A recent Canadian study of the annual incomes of visual artists might have implications for other countries. The results are a shock to many.
The study was based on research by Michael Maranda, an assistant curator at the Art Gallery of York University in Toronto, Ontario. Maranda paints a picture of poverty. Average visual artists’ incomes in Canada, at $20,000 a year, are $7,000 below the national median. He figures we have 22,000 to 28,000 visual artists. He notes the widespread erroneous perception that artists live on grants. According to his study, only 34 percent ever get a grant. It seems that most artists receive their modest incomes from sales (54 percent) and fees (12 percent).
The average visual artist works 26 hours a week doing studio work, supplemented by 14.5 hours on art-related jobs, and 7.6 hours doing something not related to art.
Maranda’s study finds artists as a group to be older and better educated than they were a few years ago, having an average of six years of post-secondary education. The real shocker comes with the revelation that the higher their education level, the less artists earn from their art.
At the risk of being taken out and shot, I’m offering a couple of possible reasons for this. Highly educated artists may make art that is too sophisticated or esoteric for people to buy. Further, a formal education often gives artists a sense of entitlement that may hamper their access to or interest in the commercial gallery system. In my experience, higher incomes are enjoyed by workers with previous design experience — exsign painters, illustrators, ad-agency people, etc. Further, immigrants with traditional art experience and the benefit of prior poverty frequently thrive.
Estimating the average incomes of artists is like estimating the average incomes of golfers. Many at the low end don’t collect a plugged nickel, no matter how many birdies they sink. The Tiger Woodses at the other end nicely pull the statistics up to $800 a year. Further, guys like Maranda are way off base when it comes to grants. In my thinking, less than one percent of deserving artists ever get a grant. According to a study done by Grumbacher a few years ago, four percent of the population have paints and call themselves painters. That would make 900,000 painters in Canada. Maranda’s respondent-driven sampling appears to include a high percentage of sophisticated duffers.
PS: “We can categorically state that the primary funder of artistic practices in Canada is the artists themselves.” (Michael Maranda)
Esoterica: A key to the lousy fiscal performance of artists could be the low number of hours they apparently spend alone in the studio. A twenty-six-hour week is not enough. Forty is more like it. Sixty is better because you can start to get good at sixty. Show me artists who have put in ten thousand hours and I’ll show you a chicken in every pot.
Insulting and condescending
by Suzanne Hesh, Tucson, AZ, USA
Well, maybe not shoot you but some other kind of pain is in order! My shock is from the “market” attitude toward creating art that you expressed. As an artist and retired art educator, the value of art isn’t purely monetary… we all know that. If an artist wants to “create to sell” that’s a personal choice that I would never argue with. But for you to low-ball advanced education and promote artificial commercialism in one’s art is appalling. Your use of statistics is weak and unsubstantiated. This is the first time since I’ve been a subscriber that I’m tempted to cancel. What have you contributed to the lives of artists by writing this letter? Oh, yeah… you told us it’s hard to make a living as an artist. Your letter was insulting and condescending.
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by Janet Lee Sellers, Monument, CO, USA
Robert, you appall. In a year, to get 10,000 hours, one would need a 27 hour day working non-stop. With 3 years being around 1000 days, one could pull 10,000 hours by 10 hours a day. You know as well as I do that 10 hours a day is not the real deal: more like 16 hours a day of work that paints out to 10… 6 are musing hours. Artists must work smarter, not harder… richer, not poorer… find what we need to succeed on our terms and get money in all that is legal and moral… or perish. Well, the good news in that is dead artists seem to make more money per painting.
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Highly educated low-earning artists
by Dr. Westy A. Egmont, Boston, MA, USA
Being from a family of professional artists, one trait that highly impacts any demographic study of ‘artists’ is that for many they spend years as teachers and professionals in various careers and when they are finally free of tuitions or mortgage or whatever shackles had held them back, then they joyously claim the identity of “artist.” At this point they are less focused on income and more on creativity and thus evolve into being highly educated low-earning artists. Among my professional sculptor friends, only a few ever made their income in the creative arts.
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Many educated artists succeed
by Claudia Roulier, Idledale, CO, USA
I agree mostly with your assessment except the one point about “too” educated… not a relevant point, in my opinion. I know plenty of artists that defy that idea. Also the study did not seem to take into account the world global economy’s downturn. It’s up to artists to figure out innovative ways to promote themselves. Artists are like milk: the “cream” tends to rise to the top through promotion skills and talent.
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Chicken in every pot department
by James Von, Otisville, MI, USA
I dropped out of art school to become an Artist. Once I learned that I didn’t have to pay to work at my heart’s desire, all that was left to me was work. I learned the art of creating it, then framing it, then selling it. Artists, however talented or educated, will never sell a thing if they don’t have some experience in marketing/sales. The people that spend time getting an education in the arts also need to learn to sell it. More like learn to sell themselves. Art is an extension of one’s self. When you learn to sell yourself the paintings go out under the arms. Actually, the easy part is selling your art. It’s getting good enough to do so that takes time and effort. And I would have to agree with Robert. Show me artists who have put in ten thousand hours and I’ll show you a chicken in every pot.
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by Ann DerGara
I have supported myself and my family since 1978 as an artist, only working as an artist and producing my work. I sent my children to college, paid for my home, bought my cars etc. etc. Most of my artist friends have done the same. I have made far more than this fellow Maranda is saying…. I also always employed assistants in my studio and even gave them health insurance. The art business is a huge business. Make Your Life a Work of Art.
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Paint for love anyway
by Merv Richardson, Barrie, ON, Canada
I don’t believe that income level determines whether an artist is good, bad or indifferent. There are a goodly number of very fine artists who do not sell well for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they are painting for the sheer love of it and not to put another notch in their brush handle each time they make a sale. On the other end of the spectrum are artists that can’t paint a lick, but who cater to the unsophisticated buyer. (Case in point, if I really wanted to make a decent living at art, just for the sake of the almighty dollar, I would only paint trilliums and birch trees since, for some strange reason, people go gaga over this stuff). As to grants, my personal opinion is that I seldom see a grant project which would justify the expenditure of government funding. (By the way, I have never applied for one, so it’s not a sour grape comment here). I really appreciate receiving your emails, and find the content to be of an outstanding quality.
Who’s the audience?
by Dwayne Davis, Williams Lake, BC, Canada
Look at the works of Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miro, Marc Chagall, and Pablo Picasso, who are but a few of the more “famous” artists of our time. Their work that is revered in the higher art circles would not even place in a local town art fair when judged against little Jenny’s painting of “Puppies in a basket with flowers.” But again, Jenny’s piece shown in New York’s high-end galleries would be a laugh beside any of the names listed above. As an “educated” art enthusiast, I get the Kandinskys and the rest of the artists I was fortunate to be able to study. For the rest of the masses, Jenny’s puppies win out every time. That brings to question, who is the audience? When I paint, I ask myself this because I want to relate what I’m saying in my work to the people seeing it. Art is communication that has the ability to reach out and touch anyone who has the physical and mental faculty to receive it. Art can bridge age, culture, and language differences, relating the viewer personally to the piece when produced in a way that one can read into the work and identify with it. Art in its simplest form matches the sofa in the room but in its most elegant form it moves the soul.
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Of grants and success
by Brett Busang, Washington, DC, USA
The subject you attempted to dispose of in a single letter is far too complex to summarily address though I’m sure you’re aware of that yourself. What, for example, is an “artist”? I would not rush to judgment and pronounce somebody an artist simply because he or she happens to spend twenty-six hours or more in a studio. I know of rich idlers who spend all day and accomplish nothing of any value, and never will. I spent ten hours on a painting a couple of weeks ago and made a pretty good little medium-sized thing. (Because I have become somewhat lazy in my middle age, those ten hours were all I spent before an easel that week.) Yet: the innumerable hours I had spent in restless experimentation, on failed projects, as well as the odd “keeper,” made my moderate success possible. Studio idlers could not have done that little painting in five hundred hours. Nor would they have wanted to. It was, by most sensible definitions of the word, work. And work is something such people wish heartily to avoid.
No work ethic devised by man doth a painting make, though I will readily acknowledge that you do have to show up now and then to make something that might hang on a wall or rest uneasily on a pedestal.
As to grants, I think your assessment must be closer than the lab-tested one. To use my own example a second time, I have applied for dozens and been awarded with a collection of form letters that make for insanely comical reading provided you’re in the mood for them. On the other hand, I have collegial relationships with a fair number of artists who have received grants and keep on receiving them. If those who have shall get, it’s very likely that their gravy train will not run out. Just as mine will never get started.
Artists are people who are driven, not merely by visions of success, but by the following: the attraction to a specific medium; the need to work in that medium to the exclusion of others; a personal integrity that need not translate “man hours” into an occupational tic; a commitment to what workshop gurus call quite rightly personal growth, which isn’t tied to statistical reckoning, but to the workaday efforts of the artist him or herself. I must also add that if these workaday efforts are not tempered with self-criticism, they have limited value. Robert Henri described painter-workaholics as victims of “idle industry.” Unnecessary work shouldn’t be rewarded any more than no work at all. The French academic painter, Meissonnier probably spent a hundred hours a week in his studio. Does that make his work superior to that of Manet, who was no clock-puncher and wouldn’t have cared to be? I don’t think so!
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Not in the economic reality zone
by Linda Sorem
I was recently discussing some of your letters with a friend who also receives them. We were wondering if painters like you do any of the normal activities that the rest of us do like laundry, cooking, house cleaning, mowing the lawn, grocery shopping, paying bills, etc. or if these mundane but necessary tasks are all done for you? Your last letter seems a bit harsh in its conclusions. I do agree that a set and structured amount of time needs to be devoted to studio time — but it’s not 60 hours a week, unless one is working towards a deadline or show date. Where is the balance in that? I used to do that and burned out. So back to my statement about living real life. As you seem to travel quite a bit, you probably are not in the economic reality zone that most of us live in. We in Minnesota have done extensive studies by region about economic health of artists and the picture is not pretty right now. Artists contribute far more to communities and economies than what has been recognized in the past despite how little they make. Last year I attended a conference called “Art Works!” and the keynote speaker was pointing out the benefits of arts in a community. If all the artists I know were doing nothing but working in their studios for 60 hours a week, there would be no community involvement or volunteer time available.
Recently I attended a marketing/grant writing workshop with approx. 50 other artists, most who were well along in their careers and I would say the average age was somewhere between 45 and 55. The economy has forced many of these people back to jobs and out of the studio or to a diminished lifestyle. Grants are surely (as you mentioned) not a dependable source for income. The world of art is becoming increasingly expensive to participate in, whether its materials, show fees, photography, computer programs, website maintenance — the list goes on and on. What I heard in the workshop is that all the marketing-related activities that must be done take away time and creative energy from the studio.
So I conclude that either you are a wizard or you indeed have this team of people doing all the grunt work for you so you can paint. Thanks for giving us food for thought and discussion (and some aggravation/motivation).
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Art school survivor
by Kathrine Allen-Coleman, Jackson, GA, USA
I have been reading your letters for several months, and found this one particularly interesting. I was born in Victoria B.C., and tried to get my art career started there. But after many twists of fate (positive) ended up marrying a fellow artist and moving to a small town in Georgia, USA. Scott paints in Watercolor, I do mixed media pieces, we both have a bit of a designer background. We often easily put in 60 hour weeks, not including time spent at shows. We exhibit at outdoor art shows a couple times a month. Not the clinky windchime craft fairs, but the higher end shows that fortunately thrive down here. Cherry Creek in Denver, Coconut Grove in Miami, St. Louis Art fair, and such.
I could never get a toe hold in B.C., couldn’t make enough in gallery sales, had one small museum show, and the competition for a few dollars of grant money was huge. Not to mention the cost of living in Victoria! I had to agree with you on so many points, yes, the 10,000 hour rule is a good place to start. Yes the more art school you get the more handicapped it leaves you. Two years of art school, 10 years to get over it. I am actually on the brink of contacting my old art school instructor, but the fear of him turning up his nose at how I’ve ‘sold out’ is holding me back. Yes I make art to sell, and usually I sell it.
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Go ahead, pat yourself on the back
by Paul Kane, Bloomington, IN, USA
Well, I don’t think you should be shot for a little classic ‘blaming the victim.’ I think you should just be very ashamed of yourself, though I suppose it’s quite natural, in a twisted way, for an artist who has thrived in the commercial art market to basically accuse those who have not of being snooty elitists. Ok. Fine. You go there. Now it’s my turn: I think much of the art that sells well isn’t very good for the same reason that many of the books that sell well aren’t very good, ditto movies, ditto TV shows, etc , I think that some very good artists sell well and some don’t and I think that some not so good artists sell well and some don’t. I think a lot of what makes the difference is luck. I think that a sophisticated business plan can make a difference, but I think that says as much about the quality of the art as McDonalds’ success says about the quality of its burgers. I think that public support for the arts can be a very helpful thing, but that it works best when it works broadly. I think that contemporary arts programs hand out awards to very few people and that this could possibly do more harm than good, because it rewards political skills over creative abilities. I think the WPA program for artists worked magnificently precisely because it helped a broad swath of artists. This was important, because it reduced the political component, apparently there being a recognition that it is impossible for some committee to know ahead of time which artists will ultimately do the most important work. It was also important because it helped create an environment in which something like a critical mass of active artists was achieved — enough to provide both competitive energy and support — not just material support, but — more importantly — the kind of support that tells you that what you are doing is valuable to be doing.
And, finally, the broad support for many artists helped, I think, to encourage a wider and more sophisticated audience. See, we don’t actually have to assume that education just turns people into snooty elitists. It can also provide environments in which individuality, perception, awareness and understanding can flourish.
But, hey, if you think Die Hard 90 is automatically MUCH better than La Dolce Vita since only eggheads watch Italian art films, or whatever, you go ahead and break your arm patting yourself on the back every time you sell a painting and maybe even go ahead and snort a snoot or two at all those hyper-educated eggheads who maybe paint things other than feel-good landscapes.
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Feeble art education system
by Yvonne Callaway Smith, Montreal, QC, Canada
I’m inclined to believe the low incomes indicated in the article result from a dearth of buyers, which is generated by a feeble art education system formal and informal. Folks will spend money on posters or mass-produced images at big box stores, but not art because of grievous misconceptions:
Art is only for rich people.
Art is only the stuff in the costly range of Damien Hirst.
Art is only for people who know about that stuff.
Too many folks don’t realise that “affordable” art is available through art schools or from many proficient local artists. Indeed, many don’t recognise local work as being “real” art. For too many, art is the stuff that makes headlines – millions paid at auction for a handful of artists. And folks don’t trust their own taste because visual art is not in the mainstream in the same way that music and film are, people don’t have an opportunity to develop their eye (and opinions) and want to own art.
Improved art education in the schools would be a good thing. More accessible would be articles – that don’t pander to the myth of exclusivity – about art and artists in our country (and abroad).
I spend an inordinate amount of time informing people about art, artists and trusting their own eye. I try to re-educate people who approach me saying, “I know nothing about art.” We have a culture that does little to support the idea that art is for everyone, that all are as entitled to own art as they are entitled to own a cell phone, or flat screen TV or toaster. Art may be the last luxury, but all can and should be encouraged to own it.
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pastel painting 19 x 26 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Carole Munshi of Alexandria, VA, USA, who wrote, “The Grumbacher Award sits smugly on a shelf in one of my many book cases and gets dusted now and then when I am in need of a push to live up to my past. Being a member of the highly educated (I know everything) group with no money to prove it That Grumbacher Award swells with importance now and then. However, I have recently joined a particular snob group interested in hopping out of their cages of pride. We shall all create crap art for a bit of boost to our incomes.”
And also Christine Ritchie of Harrison Twp, MI, USA, who wrote, “Some things, like your opinion on why highly educated artists make less money should be kept to yourself as you are making assumptions based on nothing but your own opinion of education. It shows ignorance.”
And also Gretchen Markle of Metchosin, BC, Canada, who wrote, “It would be wonderful if we could spend 60 hours per week in the studio. But most of us don’t have staff to do all the marketing nor, failing either a better income or a compliant spouse, someone to take care of all those pesky little household duties that keep us fed, clean and clothed.”
And also Peter Reid who wrote, “I know a number of artists who enjoy a short work week and plead poverty.”
And also Jack Dickerson of Hingham, MA, USA, who wrote, “Twenty-six hours in the studio a week! No wonder they aren’t making any money. Can you imagine an investment manager, a plumber, or a nurse working 26 hours a week and expecting to pull down a big salary? It ain’t gonna happen.”
And also Amber Southard who wrote, “Thanks. If this is true, you saved me about 5 grand in college loans.”
And also Ron Ukrainetz of Great Falls, MT, USA, who wrote, “The thickness of one’s wallet is directly proportional to the amount of time spent at the easel. It should really be no surprise. Hard work and study reduces the time needed to correct mistakes and find the finished painting.”
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