I recently came across an article in ArtNet News titled “Do You Have to Be Rich to Make it as an Artist?, Art students are chasing a dream without understanding how the system works” by National Art Critic Ben Davis in January of 2016.

It was a good article and it got me thinking about my own experiences, observations and research over the years.  My primary career outside of art dealt with wealth in the housing market.  I paid attention to the incomes and careers of many people applying for mortgages ranging from the median income to the mega rich.

There is a lot packed into this title question. When you research artists of long ago, many of them had rich parents or at least a patron that supported them. The Catholic Church supported many artists.  Albeit, they had to paint biblical scenes to get paid but they were indeed working artists.  Gustav Klimt and Albrecht Dürer had wealthy parents.  Vincent Van Gogh was himself poor but his brother was successful and kept him afloat a lot of the time. There are not a lot of stories relating to women artists that go back that far.  It wasn’t a profession suited to women, they said.  They could not get into the famous Paris Salon at all. The Secessionists opened the doors to a more inclusive artist roster.   How many talented people never had a chance to create because they had to eat, support their family or dismissed because of their race or gender?  I’m guessing a good number.

Living here in Orange County and being a part of the vibrant art scene of Laguna Beach, it is very clear that you cannot be an artist in this town without money or having someone support you. The rents are at least 50% more than any place else in Orange County and the supply is limited.  There is no more room to encourage affordable housing.  There are strict rules about artists having studios in their homes as well.  The city cracked down on it in the not so distant past.  Some of the venues for the summer art festivals require that you be a resident of Laguna Beach to participate.  I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that most of those artists have other means of support to be able to live in the city.  There has been much talk and less action around live/work artist spaces.

(I call everything rent because not many people I know own their house outright).  If they live in Laguna Beach they live very modestly or have some other income source, or have lived there a long time when one could afford to settle there.

I did some research about the relationship between career choice and parents income.  It may seem like a fairly obvious but the bottom line showed that “Designers, musicians, artists, etc.” face the biggest drop: around 35% down from their parents’ salaries.

At the most base level, we all know, which is that people who work in creative industries don’t make a lot of money (not always, not everyone but mostly). Economic class for the most part plays in people’s decisions to become artists. Growing up with a measure of economic stability often makes it easier to take a chance on a risky career as an adult.  Seeing one’s self as a professional artist is an achievement that compares to entering other elite status groups. That elite status group is created and reinforced in many ways, and socioeconomic class is undoubtedly one of them.

Art school’s are no bargain and plenty of parents refuse to support their children in artistic career endeavors, particularly fine arts with a resounding “Get a real job.”  Only ten percent of art school graduates make a living from their artwork. 

I like to read the Otis Report every year. It has a “glass half full approach” and makes me feel good.   It is well written and published by Otis College of Art and Design and focuses on the impact and influence of the Los Angeles area’s creative sector on the state and regional economy.  It is hard to winnow out the detail relating to fine arts because they bake in a lot of other “creative” jobs that prop up the numbers.  There has been an uptick in art “neighborhoods” and galleries in Los Angeles.  If you were comparing visual fine artists and art galleries, there is little to no growth in Orange County.  If I were a student wanting my parents to endorse and pay for art school, this report would be useful because it puts an optimistic spin on creative jobs in Southern California.  

If I were the parent and know what I know now, I would drill down on the specific area of creative endeavor my child wanted and look at some income data and make the decision.  Big student loans could present a challenge to a student that wants to be an oil painter.  Better have a back up plan or marry well.  If you are an animator, a gamer artist or a graphic artist, you may be much more able to make a living.

From my discussions with artists and galleries in Laguna Beach, it has been tough on the smaller galleries for the last couple of years.  After I sold my own gallery and joined a co-op, I got an up close and personal view of the slow sales.  Last year, the majority of the art sales in this particular gallery were dismal with most being artist-to-artist.  I sold a whopping two paintings in that year whereas I sold my own art much more on my own.  I got a pay raise and more time to create when I left.  I learned some valuable lessons in that year and I’ll probably never join another co-op unless I ask some very specific questions up front.  

A lot of local artists I know live in surrounding cities where we can have more space and the rent is more affordable.  I go back to the art galleries in Laguna Beach.  Many of the artists in the few co-ops live in other cities with some not being in the same state.  Artists showing in established traditional galleries are not often residing in Laguna Beach.  That’s not a bad thing as it comes to the gallery business but the traditional moniker; “artist colony” of Laguna Beach is a stretch in 2017.

I recently shared a Facebook article that said you were low income if you made less than $80,000/annually in Orange County. The artists I know are not making that kind of money on their art sales. Some of the higher end galleries may be making that kind of money but the average artists… not so much.  The Otis Report shows that last year, the median income for Art, Drama and Music Teachers was between $74,000 – $100,000 with the higher end of the spectrum in Orange County.  I have a feeling that most of the bigger numbers were for post-graduate educators although it didn’t give me the raw data.  Many full-time artists have jobs on the side and often full-time careers and try to get enough time to make art. When I had a corporate job, I would paint until 2 a.m. because there was no other time I could create in peace.

An artist isn’t usually in it for the money alone.  There are certainly easier ways to make money.  It is truly a labor of love and my hat is off to those that can support themselves through their art.  As for me, I always had plan B and it served me well.