It's all but impossible to earn a living as a working artist, new report shows


Frankly, it’s always been all but impossible. There were the odd painters or photographers through the years, but when was the last time you ever heard of a poet being able to support themselves?

Immediately after the closing of his masterwork Einstein on the Beach, Philip Glass went back to driving a taxi. You’ll always have your odd Banksy or Hirst, but the reality is that in just about any artistic field if you do not come from money you’ll have a day job that, if you are lucky, has something to do with art.


The big difference is that tuition rates have been skyrocketing in recent decades. You can easily drop 20 grand or more a year on an art degree, and that doesn’t even count expenses.


Unfortunately, the university system has no interest in anything other than profit at this point.

The problem is that universities are divorced from the consequences of their actions. Schools want to sell the largest number of diplomas possible, not prepare young people for the future. If they can sell 1000 diplomas for a career market that only has 10 new job openings every year, they’re perfectly happy to do so.

Nevermind that this leaves 990 of the people they sold diplomas to out of work, with degrees that are essentially worthless but which cost small fortunes to acquire. Nevermind that it creates a glut on the labor market, driving down wages for that particular career path because of the extreme excess of supply versus a very small demand for employees. Nevermind that it leaves other job markets lacking in supply, because people can’t really afford to get a single degree, much less go back to school to get a second different one because their first degree is no longer worth anything.

Simply put, the people who are in charge of handing out credentials simply don’t care what effects they have on the workers or the job markets they end up profoundly influencing, because it doesn’t affect their bottom line in any tangible way. They have no incentive to care about anything other than the raw number of students they can push through their profit mill. They don’t give a damn what happens to these people after they graduate, nor what happens to the labor markets that rely on the schools to train future employees.

There need to be controls on these things. Schools shouldn’t be allowed to sell students on degrees that are going to be worthless by the time they graduate. We shouldn’t let unscrupulous profiteers rob young people of years of their lives and untold thousands of dollars spent in pursuit of the skills necessary to perform a job that won’t have any openings in the foreseeable future.

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True, but that cuts across all degrees. Headline should read something closer to “It’s all but impossible to earn a living working in the field that you got your degree in.”

My parents rail against people who live “off the system” and how their home value has fallen because nobody is buying homes and compare things to their starter home, when the reality is that nobody’s buying homes because they’re 100K in the hole getting out of undergrad compared to the $5,000 tuition bill that my parents faced.


Maybe the disparity has to do with things a BFA, MFA, or PhD can’t give you, such as talent, ambition, and business savvy. Speaking from experience, I’d suggest that unless you’re planning to teach or curate, you’d be better off with a degree in something useful/marketable and minor in art.


I think that your outlook here also demonstrates the cause of the problem, and reenforces it. You make it sound like the main reason for pursuing this kind of education is to be recognized as having marketable skills. Then you get to deal with the fickle, short-sighted nature of markets and commerce applied to your education. You also start from the assumption that these diplomas are worth anything in the first place.

So far as I am concerned, the reason to enroll in a school is to participate in education with regards to knowledge and experience you need. And when you are aware that knowledge and experience are your goals, it is easy to recognize that being enrolled in a college or university might be a fine way to achieve this, but certainly not the only way. There is no ulterior motive which is going to compensate for the drive towards knowledge - anything else will tend towards less effective students and all-over experience. Losing the fallacy of the captive audience also likely helps with scaling of tuition.

It also might be worth considering that “employment” might not be the best use of your skills.


I’ve never seen a strong connection between artists and studying art in college. I don’t think the headline has a lot to do with what the graph is showing.


Keep preaching that post-capitalist dream! Until then, scarcity, consumption, and maximum utility rule the day.


It’s never been particularly easy to make a living as an artist, and a degree has little relation to whether a person does so or not.

One of my coworkers is an amazing artist, has a degree in Art, and has not been even remotely interested in showing his (incredible) art in a commercial sense in decades. He just keeps producing for his own reasons and filling his storage locker. Someday there will be a jawdropping show of his stuff, but not likely while he is alive because he has zero interest in sharing it.

Art is a goal in itself, making a living is at best a side benefit. That said, I do know a couple artists who are making unreal amounts of money, but they are working within media/industry (i.e. animation at the top end of a studio). But the art world seems to smirk at people like that, at least in some circles, so I don’t know if they qualify.

The credentialist insanity of our current education system is another issue that definitely bears discussion. Easily 60% of people attending university/college are only there for lack of a better idea, and because of social and family pressure. I am saving to help my kids go if they choose, but I will not be pressuring them - there are a million ways to earn a living, and enduring 4+ years of classes that do not interest you is not the best way from A to B.


Or luck, which is what’s the most important in terms of making a living as an artist, frankly. Being ambitious and having business savvy aren’t enough. Being talented is pretty much irrelevant, given who’s successful.


Ahh. The tragedy of Behance.

University prices are, in large part, a government created problem. The government will give you a lowish interest loan for literally any accredited degree. Guess what universities happily do? Take that money. There isn’t a loan giving entity in existence that should be willing to give someone $100K to get an art degree. It wouldn’t fix the system entirely, but it sure as hell would go a long way to putting the brakes on if loan giving agencies (which is principally just the US government these days) would give out loans on the expectation of an actual return of the money. This would force universities to reconsider how much they are charging.

You can expect that an engineer has some capacity to repay a $100K loan, and universities probably are not completely insane for charging a hefty penny for those degrees. Those people can pay the money back, and their facilities and professors likely cost more money. It is insanity though to lend and charge that much money to a social science major though.

Universities are going to charge whatever they can get. Loan kids a million dollars and they will charge a million dollars. Loan kids 5-10K a year for an arts degree, and that is what they are going to charge.


If you subordinate your life to the laws of supply and demand, then you’re going to have a bad time. That is, if your goal is to succeed within the boundaries imposed by the system, then art (or any other creative endeavor) is probably not the way to go.



It’s only “preaching” when it’s talk, which isn’t very challenging. They might be strategies worth keeping in mind when you decide what your practice is. You mention utility, but knowing what has utility implies having goals. There is never any reason to assume that the goals of others are the same as yours.

Purely creative fields are really hard to make a living in. Lots of production type jobs. I have a BFA. In hind sight i should have not been lazy and gone into engineering, programming or the sciences.

To some degree, it was only by chance that I chose Engineering over The Classics (Latin) when I was in college (in '79.) The Engineering degree got me on a career track rut that has paid the bills. I got conflicting advice - all the people I respected (teachers, even my father) gave greater respect to a Classic Education, but any reading I did suggested Science, Engineering, Medicine, or the Law. Art (for arts sake) was just people with large financial trusts.

There was a lot of moaning and complaining by educators while I was in college about how a college education was NOT supposed to be the same as a trade school education. (Trade Schools at that time were the gateway to vanishing industrial jobs.) But what are degrees in Law, Medicine, or Engineering but a form of Trade School certificate?

My school gave lip-service to job placement. I eventually found a job through luck and desperation.

So, to that extent, all this has happened before.

Except - a college degree is now recommended for everyone. Enough industrial jobs don’t exist anymore for people who might not be self-directed enough for college yet, or who aren’t ready to take on the risks a college degree entail (such as failing college but being left with the debt.) The hollowing out of the American economy since the 1980s AND the change in how college debt is legally treated has meant that young people are shown only one path to success - by taking a leap over the chasm of a college degree. And yet, success at college is no guarantee, and colleges still don’t quite understand how to help someone develop a career focus.

Also, as support for education declines - support in terms of scholarships and grants that don’t need to be repaid - schools need to accept more and more students who might not succeed in their particular program, or force them to make choices that postponing a choice of major until a bit later when the student has just enough more maturity.

It’s as if our education policies were written by Charles Dickens for one of his novels.

It can do a bit for the first, a little for the second, and a hell of a lot for the third.

So, pretty much what an engineering degree would get you. Just in a smaller pond. (Although they keep importing fish into that pond, so your mileage may vary.)

“It takes brains not to make money,” Colonel Cargill wrote in one of the homiletic memoranda he regularly prepared for circulation over General Peckem’s signature. “Any fool can make money these days and most of them do. But what about people with talent and brains? Name, for example, one poet who makes money.”

“T. S. Eliot,” ex-P. F. C. Wintergreen said in his mail-sorting cubicle at Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters and slammed down the telephone without identifying himself.

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