NEA Report Calls for Diversifying the Art World and Curbing Art Student Debt

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

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