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Who can afford to be a starving artist?

The key to success might be risk tolerance, not talent

November 22, 201722 November 2017

Situation of artists / Dance / Multidisciplinary arts

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Drawing on the results of a variety of mostly American surveys, this brief article argues that there are “troubling signs that socioeconomic status does correlate with access to a professional arts career”.

For example, an American study found that the “average household income during the childhood of artists was the same as those who went on to become chief executives, general managers, and engineers – above the 60th percentile of family income”. The results of a different survey show that the proportion of artists having a mother with a college education is the highest among 23 occupation categories studied. Similarly, the proportion of artists having a father with a college education is the third-highest among the 23 occupation categories.

The article explores the notion of risk, arguing that “the artist’s path is fraught with risk” due to the long gestation period of artists’ careers, high opportunity costs, high earnings variability, and a high likelihood of being self-employed. The authors wonder whether poorer individuals might refrain “from becoming artists because of what might happen if [that career choice] doesn’t work out”.

The authors admit that, while they “have yet to find solid evidence that risk dissuades individuals from economically disadvantaged backgrounds from pursuing arts careers, [they] know that if the arts and entrepreneurship remain enclaves for the privileged, we will all be the poorer for it”. They suggest further study of “social welfare programs for artists”, “targeted support for less affluent artists”, and “alternate systems that could better support [arts] professionals by decoupling success from an inequitable distribution of risk”.

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