Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Money Lab Survey: Salaries of artists vs. non-artists

Well, after a whole lot of number crunching (honestly, 6 hours or so...what's my hourly rate?) I finally have the survey results from Money Lab.

Many caveats here:  obviously, this is a self selecting lot.  You had to either fill out the survey at the show or online.  Also, many chose not to reveal their salary, despite the fact that it was an anonymous survey.  Our highest salary was $225,000, and I know of at least two audience members who make more.  On the other side, there were those who simply noted they were ashamed of how little they made and didn't want to share.  A number of them, actually, which I suspect would drive these averages down.  But I decided to only work with people who had provided numbers.

I also noticed that asking people whether they were (a) a professional artists and (b) made the majority of their money from their art caused really emotional reactions from some people.  I can't say I blame them.  I have my own emotions about those questions as well.  But for the purposes of the survey, I am defining part-time artists as professional artists who get the majority of their income elsewhere (though they may well spend more time on their art than on their day job).

I used census data as a sort of control.  I only have data for the five boroughs, so it's harder to compare out of New York, but I did do two types of comparisons:  Artists vs non-artists who answered the survey, artists vs. residents of NYC with similar demographics.

In all cases, I found the cost of being an artist to be significant.  At the least a difference in income of $24,000/year (part-time artists vs. NYC residents with similar demographics), at the most a difference of $45,000 (full-time artists vs. NYC residents with similar demographics).

Thinking of the subject in terms of a decade of work, an artist is giving up between $240,000 and $450,000 dollars per decade on average, in return for the emotional satisfaction of being able to do artwork.

I have been working for 20 years.  According to my subset (full-time artist living in NYC), I have given up about $900,000 in order to be an artist.

That was my choice, freely given.  I feel I have a life that is more fulfilled.  But damn.  Can I also have the money?

Here are the results:


Average salary (all) $74,000
Average salary (lives in NYC): $76,800
Median salary (all): $75,000
Median salary: (lives in NYC): $68,000
Average Salary compared to artists who completed survey: +32, 333
Salary compared to other residents in their borough in NYC, with similar demographics, according to census data: +13,000

Artists (combined) 

Average salary (all) $41,667
Average salary (lives in NYC): $39,400
Median salary (all):$40,000
Median salary: (lives in NYC): $30,000
Average Salary compared to non-artists who completed survey: -$32,333
Salary compared to other residents in their borough in NYC, with similar demographics, according to census data: -28,000

Artists who make majority of their income from art:

Average salary (all) $45,800*
Average salary (lives in NYC): $37,313
Median salary (all): $35,000
Median salary: (lives in NYC): $35,000
Average Salary compared to non-artists who completed survey: -$28,200
Salary compared to other residents in their borough in NYC, with similar demographics, according to census data: -45,000

*Note, one large salary (from a non-New York resident) may have skewed results for the Average salary (all)

Artists who DO NOT make majority of their income from art:

Average salary (all) $39,250
Average salary (lives in NYC): $40, 778
Median salary (all): $35,000
Median salary: (lives in NYC): $35,000
Average Salary compared to non-artists who completed survey: -$34,750
Salary compared to non-artists in their borough in NYC, with similar demographics, according to census data: -$24,000

104 replies
57 professional artists (36 part-time, 21 full-time)
47 non-artists

Types of Artists

39 Theater
6 Visual
4 Literature
1 Music
2 Dance
1 Film
4 Other

Average Age: 38

4 High School
8 Some College
39 College Degrees
53 Graduate Degrees


69 NYC residents
35 non NYC residents

Monday, August 12, 2013

Money Lab: Good Charity, Good Charity

A New York Times op-ed by Peter Singer ("Good Charity, Bad Charity") was just written that relates directly to the food vs. flowers debate that I previously write about on the blog, and which was one of the main focuses on Money Lab. So I took a pause in my Money Lab statistics evaluation (ongoing!) to write a few thoughts on it.

The article designates health causes as “good charities” and the arts as “bad charities” based on the most specious of analyses. There are so many gaping holes in the particular editorial it is hard to simply pick one, but I shall do my best.

First of all, in order to prove his point, Singer handpicks two examples that he chooses to be representative. To represent the arts, he chooses a museum that is building a new $50 million wing. To represent health, he chooses a theoretical charity seeking to reduce the eye disease, trachoma. This charity, apparently a never-before seen model of efficiency, is able to convert your donation immediately so that each $100 automatically saves someone from the disease.

How can you compare the morality, Mr Singer argues, of giving someone money to cure blindness, compared to the selfish interests of a few frivolous museum goers who want to see more pretty pictures? In fact, he goes so far as to posit a demon that blinds someone every time a certain number of people patronize that new museum wing.

Oh art lovers, know that you are sticking a hot poker into the eye of good health!

Of course, even if you credit his economics (which I will address in a moment), his examples are absurd. If he wants to see examples of companies that do a very lot with a very little, there is no better place to look than the arts. I have not done the totals yet, but I know that the Money Lab workshop cost under $5,000. And yet—every participant was paid for their work (some paid extra due to the patronage auction), and we produced a theater piece that played to sold out houses every performance.

But to think that the benefits end there is to not understand the nature of art. The discussions the show inspired will, I hope, shape the thinking of those who saw the work. That in turn will filter out into the world of ideas, and indeed, I do think that great social change often originates from the smallest of art. I am not trying to be grandiose when I say the intention of Money Lab is to change the world. To me, every art piece does, or should.

And then there is the benefit to the artists. Besides the relatively small monetary benefits, there is the opportunity to practice their craft, to develop, to ready themselves for the next piece of work. Every art piece is merely a gateway to then next ten, the next twenty.

And to me, and to the company—the benefit is incalculable. There is the benefit of spreading the work further, because of the press it has and will receive. But also the benefit of being able to shape and refine my own ideas, which once only resided in my head, and to make them tangible and real. To communicate to others. It is more than a desire that I have to do that, it is a need, for my own happiness. If you told me that I needed to give up my art or face a 1 in 1,000 chance of blindness, is there any question which I would choose?

And yet this workshop cost only $5,000, probably less. A $100,000 donation could fund up to 20 - 30 such workshops. Or a couple of fully realized productions, with all that entails.

Now look at a health foundation. The truth is, most health foundations are relatively inefficient. In a survey of charities, it was found that it was not unusual for 50% of the costs to go towards administration. The Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation was found recently to spend almost all of its money on administration.

But beyond bureaucracy, much of the money is spent on research, and, inevitably, much of the research leads to dead ends. Solutions are in short supply, though when they are found, they can often pay for themselves; there is a reason that drug companies spend so much on research, and the reason is money. This is not to say that one should not give nonetheless, but it should be with the understanding that the $100,000 you give will disappear into a well of $50 million or $500 million, and that the results may be as little as identifying the fact the research should now be directed elsewhere.

Does that make, say, autism or cancer or trachoma a bad charity? Of course not (though perhaps the Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation might not be your best bet). You give to what you believe, you help the world how you can. And yes, one of those ways could be towards a museum building a new wing.

It would be unusual for them to ask. Most such developments are actually spurred by one or two large funders. But if asked, maybe you do want your money to go towards that museum. Maybe that new wing will display a new artist, and that support will lead to a career. Maybe that artist will be one of the greats. Or maybe someone walking through the museum will stop, look at a painting, and be inspired. Maybe it will change her life.

Maybe, one day, should she ever grow ill, that memory, the memory of all the art she has seen and experienced, will be her comfort.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Money Lab: Detroit, bankruptcy, and the arts

A recent article in the New York Times about the Detroit bankruptcy and the Detroit Institute of Arts brings me back to a theme I wrote about in an earlier posting about food vs. flowers. As part of Money Lab, I am trying to examine how we value art, and this current crisis put that question into stark relief.

About 10 years ago I took some trips to Detroit in order to visit someone I was dating. Anyone who has been in Detroit knows that the contrast between the city center and the suburbs is a stark one. The city is abandoned and impoverished, and there are stunning border areas where one can follow a street past boarded up buildings and then suddenly find oneself surrounded by fancy houses with beautiful lawns, literally yards apart.

There were, however, two bright spots I remember in the inner city. One was an old Beaux Arts building, which houses the still thriving Detroit Institute of Arts. The other was the new Detroit Tigers’ baseball stadium, Comerica Park.

Both were built with city money of course, one at the end of the 19th century, one in at the end of the 20th. However, it is the art museum that has continued to be dependent on public money. After many years, with the help of the tax dollars of the surrounding counties, it is now relatively solvent. However, Detroit’s bankruptcy places the museum in another sort of alarming jeopardy; the pensioners, the ones who are so unfairly in jeopardy themselves because of the bankruptcy, see an asset. The art inside is worth $2 billion. And they want it sold.

That is a bit of a blanket statement, which ignores certain nuances. The pensioners are not the city’s only debtors. Nor are they a uniform block, I am sure plenty of pensioners might regard the virtual destruction of the museum to be a tragic event. But the question, in law, is clear: will Detroit be obligated to see off the art in the museum in order to help fund the pensions?

Putting aside that legal question, which no one has yet answered, I will pose two more: what is the more economically advantageous thing to do? And does either decision have more moral weight?

Economically, it would be a clear blow, I think. Getting rid of the museum’s collection would mean that one of the few remaining bright spots in the city has been doused. The downtown cultural district, or what remains of it, will be effectively demolished, and the peripheral effect on surrounding businesses and restaurants will be stark. There will be even less of a reason to go into the city itself, leaving it even more of a black hole around which more enticing suburbs circle, hoping not to get sucked in.

As a comparison, the baseball stadium cost $115 million in public funding. Because that public money was essentially given to a private owner, rather than holding the stadium as a city asset, the stadium is safe. The reason behind that expenditure was the purported economic benefits of the stadium. In actuality, studies show that the money cities spend on stadiums tends to be a loss, while the smaller expenditures on museums spur enough economic growth to be a gain. But since museums are non-profit while sports activities are definitely for profit, museums often are seen as leeches. If it is economically worthwhile, why doesn’t it make money? (as a side note, it seems that even the $500 million pledged to a new hockey stadium is safe)

Of course, there may be some relief provided for pensioners, and it is hard to deny the needs of the retired population, those who have worked hard in civil service or as teachers or policeman all their lives, only to see their promised benefits stripped away. How much relief will it afford? That, I think, is debatable. How will the money be used, through what filters will it be put, how widely does it need to be distributed….will it mean a substantive increase in pension, or in essence a one time payment of another couple of hundred dollars? And what economic penalties will they pay for the further decay of the city in which they live? I suspect the benefits may be more negligible, and the loss more acute, than people initially guess.

But let us say, for the sake of argument, the benefit is a significant one. In a case such as that, what moral right is there for us to demand the preservation of a museum’s art collection? That is a murkier question. Money was spent by taxpayers so that people would have a chance to look at pretty pictures. Selling the collection doesn’t mean destroying the pictures, it means removing access to them. Some would go to private collectors. Some might be bought by other museums. What it will definitely do is remove that opportunity in Detroit. To a pensioner who doesn’t care for art, the opportunity to eat a little better is clearly the preferred alternative. And even for those who do care for art…

Well, here is a scenario. I pose it to you. Guaranteed income for the rest of your life. In return, I ask one thing. I will destroy one painting by Vincent Van Gogh. It won’t be Starry Night. But it will be Van Gogh, and it will be beautiful.

What choice do you make?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Money Lab: Excerpt from The Neurology of the Soul

The new play I've been working on, The Neurology of the Soul, addresses not only neurology, but some of these issue I'm exploring for Money Lab.  Mark, in the play, is a neuromarketer, someone who using neurology as a basis for his marketing.  In the course of the play, Amy starts making art basic on the images of her brain, and Mark becomes interested in marketing that art. This on the cost of being an artist:

Do you know why starving artists choose to starve?
It’s a choice?
Usually.  Because, let’s face it, plenty of artists are just as smart and capable as businessmen, wouldn’t you say?
I suppose.  Yes, of course.
But they put a value on something other than money, correct?
Let’s call that thing artistic fulfillment.  How much is artistic fulfillment worth, in terms of dollars and cents?
It don’t think it can be evaluated like that.
Nonsense.  Saying something can’t be evaluated simply means that you haven’t found the right formula, yet.  Let’s take a theoretical scenario.  Let’s say you compared what artists and businessmen of similar background and education make.  And say you found that, all things being equal, an average businessman makes $50,000 per year more than the average artist.  Does that seem plausible?
More than, unfortunately.  It’s probably more than that.
OK, but let’s be conservative, and say $50,000 per year.  Over 40 years, that’s two million dollars per lifetime.  Available, for you, for any artist.  Only thing is, you need to make that choice.
Some artists make good money.
No, of course not.
And you know that, going in.  Two million dollars, on average.  Maybe, less, if you’re a successful artist.  Maybe more, if you’re a successful businessman.  Two million dollars, and the choice is yours.  Business or art?
I’ve worked in offices, too.
To make ends meet, or as a career?
Does it matter why?
I think it does.  I think that makes a difference in salary.  You’re a smart woman, Amy.  You could be making a lot of money, if that was your major goal in life.  So, two million dollars, or artistic fulfillment?  Which do you choose?
If that were the choice, and I’m not sure I buy that it is, I choose artistic fulfillment.
Exactly.  As I said, everything has a definable value.  You just have to find the right formula.
What if you are artistic, and not fulfilled?  Have you just thrown away two million?
Do you feel unfulfilled by your art?
So let’s value your fulfillment at five hundred thousand.  Maybe we can fill in the rest of that value by making a few sales.
What are you after?
A commission, of course.  If my company is partial owner of the images, perhaps we should get a small percent of sales.  Or maybe I want some artistic fulfillment myself.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Money Lab: The cost of being an artist

One of the things I am interested in exploring in Money Lab is what is the personal economic cost of being an artist.  In other words, I want to compare people of similar education, age and background, and see how they compare to other (non-artists) from New York City.  I am limiting the current exploration to the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx because--well, because I have some data that applies, and going further at this point seems a bit overwhelming.

This will obviously be a limited and unscientific survey (not having the skills to create a true one), but I am hoping it provokes some thought and consideration. Interestingly, Dance NYC had a somewhat corollary survey that is much more developed, specifically of dancers age 21-35.  You can find it here.

Their survey shows how New York dancers truly struggle economically.  Which of course confirms my personal bias, which is to suspect that being any sort of artist costs big wagons full of money.  That comes partly from being from a family of lawyers and comparing my income to theirs.  And Partly from seeing almost all the intelligent, accomplished, educated artists I know struggle for money.  And partly from...well, it must.  C'mon.

But how much?  Can we find a dollar amount per year?  And is that dollar amount the value of art?  I can claim, as I have, that I did not know the cost when I first decided to pursue theater.  But eventually it dawned on me.  And I made a conscious choice to continue.  So in a way I have decided to spend most on my potential income on the one thing that has meant the most to me.

Somehow, realizing that I made the decision makes me feel a bit better.   Would I make the decision again, in college, knowing what I know now?  I'm not sure.  But on the other hand, I can't image a life without theater.  So, maybe...

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Money Lab: Food or a flower, what is the value of art?

In honor of Money Lab, I will be posting a series of blog posts about economics and the arts.  Here is my first, examining the question of the basic value of art.

I was taking a cab the other day, and my cab driver asked me if I had any good ideas to help the world. He was collecting.

I work in theater, I said, so all my ideas are about theater. But I do think art can help the world.

He scoffed. If you were starving, he asked, what would you like? Food? Or a flower?

This reminded me of another incident. Some years ago, Soutine’s bakery on the Upper West Side had promised the theater company a free cake for a fundraiser. The day I came to pick it up, the owner reneged. I didn’t understand it was for a theater, she told me. I thought it was a non-profit.

It is a non-profit, I said.

No, she said. Something that does good. Like cancer research. I can’t just give a free cake to anyone who asks.

That conversation dwelled with me for a while. The nature of non-profit theater is that it depends on donations. Personal donations, foundation grants, and government grants, which are a sort of donation from everyone’s tax dollar. Why do we deserve it?

I can say that without it, the world would be lacking. Only the commercial work could survive. Difficult work that examines ideas or advances the art form wouldn’t exist. The world would be a much duller and less joyful place.

To me.  But then again I’m not starving.

This is how I responded to the cab driver: I just directed a play called The Last Cyclist, written in a concentration camp. The people, all the actors there were starving. The play criticized the Nazis, and some of them risked their lives by even rehearsing it. Most of them were murdered. But then, in that moment, they felt alive. Art is a need, a basic need, dating back to the cave drawings. It helped them feel human when they might have been reduced to pure animal needs.

He was not convinced. Yes, sure, it was a distraction. But they would have been better off with some bread.

He went driving off in search of someone with better ideas.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

20 years, 200 photos

A compilation of photos of our work over the last 20 years, made for our anniversary party.  Made the midnight before, which perhaps explains the misspelling of "anniversary"  The voiceover from a moment of our presentation in 365 plays at The Public, read by Henry Akona.