(Illustration image via Marco Verch’s Flickr)

A new study using census data in the United States since 1850 shows that the creative fields are becoming increasingly — albeit slowly — more diverse. However, the study demonstrates in clear quantitative terms how family wealth is a key factor in the likelihood of uptaking and sustaining an artistic profession.

The research, titled “The Origins of Creativity: The Case of the Arts in the United States since 1850,” was published in February by Karol Jan Borowiecki, a professor of economics at the University of Southern Denmark. Borowiecki, who previously studied careers of famous composers and visual artists as an economic historian, used American census data collected between 1850-2010 to identify trends in social mobility and racial and gender inequality crossed with data on the geographical location and socio-economic background of people in creative fields (visual arts, literature, performing arts, and music). The findings are tested against parallel metrics in the census group of “non-creatives,” meaning people who are not professionally involved in the arts.

The US census data permits the identification of occupations that fall within the creative professions (i.e. artist, musician, author, actor) and provides detailed records on the socio-economic background of each individual, including the geographic location.

Women’s Visibility

With all the professional and societal hindrances in their way, the study interestingly observes that American women’s share in creative occupations —relative to men — has typically been higher than in non-creative fields. That trend starts around 1890 when women’s involvement in creative occupations increases and remains clearly higher than in other fields.

“These results challenge the conventional wisdom that the arts are predominantly a male domain,” Borowiecki told Hyperallergic in a phone interview.

According to the study, females are more likely to engage in a creative occupation than males. Being a woman increases the probability of having a creative occupation by 18% if isolated from other variables (including race, location, and family income.) The highest female presence is among musicians. Authors, visual artists, and actors follow in that order.

Racial Equality

The share of white Americans in creative fields has decreased from 98% to around 80% since 1850, according to the study. The findings also indicate that it took almost a full century (1850-1950) before the first non-whites appear among artists or authors in significant numbers. “The trend only started changing in the past 50 years,” Borowiecki says.

Musicians are found to be the most racially mixed group of creatives. The research adds a caveat explaining that the earliest two census editions do not include slaves; therefore, the picture provided for 1850 and 1860 is incomplete.

On average, Black and Asian groups are less likely to engage in creative work than whites. The study attributes that, among other factors, to family size, which negatively affects the likelihood of having an artistic occupation. “There are still less non-whites in the arts, especially in visual arts and literature, than in any other occupation,” says Borowiecki.

Generational Wealth 

One of the novel contributions of the study is its ability to quantify the correlation between family income and the chances of starting an artistic career. Potential access to familial financial support is a major factor in the decision to become an artist, the study shows. Family income is measured as the total pre-tax money income earned by one’s family from all sources for the previous year, including non-labor income.

“Family income is very significant. People from wealthier families are much more likely to become artists,” says Borowiecki. According to the study, every $10,000 in total family income, a person is about 2% more likely to go into a creative occupation. A family income of $100,000 makes it twice as likely to become an artist compared to a family income of $50,000. If a person’s family income climbs to $1 million, then that person is nearly ten times more likely to choose a creative profession than someone who comes from a family income of $100,000.

The significance of family income contributes to understanding why large numbers of non-white individuals are left out of artistic professions, considering that the median income of Black and Hispanic families in the US is significantly lower than the income of white families.

The “Peer Effect”

Over the years, artists and other creatives from around the US have come to cluster in certain cities in the two coasts. New York City emerges as the consistently largest cluster of creatives in the country, followed by Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

“Peer effect is very significant,” says Borowiecki. “The proximity to other fellow artists or musicians is very important, and so is interacting with other creatives. It doesn’t have to be a big city, but it has to be a place with a ‘scene’.”

In cities where a famous creative is based (e.g., a famous visual artist,) the probability of having a famous artist in the same city from another creative field (e.g., a famous musician) is higher than in the case of average cities.

Furthermore, the presence of creative people, visual artists in particular, may be conducive to economic development and the presence of business startups.

“The advantages of having a wealthy cultural supply and a meaningful cultural heritage nowadays are vast and non-negligible, ranging from economic gains from tourism inflows to non-monetary gains arising from a common identity,“ the study says.

Cleary, artists do not benefit much from the economic boom they bring (with the exception of a thin demographic of superstar artists.) The study reiterates the common knowledge that practicing artists typically earn less than the average income in the country.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

14 replies on “A Study Says High Family Income Significantly Increases Likelihood of Becoming an Artist”

  1. Of course so many artists are nowhere to be found when issues about class systems and belonging to the 1 percent are discussed. Much easier to talk about identity issues and keep being divisive

  2. Haha. What a crock. You are mostly discussing the dilettante socialites, who never become Willem deKooning or Jackson Pollock, both of whom were dirt poor. What a typically monetist theory that signifies nothing but the fact that trust fund bunnies never have to work so they can fancy themselves any which way they like. The heiress, Huguette Clark was a painter, but never gave an exhibition of her work, but she did it for peace of mind, and indeed at my art school
    There were heiresses who would drop everything to dash off to Paris for a Mainbocher couture show and have nothing to show at tgevend of the year!

    1. I think the author is referring to female greats like Helen Frankenthaler and
      Louise Bourgeois….and Louis Nevelson married into wealth, though she grew up kind of struggling middle class. There are, of course great women artists who come from poor, but educated backgrounds such as Judy Chicago, and then, like so many of the men, many of the great 20th century American female artists came from dirt poor backgrounds such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Lee Krasner, who basically made Jackson Pollack. He would have died drunk in a gutter and unknown had it not been for her.

      1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with “poor but educated”. Lack of access to education is likely the real barrier here. In countries where tertiary education is free I’d bet that the socioeconomic distribution of artists is more even. Back in the ’70s and ’80s when education was free in Australia entry into art schools was exclusively on merit and the students were mostly from lower income backgrounds. You needed to have a banging folio just to get an entry interview. Now that it costs $5000+ per year to go to art school it seems that all you need to get into art school is a vague interest and a healthy bank account. As a result art schools in Australia are now filled with middle-aged hobbyists producing work that is suitably unskilled and vapid.

        I have nothing against anyone of any age pursuing an education or following an urge to create (the more people in this world who create rather than destroy and consume the better I say). What I have a problem with is the exclusion that results from the commodification of education and the inevitable decline towards the lowest common denominator. Standards inevitably decline, but crucially what is most sadly lost is the electric environment of intellectual, technical and creative striving that made the art school scene of the ’70s and ’80s so enthralling.

  3. This is a poorly written article and a bad study. The very last paragraph mentions the lack of pay that most of us suffer from. As if to apologize for the previous paragraphs that make many of us sound like elitist rich folks. The study doesnt make much sense nor is it much use because it describes women who were wealthy and did art as a hobby…mostly because they werent allowed to do anything else! It also seems to discount any type of craft….that is work done by poorer people out of neccessity but also beautiful such as baskets, blankets, etc.
    What was the purpose of the study anyway?

  4. This is like discovering there’s been gambling at Rick’s Café. I am shocked, shocked I say! Even Van Gogh had his brother paying his bills for him. Tell me again why we held or still hold “commercial art” in such disdain? At least those creatives got paid.

  5. Financial reasons are the biggest factor in pursuing art as a career. So why are the hashtags on this article “gender equality”, “racial equality”, but no tags of “class equality” or “financial equality”?

    The study also says “peer effect”. Does it mention “wealth proximity”? All cities have a scene. Not all cities have the concentration of wealth that NY does. Boston is a perfect example — smaller city but massive wealth, old and new. You need a critical mass of enough wealth to hit enough numbers of people willing to spend it on the arts. Wealth also creates connections — if you have the money to spend going to Yale, you will immediately be connected into the families and businesses (potential collectors) that also have a monied background.

    Of course, no artist will admit to being born to wealth. “Dad was just a doctor/accountant and mom made jewelry/was in retail” when dad is head surgeon at a major hospital or partner in a big firm and mom is an heiress or VP at Louis Vuitton. (Note: being wealthy does of course not preclude them from being good artists .) I know a lot of pop music artists — Lady Gaga, Ariane Grande, Taylor Swift, Steve Aoki, Adam Levine, Mark Ronson etc — all were born rich.

    Curious to see how many visual artists were born wealthy. List any you know below. Here’s one:

    Yayaoi Kusama

    1. Matisse came from a wealthy family and so did Cézanne. But lots of artists didn’t, and don’t.

  6. I would like a follow-up article that shows that most artists/creatives
    spring from dysfunctional families. Thats a more likely factor to
    becoming one in my opinion.

  7. Unfortunately, art now is considered an occupation you go into (to paraphrase the author), just like engineering or hotel management. MFA mills abound. Unlike in the past, “becoming an artist” is now a prestigious respectable middle class pursuit and, after graduation, a veritable flood of “emerging artists” are being loosed upon the land.
    But the true artist, from whichever strata of society, doesn’t choose art as an “occupation.” It comes from an interior necessity, there is no choice involved.
    Yes, as usual, “money talks” and the wealthier you are, the freer you are to pursue any occupation you choose. But money won’t make anyone into an artist and there’s a wonderful justice in that.

  8. My first reaction to the headline was, ‘What a surprise!’ Rich people have more choices in life, and more information about those choices, and more morale, than poor people. Doing fine art for money is a long shot, and the poor often can’t afford to take the chances of a long shot, or they don’t think they can. What surprises me more is that more rich people don’t do more interesting things, since they have the power to. Maybe having to scrabble some for a living is more inspiring? In which case the hotbed for artistic talent should be the lower middle class.

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