Indicting Higher Education in the Arts and Beyond

Figure showing primary occupation self-reported by those with undergraduate degrees in the arts.
Figure showing primary occupation self-reported by those with undergraduate degrees in the arts. (image via Arts Report BackBFAMFAPhD, 2014, p. 7)

There’s one very clear take-away from the latest report released by the collective BFAMFAPhD: people who graduate with arts degrees regularly end up with a lot of debt and incredibly low prospects for earning a living as artists. Or, as they put it in the report, titled Artists Report Back: A National Study on the Lives of Arts Graduates and Working Artists, “the fantasy of future earnings in the arts cannot justify the high cost of degrees.”

As they did with their previous work, collective members Vicky Virgin, Julian Boilen, Susan Jahoda, Blair Murphy, and Caroline Woolard analyzed data from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Specifically, they looked through a publicly available slice of that data (the 2012 1-year Public Use Microdata Sample). From that sample they extrapolated their numbers about the larger population, estimating that there are a total of 1.4 million people in the US who self-identify as having a primary occupation of “writer, author, artist, actor, photographer, musician, singer, producer, director, performer, dancer, choreographer, [or] entertainer” — the group’s definition of a “working artist” for this report.

According to BFAMFAPhD’s analysis, a very small percentage of art school undergraduates end up as working artists (~10%), and that fully 40% of working artists over age 25 don’t even have undergraduate degrees of any kind, let alone art degrees. So why on earth would anyone spend so much money on such a degree? The reality is that there’s some larger context and nuance that makes their numbers a little complicated for reasons that I’ll get into in a moment. But some of those issues with the data also reveal just how little solid information is available to help anyone get a clear picture of how artists make a living in the US, if they do at all.

And, similarly to their earlier report, the group also highlights in this new report the disproportionately high representation of white, non-Hispanic males among working artists, and the fact that white, non-Hispanic people of any gender are over-represented in arts degree programs.

Figure showing representation by mutually exclusive race and ethnicity categories. (Source: Arts Report Back, BFAMFAPhD, 2014, p. 10)
Figure showing representation by mutually exclusive race and ethnicity categories. (image via Arts Report Back, BFAMFAPhD, 2014, p. 10)

Zoom In

Data is wonky. I’ve been part of a very different effort the past couple of years attempting to get some preliminary data on artists living in Staten Island and it’s not easy at all. It’s particularly hard because artists are slippery buggers when it comes to easily quantifiable information.

Most reports about artists that I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a fair number) that are based on quantitative data are pretty fuzzy when it comes to the thing that many artists would love to know: How much money do artists make from their creative work?

Why is the data so imprecise? Because almost everything about the ways that artists work seems to defy typical practices for collecting labor and earnings statistics, which may also speak to the larger problems with the ways we collect labor statistics in this country in general, but that’s a discussion for another day.

By and large, it appears that labor statistics, like the ones collected in the American Community Survey, generally assume that most workers have a single or primary job that provides the largest share of their earnings and that job is comprised of a bounded set of tasks or modes of earning money — for example, if you say you are an auto mechanic, the assumption is that you earn most of your money fixing cars. But as many artists know, when you say you’re an artist, how you earn your money can and often does come from a wide array of sources — it could be sales or commissions, it could be royalty payments, fees for presenting work, or teaching in various forms, which many artists lump into their occupation as an artist. Income could also come from things like licensing deals, work-for-hire, or consulting, where an artist does things similar or related to their creative output, but for a company or another person, and on and on.

A detail of BFAMFAPHD's installation in the 'Crossing Brooklyn' exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)
A detail of BFAMFAPHD’s installation in the ‘Crossing Brooklyn’ exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

All of this makes it really tough to understand what income really means for an artist when you’re trying to isolate their artistic earnings. So even reporting modest numbers like the fact that working artists with degrees in New York City make a median income of $25,000 (as BFAMFAPhD did in their earlier data analysis), if you dig into that number for each individual, the sources of that money are likely to be highly variable and rarely exclusively from creative output. That all makes it tricky when you want to present young people with a clear picture of their earning prospects from artistic work.

Which is to say, income numbers that add everything together can run the risk of inadvertently supporting what I wholeheartedly agree is a fantasy of steady, lifelong earnings from art-making alone.

The other wrinkle is of course, who gets counted, which gets talked about every time there’s a report about artists. Like Vicky Virgin, the analyst who helped crunch the numbers in this report and is also an artist, I generally wouldn’t appear in these stats because my primary income comes from a day job unrelated to my art or arts writing. A huge number of artists who are receiving money for their creative work simply would not appear in these figures, and we know from other stats that a huge number of artists who are showing in very prominent arts institutions have been paid nothing at all for their work.

When I spoke on the phone with Vicky Virgin about this new report, she said that “The most difficult part of this project was the definitions.” One of the ways she grounded the choices they made, at least as far as choosing occupational categories for artists, was by mirroring the categories used by researchers at the National Endowment for the Arts. But the nuances within the earnings are much harder to get at, and she seemed to share a desire to find ways of revealing some of those nuances.

Beyond earnings, there’s a particular risk the group runs in highlighting the lack of college degrees in working artists over 25. The fact is that there has been an enormous increase in the number of degrees awarded in the past decade — in fact, the increase is a little shocking.

Chart showing the change in the number of bachelor's degrees awarded per capita from 1987 - 2010. (Source: "College degrees awarded per capita in the USA," Randal Olson)
Chart showing the change in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded per capita from 1987 – 2010. (image via “College degrees awarded per capita in the USA,” Randal Olson)

In doing some research for this article, I came across the above graph put together by Randal Olson, which shows the increase per capita in undergraduate degrees in the US over a 20+ year period. It’s clear from this graph, not to mention the others he put together on PhDs, as well as Masters and Associates Degrees, that there have been dramatic increases in the number of degrees being awarded since the 1990s, but particularly since around 2002. Which means it’s probably not accurate to make a direct comparison between degree numbers for people over 40 and people under 40 because the entire higher education landscape has shifted dramatically across the past couple generations.

Lastly, for many people today, particularly those who would have started college in or after the 1990s, undergraduate degrees are now seen as a basic requirement for work in the US. And for many people there is not a strong relationship between the subject of your undergraduate degree and your occupation. Two high-level examples: the American Bar Association makes no specific recommendation for the subject area that someone interested in becoming a lawyer should study as an undergrad, even suggesting students pursue degrees in art or music if that’s where their interest lies; and per numbers quoted by Forbes, humanities majors had higher acceptance rates into medical school than either biological or physical science majors.

The fact that only 10% of graduates from undergraduate arts programs become working artists lacks a little bit of context without also understanding how many people graduating across fields end up working at a job that directly correlates to their studies. I think the deeper issue might be the professionalization of undergraduate degrees in general and the increased pressure to turn them into strictly vocational programs rather than a time to increase critical thinking and communication skills regardless of the field.

I don’t say any of this to discount the line of inquiry BFAMFAPhD is pursuing, I’m a big fan of the project, I just want to take step back and acknowledge that undergraduate degrees are a little tricky to focus on in this particular way. The proliferation of graduate arts degrees might be easier to tie directly to professional expectations.

Zoom Out

While this report focuses specifically on the arts, I couldn’t help but notice that it’s a part of a much larger conversation that’s been roiling across fields recently, particularly when it comes to graduate degrees. Our higher education system is producing a vast quantity of workers with educations and expectations for high-level and high-paying jobs that simply do not exist in the quantity needed to employ all these people.

Earlier this month the Boston Globe published a lengthy article highlighting the reality that postdoctoral researchers in biomedical fields, after nearly a decade of schooling, are becoming in some ways the equivalent of interns, with low paying menial jobs that offer little potential for promotion or even hiring. And biomedical sciences are hardly the only ones. There’s trouble for a scientists with PhDs across fields, and while the glut of lawyers seems to be slowing slightly, it hasn’t gone away, and salaries have dramatically decreased for those shouldering huge debt burdens from law school.

Unfortunately in the arts, we seem to be still ramping up when it comes to higher degrees, rather than pulling back. Artists are being encouraged to get a “leg up” on the job competition among MFAs by getting PhDs. (Notice the not-even-slightly-subtle language encouraging artists to consider each other as competitors who must literally step on one another in order to realize success … )

So, this is not an isolated issue in the arts — we’re training hundreds of thousands of young people who dream of gaining lucrative, or at least sustaining, long-term employment in a job market that is over-saturated with precisely those people and has been steadily losing good jobs.

That’s Depressing. What Now?

I absolutely echo the report authors’ desire to eliminate the fantasy that arts graduates or artists, for that matter, can expect to have a long-term sustaining income from art-making alone. I think some added context might actually help strengthen their argument against tying degree attainment to occupational attainment. But because they focuses exclusively on undergraduate degrees, things get a little tricky.

There’s one thing that the report mentions briefly but doesn’t dig into that I think is unfortunately revealing of a reality that continues to drive the proliferation of degrees across fields. On page 8, they state that the group of working artists who do have bachelors degrees in the arts actually earn a good amount more on average than those without one: $36,105 vs. $30,621. And that’s precisely what drives that “leg up” thinking mentioned earlier.

There’s a crazy hamster wheel at play in the US today in which there is an ever-shrinking pot of “good” jobs and we’re all being told to jump through ever more hoops to get those disappearing jobs. But those hoops are really expensive and time-consuming to jump through, which means only those who already have a lot of financial advantages and privileges in the first place are able to get through them (one of the really strong points that came out of the BFAMFAPhD’s earlier study).

One of the recommendations that the collective offers is to “point prospective art students toward low-cost and tuition-free arts programs.” But they also go on to say, “we defend the liberal arts as integral to higher education nationally.” Which feels a little fuzzy in the sense that they seem to be saying get a liberal arts degree but not a fine arts degree. Instead I wonder if the point might be, if you want to get an arts degree or a science degree or a philosophy degree for that matter, go for it, but understand that there is little to no chance you are going to have a well-paying job doing the thing you’re studying, plan accordingly when it comes to finances, and while you’re in school make sure to demand conversations and learning that helps you think about how to apply skills in a variety of settings. That last point is one the group touches on at the end of their report.

Another recommendation they make that I cannot support enough because it is incredibly achievable, is the removal of any requirement anywhere for any program or grant aimed at artists that demands, or even implies a need for a BFA, MFA, or PhD in order to apply. That requirement perpetuates a classist and racist power and reward structure in the arts that is utterly unacceptable. Organizations that make this demand should be roundly criticized and publicly shamed for it.

Near the end of the report they also suggest that higher education and arts institutions could support “solidarity economies” both “intellectually and financially.” It can be tricky to ask the problem institutions to help buoy the solution and they don’t offer a definition in the paper version of solidarity economy beyond offering a visual diagram from Ethan Miller that is a bit hard to parse without prior knowledge, but elsewhere they mention “worker and producer cooperatives” and “resource sharing networks”, and on the website, near the bottom of their “About” section, they provide links to dozens of programs, projects, and initiatives providing alternative frameworks for educating, creating, and living in the world today, many centered in New York City.

Ultimately, this report feels like an important tool that will help drive further conversations around class, race, and the arts economy, not to mention the function of the economy in general. And it’s exciting to have people on the ground tackling ambitious research projects on their own, because while they may not be perfect, the others are far from perfect, and reports like this help give proof to the lie behind many heavily funded projects that claim the arts is a booming and vital industry that is enriching citizens rather than putting more dollars in the pockets of the few.

Update: On Friday morning, the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), a research and advocacy project “designed to enhance the impact of arts-school education,” released a new report: “Making it Work: The Education and Employment of Recent Arts Graduates.” Their mission is in many ways opposite to BFAMFAPhD’s stated mission: to “make media and connect viewers to existing organizing work” (i.e. community organizing).

While SNAAP and BFAMFAPhD’s reports are very different in many ways, primarily because SNAAP ultimately aims to paint a rosy picture while BFAMFAPhD wants to point out the failures in the system, in some ways their data on the realities of trying to become a working artist after graduating aren’t that different. One figure in particular is worth sharing:

(image via Strategic National Arts Alumni Project)

All of these reasons for not becoming a professional artist should be familiar, but the statistic worth noting that supports BFAMFAPhD’s argument is the enormous jump in those who say that debt is a reason they aren’t pursuing work in the arts.

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