The art income shock
by Robert Genn

April 3, 2009

Dear Rodney,

A recent Canadian study of the annual incomes of visual artists might 
have implications for other countries. The results are a shock to many.

The study was based on research by Michael Maranda, an assistant curator 
at the Art Gallery of York University in Toronto, Ontario. Maranda 
paints a picture of poverty. Average visual artists' incomes in Canada, 
at $20,000 a year, are $7,000 below the national median. He figures we 
have 22,000 to 28,000 visual artists. He notes the widespread erroneous 
perception that artists live on grants. According to his study, only 34 
percent ever get a grant. It seems that most artists receive their modest 
incomes from sales (54 percent) and fees (12 percent).

The average visual artist works 26 hours a week doing studio work, 
supplemented by 14.5 hours on art-related jobs, and 7.6 hours doing 
something not related to art.

Maranda's study finds artists as a group to be older and better educated 
than they were a few years ago, having an average of six years of post-
secondary education. The real shocker comes with the revelation that the 
higher their education level, the less artists earn from their art.

At the risk of being taken out and shot, I'm offering a couple of possible 
reasons for this. Highly educated artists may make art that is too 
sophisticated or esoteric for people to buy. Further, a formal education 
often gives artists a sense of entitlement that may hamper their access 
to or interest in the commercial gallery system. In my experience, 
the higher incomes are enjoyed by workers with previous design experience
--ex-sign painters, illustrators, ad-agency people, etc. Further, 
immigrants with traditional art experience and the benefit of prior 
poverty frequently thrive.

Estimating the average incomes of artists is like estimating the average 
incomes of golfers. Many at the low end don't collect a plug nickel, no 
matter how many birdies they sink. The Tiger Woodses at the other end 
nicely pull the statistics up to $800 a year. Further, guys like Maranda 
are way off base when it comes to grants. In my thinking, less than one 
percent of deserving artists ever get a grant. According to a study done 
by Grumbacher a few years ago, four percent of the population have paints 
and call themselves painters. That would make 900,000 painters in Canada. 
Maranda's respondent-driven sampling appears to include a high percentage 
of sophisticated duffers.

Best regards,


PS: "We can categorically state that the primary funder of artistic practices 
in Canada is the artists themselves." (Michael Maranda)

Esoterica: A key to the lousy fiscal performance of artists could be 
the low number of hours they apparently spend alone in the studio. A 
twenty-six-hour week is not enough. Forty is more like it. Sixty is better 
because you can start to get good at sixty. Show me artists who have 
put in ten thousand hours and I'll show you a chicken in every pot.