than those schools, it was all over the map – some stable, some not, some actively working artists, some not, some in art careers, some not.
It is difficult to conclude from this data whether these conditions of anxiety, overwork, and precarity are more general post-industrial, post-crash, advanced capitalist conditions, or if they are specific to artists (I suspect that they are more general, and are exacerbated for artists). Others have done more in-depth work on the subject than I. But as we consider our MFA programs, and as we counsel students in the necessity of gaining this degree for any measure of credibility as artists, what is our responsibility to describe the true conditions, and the true strategies for surviving while doing what you love? What is our responsibility to teach those skills that can be leveraged to fruitful careers that are perhaps (that are PROBABLY) not careers as professional artists, ultimately?
I have no choice but to leave those questions hanging for the moment.
The survey is still open.