When Artists Expect to Earn a Living

This is a guest post is by Ken Tabachnick — designer, arts manager, dean and thinker.

I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations.

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Recently, three published pieces raised the question of our expectations as artists and how we present our work. (Many thanks to Thomas Cott and You’ve Cott Mail for alerting us to these and many other salient conversations.) While not all the pieces discuss the same topic, each one raises, at least by inference or implication, the question of how an artist can fulfill his or her expectation of a reasonable living wage in our current environment.

These pieces, addressing various aspects of this topic, are: “Why ‘Where’? Because ‘Who’: Arts venues, spaces and traditions (by Brent Reidy of AEA Consulting, for the James Irvine Foundation); “Artists Report Back: A National Study on the Lives of Arts Graduates and Working Artists” (by BFAMFAPhD); and “The Pomplamoose Problem: Artists Can’t Survive as Saints and Martyrs” (by “artist empathist” Sarah Manning).

“Artists Report Back” and “The Pomplamoose Problem” detail the gap in the reality of making a living that artists face. “Why ‘Where’?…” details the changed expectation of current audiences and the changing relationship between audience and artist regarding the space in which the art takes place.

self-deceptionThe heart of the matter is that we expect to be able to earn a reasonable living through our art, but the current environment makes this an unrealistic expectation except for a very select few. We partially find ourselves in this situation because of the overwhelming success of our funding and cultural policies and strategies during the 20th century (particularly its second half) that aimed to professionalize the artistic landscape and broaden the reach of culture throughout our society.

While there has always been a commercial industry that existed alongside amateur practitioners, commercial opportunities were traditionally limited and selective. Through the use of “leveraged funding” pioneered by the Ford Foundation and then adopted by public and private funders, we built a strong and vibrant professional nonprofit creative sector. A second outcome of this process was the solidifying of a dichotomy between “high” and “popular” art. With the return to an earlier relationship between artist and audience, as Reidy and others report, this distinction is waning or disappearing.

One natural outcome of “professionalization” was an increased expectation by all artists that it was possible, for the first time in our country’s history, to earn a living as an artist. (For a concise and enlightening history of this process, see “The Performing Arts in a New Era,” by the Rand Corporation, for the Pew Charitable Trusts). This sense was further strengthened by the institutionalization of arts education and artist training, events to which “Artists Report Back” responds.

As we have transitioned into the 21st century, the demographic and social milieu has fundamentally shifted. resulting in a gap between the expectation of artists and the expectation of audiences. To put it another way, audiences are increasingly skipping the traditional art forms (often referred to as “high” or “fine” arts) because these art forms, at least as they are traditionally presented, no longer deliver the value they once did. The success of our strategies of the past hundred years in increasing the supply of artists has not been matched with strategies to insure sufficient value and demand for the work of those artists. The result is the gap many funders are now seeking to address.

It is well documented that our country is in the midst of a major demographic shift from a European-based Caucasian culture to a multiethnic culture. The vast majority of the traditional arts that were professionalized in this country flowed from the former — from aesthetic systems that are not the same as that of other heritages, many of which have different (or additional) cultural artifacts and experiences that they value. As the ethnic and racial balance in our country shifts, so do and will the cultural experiences and artifacts from which audiences will find value, a dynamic that links directly to audience demand.

At the same time, disruptive digital technologies are eviscerating the underpinnings of many industries, not just the creative industries, and our sector’s business models are being turned upside down. The underlying issue brings us back to expectations: the inability to make a living as an artist today. Nor is this limited to the nonprofit sector. Taylor Swift’s recent withdrawal of her catalog from Spotify and the pitched battle between Amazon and Hachette are indications that the pressures from these shifts are wreaking havoc with the commercial segments of the creative industries.

Many of today’s funders and sector analysts are understandably focused on the changing rules of engagement between artist and audience. Some, like former NEA Chair Bill Ivey, have nostalgically focused their writing on a shift or return to a public engagement with the arts that recalls past times and norms more than an orientation toward the future. (See, for example, Ivey’s Handmaking America: A Back-to-Basics Pathway to a Revitalized American Democracy.) Unfortunately, this earlier kind of engagement never included a professionalized sector, and consequently the expectation of artists that they might reasonably earn a living from their art did not exist — or at least did not exist on the general scale it does today.

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Reidy, looking at it from the audience point of view, and really more from an institutional rather than individual point of view, urges artists to go where the audiences are and not expect audiences to come to them, as they have in the past. For Reidy, these changes are irrevocable:

The most shortsighted of these efforts are calculated attempts to hook new patrons and somehow convince them to come back to the places they do not currently attend. Increasing attendance back at base is possible, but only when an organization can re-legitimize and ground itself through efforts that reach new patrons in genuine ways. For the work to be truly effective….it must be part of the mission, not only of strategy, and an organization must be committed to meeting its current and future patrons where they are, not where that organization wishes they were.

Looking at it from the artist’s point of view, both The Pomplamoose Problem and Artists Report Back urge that we address the crisis of the difficulty artists have to earn a living. Each assumes artists should be able to earn a living. Perhaps just as Reidy acknowledges the reality of the changed expectations and desires of audiences, so too must artists acknowledge the changed reality of their situation. And some may already be doing so.

The Pomplamoose Problem responds to a report by Pomplamoose, in which the band details the costs and revenues of their recent self-produced tour. While the band believes that their investment and personal loss on the tour was well worth it, their loss is bemoaned in the Pomplamoose Problem as a sign of how we are failing our artists and this forms the basis of the post’s call to action. The only real difference I can see, however, between the Pomplamoose artists and the Pomplamoose Problem commenter is that they have different expectations.

Along with Brent Reidy’s findings and recommendations, it seems that this is the real message that more and more are suggesting for our sector: changing expectations are required to continue making art and being satisfied with the return on that work for the artist. Such a change, though, may spell the end of the “professionalized” arts sector we have come to expect. As the Pomplamoose band’s reactions shows, it is possible to be successful in the current environment, though to do so, today’s artists may need a different set of expectations than those of artists of a previous period.


Currently Deputy Dean for Tisch Asia at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Ken Tabachnick has broad and diverse experience in the arts. He has managed a large ballet company, worked as an intellectual property attorney and designed lighting for theater, opera, dance, film and television. He is on the Executive Committee of Dance/USA, is an officer of the Stephen Petronio Company and a Trustee of the Hemsley Lighting Programs. Tabachnick’s periodic writing and speaking on the arts can be found at PeriodicArts.

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