Ambreen Butt, “Untitled ($5 Bill)” (2013), shredded money, collage on tea stained paper, 45″ x 89″ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

We all know that the circumstances of our childhood affect the outcomes of our adulthood in a variety of ways, from social patterns — how we build new families or don’t — to economical ones — the kinds of jobs we seek out. At Planet Money, Quoctrung Bui has compiled data to take a cursory look at the question: “What’s the link between household income during childhood and job choice during adulthood?” On the surface, it may seem like a fairly straightforward query, but the answers are telling.

Bui pulled his data from a US government survey that has followed more than 12,000 people for several decades. Looking, for our purposes, at the information on artists, designers, architects, and media workers, we see that all of them came from childhood households with relatively high incomes — parents making between $60,000 and $69,999 a year, versus parents making under $40,000, whose children have grown up to work in occupations such as farming, child and home care, and the food service industry. (The parents with the highest incomes, between $80,000 and $90,000, breed financial analysts, lawyers, and judges.)

In his second and third chart, Bui plots the income changes between childhood and adulthood for the people surveyed. The group labeled “Engineers, architects and surveyors” is doing just fine, making considerably more money than their parents; “Media and communications workers” are hewing close to their parents’ incomes; “Archivists, curators and librarians” (who appear in these graphs but not the initial one) are making about 16% less than their parents did; and “Designers, musicians, artists, etc.” face the biggest drop: around 35% down from their parents’ salaries.

On the most base level, the data reinforces what we all know, which is that people who work in creative industries don’t make a lot of money. But Bui’s charts are more important for the way they highlight the role that class plays in people’s decisions to become artists (and designers and musicians, and, I’d bet, writers). Growing up with a measure of economic stability often makes it easier to take a chance on a risky career as an adult — both mentally, because money is perceived as less of an all-encompassing issue, and practically, because money often is less of an all-encompassing issue. The authors of a study we blogged about yesterday write, “Seeing one’s self as a professional artist is an achievement that compares to entering other elite status groups.” That elite status group is created and reinforced in many ways, and socioeconomic class is undoubtedly one of them.

Of course, since most artists and their cohorts in the creative class make very little money nowadays, it would be interesting to track this cycle further and see what kinds of jobs their kids end up in: do they follow the trends that Bui’s data suggests, creating a kind of loop, or do they buck them? Another idea would be to overlay parents’ household income with their occupations, to see whether having poor farmer parents vs. poor artist parents affects where kids end up.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

12 replies on “How Wealthy Are Artists’ Parents?”

  1. How does dropping dollar value play into this? I am an artist, but started my career path as a printer in a printing company, as was my father and my grandfather before him. Although I made in actual dollar amount about twice what my father made, it didn’t go anywhere near as far. Some of what the article says may be true, but artists become artists due to a lot more than just class background. The validity of this article is questionable unless other factors such as inflation and generational differences are taken into account.

    1. I’m not trying to draw one uniform conclusion here, and you’re right that there are many other factors to take into account beyond solely class background. I was highlighting that because that’s what the data focuses on, but there are, in turn, many questions about the data—small sample pool, dollar value, inflation, etc.—that make it far from any kind of final measurement. It seems more like a small start to a much larger conversation.

      1. I think it is a start to a conversation about the relative homogeneity (racial & cultural) of the art world. There’s a lot of handwringing about diversity when the WhiBi publishes its list of Biennial artists, but the conversation doesn’t usually advance beyond jabs at the institution. If we open the conversation to class, we can come to more understanding about the cultural and economic systems in which institutions, such as the Whitney, work.

        Interestingly, on the other side of the Atlantic, there’s an intersecting debate going on about art history as a college major. In the UK, apparently, it’s seen as elitist. While those sentiments are readily apparent in the US (with or without Obama’s jokes), it’s telling that a society with vestiges of a much more strict class system is grappling more publicly with the elitist implications of taking up art history as a profession. Perhaps our class background not only makes a career in the arts more or less feasible but also changes the value of its cultural capital within our communities.

        A couple recent commentaries on the matter:

        1. In this country art history and up until recently what colleges taught art history , who taught there and who studied art history was almost exclusively and still to a very large extent is elitist. Art history is bastion of culture and as a bastion of culture one of it’s roles is to define culture and keep the barbarian’s at the gate. A noble calling for the scions of the conaisseur class. The curators decide what goes in a museum and where it goes. Christie’s ad on this page for graduate education may show you how to do so. I wonder how much it costs, how long it is and who gets in. That a business and is able to offer a degree seems to be new and even more exclusively expensive than an unpaid internship.

  2. There are obviously exceptions to the rule. I’d like to see a followup study about artists with poor parents and the resources those artists have available to them and how far they get. Being in that boat, it feels like I’m a step or six behind. Fewer family connections, less safety net, less willing take $$ risks, etc etc. But the “disease” as my artist neighbor calls it, is just something you need have to do. If you can relate to this sob story, feel free to help fund our new book. No publisher advances here, just trying to raise $1000 to cover print costs.

  3. I am an art director at a cable network, I do my own creative projects on the side, and I am an exception to this rule.

    I grew up very poor (read: couch surfing, food stamps, no heat in the winter, and all the fun stuff that goes along with poverty). My parents had me when they were very young, and neither of them has a college education. My father dropped out of high school and got his GED.

    My mother hoped I would become a dentist. Instead, I paid my way through a well respected fine arts school. (I would have had to pay my way through ANY college.) I chose art over anything else, because I was interested in being creative, and I wanted to do something I loved for the rest of my life. Money was a big issue for me when choosing a career path. I knew I wanted a different life than I had grown up with. But I went to art school anyways, because I believed I could be successful if I tried.

    I finished paying off almost $82,000 in student loans 10 years earlier than expected. An unrealistic amount of money for ANYONE to spend on college, even by today’s standards. I make over 6 figures a year at my current profession, unheard of in the creative realm, according to this study. And it wasn’t easy to get to this level of success. I’ve been at the same place for over 10 years, I don’t always love the work, and I don’t always think I’m good at it. But like I said, I think it all depends on the track you take after art school, how driven you are to succeed, and what “success” means for you.

    Something NOT mentioned in this study is the taboo of success in the art world other than true “gallery”success. If you choose to migrate to the commercial creative realm, you are perceived as “selling out,” as opposed to being a “creative professional.” There is a mystique around the starving artist, and many people believe that you can’t do great work unless you are suffering for it. I call bullshit! I want to have a nice life, without the stress of wondering how I will eat or pay my bills. It doesn’t make me less of an artist, it just makes me less poor.

    I just wanted you to know that there are a few of us, who do our own work, and make a good living being creative. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a group of spoiled kids, with charmed lives, living some romanticized version of the bohemian lifestyle after art school.

    1. I agree with you Kristi, but add, how many of us are in this statistic, who have fallen victim to so called ‘Economic Downturns’ or ill health. I, like many of us, worked at other jobs, but always in parralell to what I considered ‘my’ work.

    2. Of course! Thank you for sharing your story. And I’m not trying to pigeonhole anyone as a spoiled kid—I don’t think I myself would have taken the same chances to try and become a writer (which is notoriously unstable in this day and age) without the support my parents gave me. I do, however, think that class is something that goes undiscussed compared to race and gender, probably because it’s much harder to identify, and we would be better off talking about it and its implications more.

      1. Yes, I do agree with you that it’s something that people don’t consider. And I definitely agree that most people in my position would probably not have chosen the road I did. I think it’s just good to know that some of us do make it in the creative field. Maybe the fact that I was poor gave me my drive to succeed more than a kid from a middle to high income family – regardless of career path. Not sure. I know that lots of people struggle after art school, they end up with odd jobs, or they end up going in a completely different direction – sometimes going back to school for something else.

        The US doesn’t value creatives as much as it values other professions, even though, subliminally, it think it wants to. There’s not a single person I know who doesn’t appreciate art or design in some form. They are always in awe of what creative people make or come up with. So maybe another question is, why are “the arts” so devalued in American culture on the surface? Why is the COST of art school so much more than, say…dental hygienist technical school, if it’s so unimportant? Is it because the insularity of art (the fact that it’s often deeply personal to the artist) exclude the general public from appreciating it? I don’t know. It gives me something to think about.

  4. My parents were not wealthy, but the economy at the time was great. Wages were high, rent and tuition were low. I could earn enough in the summer to last two semesters! I completed a four year BFA in painting with no debts. Same with my MFA, between graduate research and teaching grants I had no debts from that either. Times, sadly, have changed…

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