2 Million Art Graduates Who Don't Earn From Their Art

Recently I started working for a startup that is on a mission to help artists gain exposure and support for their work and I got to thinking about contemporary art graduates today, and the kind of challenges they face entering the workplace as an artist.

A recent study made by DATA USA in 2019 found that there are some 2 million artists graduating from art school with a bachelor's degree in either music, drama and theatre arts, film, video and photography, art history, visual or performing arts in the United States alone. And the number continues to rise with the rate of acceptances to art schools continuing to rise every year by roughly 2.01%.

Alongside the numbers of graduates was also the percentages of graduates working in varying sectors after leaving university. It is estimated that fewer than 200,000, or just 10 percent of the US population make their main earnings from their art practice, and instead the majority either have to subsidise their art with part-time employment, shift creative areas to have a more 'sustainable' income, i.e. leaving fine arts or sculpture for a steady position in graphic design or enter new fields all together leaving their art practice behind completely. This I know to be all too common not just in America, but from my own cohort I can count a handful of us still making a career from our work and even most of us still work outside our practice to keep it moving forward. Even technicians who work in art universities have told me that after graduation day they never again picked up a paint brush. 

Needless to say this is not just a shame for the artists themselves, but it also begs a wider societal question of how much cities/countries at large are depriving themselves of creative contribution by not placing a higher importance on the support of artists after graduation. One could dream of an ideal world where artists had access to steady salaries to support their everyday showing up to their art or recording studios to produce their work - but it is unlikely that such a thing would ever come to pass. Many would deem it a frivolous expense of the economy and that many simply may take advantage of the privilege to earn and not work atall - for making art is not generally squeezed into a specific 9-5 schedule but to some degree relies on muses and material dependencies as well. That perhaps is another topic altogether. But one wonders... in the same way employees are monitored and evaluated for their efforts inside a corporate company and are then paid according to a contract, could artists not receive the same? 

If an arts council or awarding body could set a standard of completion, progress and aesthetical quality could artists not be contracted more readily outside of art school to be paid for their work and give back to their society the way they always intended? It sounds almost too good to be true. Maybe one day it could happen...

But failing that dream, there is undoubtedly more that could be done for artists right now. 

Graduating six years prior, I find myself still working thankfully as an artist but through sheer will, not because it paid me handsomely to do so. I do believe some of this struggle could have been alleviated had I been offered a core business model to follow as a student. A program that was compulsory and structured clearly alongside my creative learning and exploration time as a student - that became a habit so it wouldn't have had to take years to understand the necessity for it. Learning to make art in university was great but avoiding business principles that every business needs is the same as any department store neglecting to advertise their products. They would simply fail. Which business in the world has been successful without a strong marketing and sales team? None. Noone would know they existed, and it is the same for artists. 

I’m not suggesting that every artist graduating today is as ignorant as I was leaving university without a clue how to delve into business. Because in my case it was more than that - I literally didn't think about it. The depth of how little I understood of how to be a successful artist is quite shocking when I think back, but therein lies another problem. Even if you are business savvy combined with your creative flair you must account for the time needed to join all of these parts together. Artists are not just artists if they wish to be successful. They must be a jack of more trades than one or they must have the financial means to hire the relevant talents and skills to promote, sell, exhibit and ship their work. Not to mention handling their accounts and spending, SEO strategies for their online platforms, stock keeping, documentation and studio up-keep. 

The irony is that being an artist is usually a solitary activity in that you need alone time to create work, whilst simultaneously do not earn enough to pay yourself, let alone a team of marketing and financial staff to push your business forward. However it is a business, like every other business and therefore must follow the same principles in order to succeed. 

I had a meeting this week with a corporate businessman who assists artists and designers in creating sustainable businesses for themselves and their craft. His role is essentially to fill in the business gaps that artists are often unaware of through no fault of their own, but in the overarching reality that art schools and colleges generally spend 99% of their time teaching art but never business.

One can imagine the huge benefit of instilling a core business program inside art schools alongside their studio practices to enable millions of art graduates the necessary tools to contribute to their communities through their work - not just dream about it or have to leave it behind. To be able to run a successful business from their chosen craft. One can only wonder if in time after such a program could be successfully introduced as part of every art curriculum in art schools across the globe, would it demonstrate a demonstrable surge in more professional and successful creatives and makers? Empowered to be the artists they were always meant to be because they too understand like other business professionals what it actually takes to run their business with confidence whilst fuelling their creative vision with confidence.

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  • Great post. Curious to know the startup that you work for!


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