The Financial Lives of Artists

Lonnie Firestone
Doron Perk in "Grandfather Visit" from LABAlive.

The financial life of an artist is rife with irregularities. One bountiful month may be followed by a season of drought. A project that demands arduous work may offer “exposure” rather than earnings; a commercial venture may be lucrative but artistically unfulfilling. 
 
Much of it is simply beyond the control of artists and writers. The pandemic was especially devastating to the arts community, with 2.3 million jobs and $74 billion in average monthly earnings lost in 2020. (See this report from Brookings.) 
 
While the recovery has brought relief to many sectors, arts employment is still down 11% from pre-pandemic levels. According to this research update from Americans for the Arts, nonprofit arts organizations lost three times as many jobs as other nonprofits, and experts say that for the arts, the recovery will take longer. 
 
But even before the pandemic, artists grappled with minuscule payments and the misconception that the work itself it the reward: unlike most other industries, in the arts there is often an expectation that the product itself will be free. (Read this eloquent piece from CANVAS founder Lou Cove.)
 
At CANVAS, we seek to elevate the Jewish arts and culture ecosystem by supporting networks that offer professional opportunities for their members—grants, project work, collaboration, and education. We support media coverage of the field to expand the reach and the sophistication of Jewish arts reporting.
 
We also seek to improve the lot of individual artists by advocating for increased philanthropic support, adequate budget lines for creatives at community organizations, and fair wages for artists and writers.

We’re doing our best to lead by example. CANVAS compensates all contributors to the newsletter and all guest artists who present at our virtual or in-person gatherings.
 
You can see why we believe that understanding the financial lives of artists is a prerequisite for thoughtful and strategic support of the arts. What follows are some insights into that challenging world, and some practical ideas for how to help. 

Many need guidance

The first thing to understand is that artists almost never receive lessons in basic finance as part of their training. An unofficial survey of actors, writers, and visual artists revealed that none had been taught the basics of budgeting. 
 
Working artists may be disinclined to even consider getting on top of their own finances. What is there to figure out when so little money is coming in? 
 
Rebecca Guber takes the opposite approach. Guber is an experienced arts professional—Founder and Director of Asylum Arts (a CANVAS grantee) and Founding Director of The Neighborhood: An Urban Center for Jewish Life—who has spent years helping individual artists take greater control of their personal finances. 
 
“I always encourage artists to build out a yearly budget for their artistic practice, including their material costs, studio time, etc. so that they have a clear picture of what their full expenses are when they think about their income,” says Guber. “This can be a painful exercise, but also helps to get a grip on their actual financial picture, and then to think about how to evaluate opportunities.” 
 
Guber urges artists to be clear about money: “I encourage folks to separate their personal and artistic financial streams, and to really think about their practice as a business if they want it to be part of the way they earn money.”
 
Every businessperson knows that budgeting is beneficial across all levels of income. And while budgeting is a skill unto itself, artists gain financial clarity by determining the amount of money needed to cover living expenses and creative materials.
 
So one important step is to encourage artists to create a budget and stick to it. (Getting Your Sh*t Together, an organization that provides career counseling for artists, has free budget templates here.)

Encourage mindful spending

A parallel approach is to encourage artists to consider what they get out of what they spend and what they earn. Bailie Slevin of Financial Wellness Companion counsels artists to look at the Eight Dimensions of Wellness: emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical, environmental, financial, occupational, and social. 
 
“What if every financial transaction benefited at least one of these dimensions?” Slevin asks. “It would be hard to spend poorly when you’ve learned how to rank your wellness and make your money support that.” 
 
Maintaining those areas of wellness can be a powerful motivator in helping artists stay committed to their careers and to gaining financial proficiency. 

“It’s never okay to ask an artist to do something ‘for the exposure.’ Unless you are guaranteeing them a million-plus audience, this is unpaid labor, plain and simple.”

It’s impossible without a day job

You may have noticed that above Guber talked about an artistic practice as “part of the way” artists earn money. It is a simple fact that most working artists and writers—many of whom you’d consider quite successful—have some kind of day job.
 
“My way to do it is teaching and dancing,” says Doron Perk, a dancer and LABA fellow. “Others work in production, curation, light design, things relating to the stage. I have artist friends who support their creative career by teaching Pilates or yoga; others are servers or assistants.” 
 
Composer and LABA fellow Alex Weiser adds, “For me, it’s been important to have reliable sources of income outside of commissions, from teaching and arts admin work, so I have a stable basis for paying bills, saving, and consistently setting a bit aside for retirement. This also allows me the flexibility to work on the projects that are most meaningful to me and not make creative decisions based on compensation alone.” 
 
The organizations that work with artists need to take the day job into consideration in terms of scheduling or timing—especially for artists with children, whose childcare budgets may be limited or nonexistent.

Know the going rate

Guber notes that one of the most critical areas of her work is helping artists advocate for themselves. Guber does “a lot of coaching around contracts, which are the means that artists have to make sure they are compensated appropriately. I encourage all artists to insist on a contract, read it carefully, and then call out when it isn’t followed.” 
 
She acknowledges that it can be hard for artists to stand up for themselves: “This can be really scary, as organizations and venues seem to hold all the power. But artists also have power in the situation. It’s good to have a lawyer to write stern letters.” (Lawyers for the Creative Arts has a helpful list of organizations that provide pro-bono or sliding-scale services.)
 
The flip side is “helping venues and organizations figure out how to pay artists appropriately. It’s never okay to ask an artist to do something ‘for the exposure.’ Unless you are guaranteeing them a million-plus audience, this is unpaid labor, plain and simple.”
 
Those who set pay rates for artists should look at the W.A.G.E. website (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) and its fee calculator to see how much other institutions pay artists. The fee calculator is an excellent tool because it gives funders a benchmark—you can see what organizations of similar budget size are paying for different kinds of work.  
 
Who Pays Writers is useful for budgeting when hiring writers—bearing in mind that even prestigious publications have vastly decreased compensation as the internet has forced creativity to be viewed as commodity.

Make sure they work their network

CANVAS supports Jewish arts and culture networks that provide, fellowship, education, and opportunities for funding to artists. That shouldn’t preclude the networks that individuals already have access to: the colleagues, mentors, and friends who can be a powerful resource.
 
Weiser notes that his community has been generous in sharing resources and advice on business matters: “Friends and mentors have helped me a lot with practical things like setting fees, budgeting, etc. It’s important to have people a few years ahead of you whom you can call up with a question, and that’s just as true for practical advice as it is for creative advice.”
 
Of course, that’s advice for individual artists. And arts organizations do understand the challenges that artists face, but they may not have the funding to adequately compensate them. Organizations not focused on the arts, though—for example, private companies or NGOs—need to understand the time and effort that go into making a work and pay accordingly. 

Next steps for philanthropists and patrons

Remember that what to a donor may seem like a very small investment can have a meaningful impact on the life and work of an artist. Some ideas:

1. Underwrite a financial planner for artists
The long-term impact of such a gift means this investment will have exponential returns. A patron might underwrite the gift directly or through arts networks. 

2. Underwrite the budget line that pays the artist.
Do your existing charitable causes pay the creative people they employ? Is there a budget line for presenters? For artists-in-residence? If not, this is an easy place to start.

3. Fund project grants/fellowships/achievement awards.
Establishing an ongoing grant pool for artist/project support or fellowships is another direct way to foster new work. Similarly, cash awards that acknowledge achievement in the arts, or in a specific discipline, can have a double impact: immediate financial relief, and recognition that leads to new commissions.  

Again, CANVAS grantees like Asylum Arts and LABA already offer fellowships and grants; they have the framework and expertise to help funders establish such programs on a national level. CANVAS grantee Reboot just launched a project fund of $15,000 for individual works on Jewish themes with its Reboot Studios that is getting a lot of buzz.

Local programs are viable too, through federations like the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, which recently established an arts and culture initiative—one of the very few in North America, and one that might serve as an example to the Jewish community at large.
 
There is so much need and no shortage of ways to help. At CANVAS, we see the key to success in strategy and coordination. Acting independently will help. Acting in partnership with others exponentially increases that impact. 
 
“Being a professional dance artist is an unstable job; you need to really love it,” Doron Perk says. For those of us who love the arts, perhaps there is a real chance here to provide some stability to the people who make it all possible.

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