Graphic from Creativity Connects: Trends and Conditions Affecting US Artists (screenshot via

The population of artists in the US is growing and diversifying (slowly), art schools don’t prepare students for the real world, and artists are still poor. These are just a few (abridged) findings from a massive new report by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), called “Creativity Connects: Trends and Conditions Affecting U.S. Artists.” Some of the results won’t come as a surprise, but others offer valuable insight into how to improve the lives and careers of contemporary working artists.

The 88-page report is the result of a year-and-a-half’s worth of research, interviews, roundtables, analysis, and writing from NEA staff in collaboration with the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI). Researchers sought to illuminate how conditions for artists have changed over the past decade, and how current structures of support are keeping pace with what artists need to succeed. They looked at how artists and support structures are adapting to changing economic and social conditions, and what’s needed to strengthen the art-world ecosystem and enable artists to better contribute to their communities. Here, a brief explainer of the report’s key findings.

How many artists are working in the US? 

If you’re defining “artist” as an adult with “expert artistic skills,” some kind of art training, and some kind of art practice that provides their main source of income, then 2.3 million Americans had primary jobs as artists in 2015. About 271,000 people with non-art-related day jobs held secondary jobs as artists.

How are artists doing financially?

Still not so good. Despite being highly educated — 59% of artists have bachelors’ degrees or higher, compared to 31% of US workers overall — most artists make less money than professionals with similar levels of schooling in other fields. And “median incomes for fine artists, actors, musicians, dancers, choreographers, photographers, and ‘other entertainers’ are below the median incomes of the US labor force overall ($39,280),” the researchers write.

Artists’ debt burdens are also escalating: “66 percent of recent art school graduates are carrying substantial debt, including 33 percent who have loans between $30,000 and $60,000,” according to the report.

How diverse is the US population of working artists? 

Not very, compared to the US workforce as a whole. Disparities in race, gender, and ability are just as pronounced in the art world as in the rest of American society. “Only 13 percent of writers and authors are non-White and/or Hispanic compared with 32 percent of the total workforce, for example,” the researchers write. “Only 20.7 percent of designers and only 17 percent of fine artists are non-White and/or Hispanic.” Arts-related foundations aren’t doing much to change that: Only about 4% of arts-related foundation funding goes to organizations dedicated to serving communities of color, including of African, Arab, Asian, Latin, or Native American heritage.

How are women artists faring? 

The NEA found that only 32% of artists shown in New York and Los Angeles galleries in 2013 were women. (The report doesn’t include data on women artists in galleries from the last two years.) Between 2007 and 2014, fewer than 25% of the solo exhibitions at five major art museums — the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) — featured women artists. Only a slight improvement on the Guerrilla Girls’ 1986 report card.

How are art schools adapting to today’s world? 

The report suggests that many art schools are behind the times, failing to prepare students for 21st-century workplaces. “Few art schools are helping their students understand how to apply their creative skills in ‘unconventional’ contexts — in community development, creative aging, business start-ups, or other non-fine arts settings,” researchers write. “Another SNAAP survey [of nearly 100,000 art schools] revealed that 90 percent of art school alumni work outside the arts at some point in their careers, suggesting that being able to apply art-based skills in cross-over contexts would be broadly useful for artists in diverse disciplines.”

Is there any good news? 

Yes. An interactive graphic accompanying the report highlights “bright spots”: successful projects across the country in which artists and non-arts collaborators work toward common goals. It visualizes collaborations between non-arts sectors (like business, health, and agriculture) and arts sectors (like dance, visual arts, and theater), and you can sort results by state. Pairing “dance” and “health” in New York, for example, highlights the organization Dance for Parkinson’s Disease, a collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group.

*Creativity Connects™ interactive graphic (Screen shot via

A few key organizations are helping diversify the art populations: New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, Grantmakers in the Arts’, the Enrich Chicago Initiative, and Intercultural Leadership Institute, for example, have made racial equity and diversity a major focus of their work.

How can all this be improved? 

The NEA identified five priorities for improving the lot of US artists: “Articulate and measure the benefits of artists and creative work to societal health and well-being; address artists’ income insecurity as part of larger workforce efforts; address artists’ debt and help build their assets; create 21st-century training systems; upgrade systems and structures that support artists.” The NEA offers specific suggestions for achieving these broad goals, like expanding artists’ access to no-interest loans, for example, and incorporating business and entrepreneurship training into arts schools’ core curriculums.

Read the full NEA report here and see the interactive graphic here

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

3 replies on “NEA Report Calls for Diversifying the Art World and Curbing Art Student Debt”

  1. And here we are. . .I sometimes think art school and dance and literary MFAs are akin to a pyramid scheme. Unless you get a teaching job at a college or university (and adjunct faculty status doesn’t count financially) you can’t pay off the student debt that accrued at these self-same colleges and universities.
    Without more respect for artists and an understanding that artists are workers, deserving of a living wage, this won’t change. The salary gap between artists and arts administrators continues to widen as well. An analysis of ANY major cultural organization’s salary scales is revelatory. And, yes, the people at the top are still largely white and male. For one of the most progressive industries in the country, we have a lot of hard, soul-searching work to do.

  2. Thanks for sharing notice of this timely report from the NEA, but I do want to offer a counter to the blanket statement that few art schools are engaged in training their students for the challenges they face upon graduation. Indeed, Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia has been preparing our talented artists and designers to be self-resourceful and find meaningful careers since 1848. Our entire community—including our executive and academic leaders and support staff—take seriously the mission to guide our students toward relevant art and design opportunities and provide essential resources to ready them for the 21st century workplace.

    Moore women at the BFA level also learn from award-winning, professionally active faculty who bring real-world knowledge and expertise into the classroom. These teachers encourage excellence, risk-taking and self-expression to prepare our students for lifelong learning and leadership roles. In addition, Moore’s required (and paid) internships promote critical networking and first-hand experience, and are paramount in helping launch our students’ careers. AND Moore has long fostered entrepreneurial thinking among our students (more than 30% of our alumnae own their own businesses). We spend a lot of time educating our students about the realities they will face as artists and designers, and stress workable strategies for developing multiple streams of revenue and being smart about monetizing their creative skills.

    Moore is proud of our graduates and their ability to take the lessons of their college experience well beyond the classroom to secure gainful employment and use their professional training to add value the nation’s economy. I know my colleagues and I work hard at Moore every day to support this success.

    Belena Chapp, Director
    Locks Career Center
    Moore College of Art & Design

  3. Glad the NEA is finally taking notice of the obvious. Is it news? I don’t think so. Artists get taken advantage of all the time – esp women and people of color. Workplaces, whether within or outside of the arts sector, benefit from artists’s significantly higher-than-average education and skills (and the debt taken on to fund them), yet artists are not paid accordingly. Why did it take so long to put this together? For all the talk about “diversity” over 75% of top museum solo exhibitions in the U.S. (ostensibly helmed by educated people who have training in critical social theory, etc, and are supposed to have been introduced to these concepts in grad school if not earlier) – over SEVENTY-FIVE percent of the solo shows at MoMA, LACMA, the Whitney, Guggenheim and Museum of Contemporary Art in recent years have been men? Overwhelmingly white men – and of the less than 25% of solo exhibitions by women, how many of them are women of color? This is also reflected in the abysmal numbers of major studio films directed by women, which are even worse – 5% give or take – and of those the number of women of color directing is even lower. These (let’s call them what they are) racist and sexist numbers are also reflected in the publishing world. Shameful.

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