A sweeping survey of 160 years of U.S. demographic data suggests individuals from wealthy families are more likely to pursue careers in creative fields than those from lower-income households.
As Karol Jan Borowiecki, an economist at the University of Southern Denmark, writes in a recent study, someone whose family has an income of $100,000 is twice as likely to become an artist, actor, musician or author than a would-be creative with a family income of $50,000. Raise annual income to $1 million and $100,000, respectively, and the stakes become even higher, with members of the first household nearly 10 times more likely to choose a creative profession than those from the second. Overall, Borowiecki posits, every additional $10,000 in total income, or pre-tax earnings of immediate family members, makes a person two percent more likely to enter a creative field.
The logic behind this math isn’t hard to comprehend: Money’s Kristen Bahler puts it bluntly, “Devoting yourself to the life of a ‘starving artist’ is a lot less risky if your family has enough money to make sure you don’t actually starve.”
In 2017, The New York Times’ Quoctrung Bui quantified this phenomenon using surveys of individuals in their first decade of adulthood. According to Bui’s report, 53 percent of 20-somethings pursuing careers in art and design receive a financial bump from their parents, as opposed to 47 percent of STEM professionals and, at the other end of the spectrum, 29 percent of those working in farming, construction, retail and personal services. On average, parental assistance received by young creatives totaled $3,600 annually; for those in personal services, this figure was closer to $2,200, while for blue collar and military professionals, it amounted to $1,400.
Major obstacles for individuals in creative fields include high entry costs and low financial return.
“Someone who wants to go into graphic design … requires a fair amount of time to get up to the point where you’re independent,” said Patrick Wightman, a researcher at the University of Arizona, who helped Bui analyze the data. “Someone contemplating that kind of career isn’t going to take that first step unless they know they’re going to have that support to take an unpaid internship. If you don’t have other sources of support, that’s not even an option.”
As Artsy’s Anna Louie Sussman points out, private arts schools charge high tuition and offer fewer scholarships than universities with large endowments. Entry-level jobs, particularly in art hubs like New York City, pay little or, in the case of many internships, nothing.
In January 2016, Ben Davis of artnet News, spurred by an email reminding him of video artist Rachel Rose’s family real estate fortune, wrote an article outlining various creatives’ financial backgrounds. He found, for example, that the late Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, an Iranian artist known for her intricate mirrored mosaics, enjoyed what the Financial Times terms a “privileged upbringing” as the child of wealthy merchants whose father was elected to the country’s parliament. Yoko Ono, meanwhile, is the granddaughter of the founder of Japan’s Yasuda Bank, while late multimedia artist Dash Snow hailed from the De Menil family, which New York’s Ariel Levy once likened to “the closest thing to the Medicis in the United States.”
There are, of course, exceptions to this pattern: Jacob Lawrence was a child of the Great Migration tasked with supporting his mother after she lost her job during the Great Depression. A more recent example is photographer and sculptor Zoe Leonard, the daughter of a Polish refugee. As Davis notes, Leonard describes her family as “not even working-class, … just really poor.”
Borowiecki’s research—based on U.S. census data collected between 1850 and 2010—also explores issues such as racial equality and women’s visibility.
When it comes to race, Borowiecki writes “it takes almost a whole century before the first non-whites appear among artists or authors.” That, of course, doesn’t account for certain blind spots; enslaved people weren’t even counted in the earliest U.S. censuses, and who was counted as an artist in historical census data was subjective. “This could be why it looks like there are no black artists or authors until the mid-20th century,” Browiecki notes. In the most recent U.S. census, non-white Americans now account for 20 percent of individuals in artistic fields. The still-limited number of non-white creatives formally counted corresponds with Browiecki’s work, given that race and income are closely tied, with white families having a significantly higher median income than black and Hispanic families.
One surprising takeaway from Browiecki's work is that beginning in 1890, women became increasingly likely to have a career in the arts. Discounting factors including race, location and income, the study notes that being a woman increases the probability of pursuing creative professions by 18 percent. As Borowiecki concludes, “These results challenge the conventional wisdom that the arts are predominantly a male only domain.”