A Study Says High Family Income Significantly Increases Likelihood of Becoming an Artist

After studying US census data since 1850, an economist says that with every $10,000 in total family income, a person is about 2% more likely to go into a creative occupation.

(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.

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