The Spotlight's Other Side
We often marvel at the talents of artists—musicians, painters, actors—and the enriching experiences they bring into our lives. Yet, how often do we think about the economic realities that these artists face? A recent study of mine that is forthcoming in the Journal of Cultural Economics dives deep into this overlooked aspect. As it turns out, the spotlight shines both ways, and not always in favor of the artists.
The Earnings Enigma
While we appreciate the cultural enrichment that artists provide, their financial rewards don't seem to match their contributions. According to my research, artists have suffered a 15% decline in earnings relative to their non-artist peers. This isn't just a statistic; it's a telling indicator of how the cost of living could significantly affect an artist's quality of life Furthermore, the results in the paper are the result of data on over 19 million individuals from 2006 to 2021.
You might think this problem is isolated, but it gets more complicated. When I control for differences in demographic variables (e.g., age, race, and education), the earnings gap widened to an alarming 30% (see Figure 1 below). In other words, the problem is not just that artists and non-artists are different in general ways that can be explained by demographics, but rather that adjusting for these differences raises the earnings gaps between artists and non-artists.
Interestingly, minority artists actually fare better in the labor market: female artists earn 3% more and Hispanic artists earn 13.3% more (with no statistically significant differences between Black and non-Black artists). Artists over the age of 45 also earn nearly 27% less, which may reflect changes in family formation and/or the results of a stagnant artistic career.
In addition, one of the prevalent beliefs is that education acts as a great equalizer. However, for artists, this doesn't seem to be the case. A higher level of education doesn't necessarily equalize financial outcomes for artists compared to other professions.
In fact, my research shows that someone working in the arts with an arts undergraduate still earns roughly 4.8% less than their non-artist counterparts. They are also 2.7 percentage points less likely to be employed. But what is even more stark is that artists with a master’s degree earn 12.7% less than their artist counterparts who do not get a master’s.
These results highlight a glaring problem in the U.S. educational system – at least for artists. If anything, additional education should lead to higher earnings potential in the labor market, not less, particularly given that these results do not take into account tuition and debt that students almost always incur. Part of the problem is that the existing artistic educational programs do not integrate the experiences and input of practitioners, so additional education in the arts generally does not help artists actually thrive in their career as an artist.
The solution to these grave challenges in the arts requires clearly identifying and confronting them. While people have long known that artists tend to earn less than non-artists, this research is the first to document the changes over time and the deterioration of labor market prospects among artists. Furthermore, this research is the first to highlight the inadequacy of the educational investments that artists have been making. We hope this will pave the way for holistic solutions, which requires a refocus of the training artists receive.
Christos A. Makridis is the COO/CTO and co-founder of Living Opera. He holds academic appointments at Stanford University, Columbia University, and others. Christos also holds doctorates in economics and management science & engineering from Stanford University.