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Image taken by Arlene Mejorado, a teaching artist with Las Fotos Student Project in Las Fotos Project's Creative Entrepreneurship Opportunities program, which provides students with mentorship and on-the-job training for careers in photography (image courtesy Las Fotos Project)

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Though it is nestled far away in our pre-pandemic memory, before closures of museums and arts institutions were a government-mandated response to a global health crisis, some may remember the abrupt closure of the Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles in November 2019. Following its visitors services associates request to unionize and negotiate better employment terms — including a pay increase from their minimum wage hourly rate, for their above-minimum performance and education requirements — the foundation fired all 70 associates and announced its immediate and permanent closure.

While seemingly unrelated to the wave of unprecedented racial-justice protests, as well as a pandemic-induced economic crisis threatening the operations of many arts organizations, the closure of the Marciano Art Foundation is a grave example of how little regard arts institutions can have for their self-proclaimed missions of public service or for the employees who are tasked with carrying them out. The racial-justice protests have inspired a wave of testimonials on social media, exposing the struggles of BIPOC workers in arts organizations whose staff is overwhelmingly White, especially the leadership.

There are two main issues brought up by both the Marciano firings and the protests across arts institutions, and both have to do with leadership. First, there is the widely acknowledged failure of arts organizations to fulfill their mission of serving the entire public. Second is a systemic mistreatment of employees and a deliberate attempt to save costs at the expense of their livelihood and well-being, while benefiting from their qualifications and exploiting their passion for the arts.

My hope is that a new study, “Make or Break: Race and Ethnicity in Entry-Level Compensation for Arts Administrators in Los Angeles County,” can provide a starting point for changing this reality. Published by LA County Department of Arts and Culture with the Center for Business and Management of the Arts at Claremont Graduate University, the study was authored by me, a Los Angeles-based arts administrator, and the department’s director of research and evaluation, Bronwyn Mauldin.

The study examines earnings, debt, and other forms of financial support for entry-level arts administrators, finding troubling differences between BIPOC arts administrators and their White counterparts. The findings are based on data from 115 arts administrators working in entry-level positions in Los Angeles County, including interviews with nine arts administrators who agreed to share their personal experiences in depth.

On average, entry-level arts administrators’ income from all reported sources was $36,847 annually — slightly higher than the $15 per hour LA County minimum wage, and lower than an LA County living wage (based on the MIT living wage calculator). However, BIPOC respondents earned only $32,027 on average, while their White counterparts earned $43,437 or 35% more. Further, regardless of their education level, White respondents still earned more than BIPOC respondents. 

Respondents were predominantly White (43%), a racial makeup that is consistent with existing data on LA County arts organizations’ non-supervisory staff (49% White), which is less homogenous than executive staff and the overall arts workforce (56% White), but far less diverse than LA County’s population (26% White).

Both the BIPOC and White arts administrators interviewed said their income was too low for the cost of living in LA. They also felt their income was too low to cover debt payments associated with their education, which is often a requirement for entry-level positions in the highly educated arts workforce (94% hold at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 32% of the US population).

Going beyond the racial disparities in earnings and income, the study addresses how wealth, often in the form of financial support from family, impacts arts administration careers. It is broadly recognized that wealth translates into opportunity and security, and both BIPOC and White arts administrators reported feeling this in their own careers. About 35% of survey respondents reported additional income from family. Interviewees from wealthy families explained how their parents’ wealth enabled them to maintain their careers regardless of their pay, and to make better career choices. Others with less or no family support relied on working overtime, working outside of the arts, or making adjustments to reduce their cost of living, which some associated with a decrease in quality of life. They expressed frustration with this precarity and how it hinders their professional and personal development. Surprisingly, the study showed that holding more than one job in the arts did not increase overall annual earnings.

Discussions about financial practices are typically not positioned in the context of racial equity. This study begins to shine light on the fundamental connection between these topics. The study focuses on compensation as barrier to a more diverse workforce; however, whether or when its recommendations are implemented by arts organizations and their funders is unknown. Until then, in an effort to think about ways we can move forward and find possible solutions, I sought out arts organizations that are both committed to diverse and under-represented groups and apply sustainable financial policies that are aligned with their missions.

Commonwealth and Council family portrait, Elysian Park, Los Angeles (image by Photo: Ruben Diaz and courtesy the artists and Commonwealth and Council)

Two organizations, Las Fotos Project and Commonwealth and Council, satisfied these criteria, while offering experiences from the for-profit and nonprofit parts of the arts ecosystem. Their smaller scale can also serve as an example for similar, small organizations who often struggle to overcome the funding barriers that prevent them from hiring full-time staff and offering a living wage.

* * *

Founded in 2010 by LA-based photographer Eric V. Ibarra, Las Fotos Project (LFP) is a community arts nonprofit that aims to elevate the voices of teenage girls from communities of color through photography and mentorship. LFP’s 100% BIWOC staff is the result of an ongoing “intention to hire people who reflect the organization’s values,”said director Lucia Torres. “The very core of our work is to uplift young women of color and dismantle gender inequities in the arts and the creative economy.” When asked about compensation, Torres shared, “We developed a transparent salary scale that is applied for all positions and available to all employees. Coordinators start at a $20 hourly rate, and this will increase every year within the organization and upon promotions.”

In addition, LFP’s CEO program (Creative Entrepreneurship Opportunities) relies on an innovative earned revenue model. Launched in 2017, the CEO program presents LFP students with paid opportunities to provide a variety of photography services. The service fees from clients are divided between the contracted student, LFP itself, and the mentor hired by LFP to support the student while they fulfill their contract. Not only does the program successfully realize LFP’s mission in regard to their students, CEO provides the organization with a growing source of earned income to fund staff and other administrative costs. According to Torres, “by 2020 service fees collected through CEO comprised about 10% of our income.”

While this earned revenue does not afford LFP full financial freedom, it reduces their dependence on raising unrestricted or operating funds. Torres explains how this can be challenging for arts administrators of color and the community organizations they work for: “We don’t have the relationships to large-impact funders and legacy wealth that perhaps other White, male administrators or White-dominated boards carry with them.”

This tension plays out when considering prospective board members, said Torres. “Do we onboard members with deep connections to wealth, but no real connection to our organizational community? Or deep connections to our community and work, but not to wealth? At LFP we’ve been prioritizing the latter.”

Torres expresses an inclusive approach toward wealth. Last year, LFP launched the Sister Circle, a program for women of color and nonbinary individuals who align themselves with the experience of women who seek to invest in younger women of color. “We’re exploring what it means to bring ‘wealth’ to LFP,” she said. “In a sense, these individuals are all assets to LFP. Enabling them to connect and network strengthens our community.”

More solutions are found outside the nonprofit sector. Commonwealth and Council, a contemporary art gallery based in Los Angeles’s Koreatown neighborhood, began in 2010 as an artist-run space founded by Young Chung. According to gallery director Kibum Kim, the space has always been “anchored in diversity and championing voices from minorities … without it being a deliberate directive.” When asked about the role of diversity in the gallery, Kim explained:

We’re very cognizant of why we get attention. There is a performative marketing-oriented way in which diversity is getting thrown around these days. And I don’t mean to dismiss that, but our big lesson in supposedly embodying diversity and representing artists who embody diversity, is that it truly is intersectional. All of us occupy certain vectors of privilege and all of us have certain blind spots.

Kim shared that this lesson prompted a shift in his focus in 2020:

The capitalist demand for constant growth is not the gallery’s end goal. We do want to grow, but that’s not the primary goal that drives our decision making. Personally, I have valued growth in terms of numbers, but I’m now thinking how we can reconsider the way things are done in the art world. Growth in terms of the process.

Enter the Council Fund, which provides around 30 artists represented by the gallery with a fund for them to distribute at their collective discretion. The Council Fund is sustained by donations from gallery patrons who opt out of the discount they would typically receive when purchasing new work and instead deposit the discount’s worth into the fund. “When patrons contribute it to the Council Fund, they can’t earmark it for a certain expense. Giving to the fund means giving agency and control to our artists,” said Kim.

Building a financial tool that makes this possible — that not only shows patrons this tradeoff but also encourages them to choose the latter option — can disrupt many of the marginalizing characteristics of both the art market and art philanthropy. Kim explained, “The Council Fund is part of shifting the conversation with our patrons from exchanging artworks for money to providing real patronage, a sustained relationship with our artists and what they stand for, and by extension the gallery of Commonwealth and Council as a whole.”

* * *

As arts organizations reopen, they will hopefully begin taking actions to correct preexisting issues that the unprecedented events of 2020 have exasperated. The Make or Break study makes clear that organizations need to open up in a broader sense. They must examine the compensation they offer to current employees and determine whether certain demographic groups earn less than others, and they should include accurate salary ranges in job listings and the demographic makeup of their staff. On a strategic level, organizations should examine if, and how, the compensation they offer limits their goals with regard to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and discuss implications with their funders and board members. Both the study and the featured interviews with Torres and Kim demonstrate the key role of funders in allowing arts organizations to make these adjustments. While some may find innovative ways to overcome common funding restrictions, the reality is that the staff of many arts organizations earn less than a living wage. This means that workers from under-represented communities will continue to face a compensation barrier, especially in costly cities like Los Angeles, where the arts workforce remains grossly unrepresentative of the rich cultural diversity of the area’s residents.

For the full report, “Make or Break: Race and Ethnicity in Entry-Level Compensation for Arts Administrators in Los Angeles County,” visit LA County Arts. For the full interviews with Lucia Torres of Las Fotos Project and Kibum Kim of Commonwealth and Council, visit cobikrieger.com.

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Cobi Krieger is an arts administrator and research consultant based in Los Angeles.