Most NY Artists Are Financially Unstable, Survey Finds

While the arts and culture sectors contribute 7.4% of New York’s economy, a majority of artists in the state earn significantly less than the living wage and lack financial security, according to data from a newly released survey. 

The survey results were published at the end of May by Creatives Rebuild New York (CRNY), a $125 million initiative that kicked off in 2021 to provide monthly guaranteed income and work opportunities for artists living across the Empire State. Primarily funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation along with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) and Ford Foundation, CRNY issued unconditional monthly payments to 2,400 artists for three years, and financed the salaries of another 300 artists who were employed by partner community organizations for two years.

Out of 13,377 respondents who participated in the “Portrait of New York State Artists” survey over the course of three months in 2022, more than half (57.3%) said that they made under $25,000 the previous year, and 85.7% earned less than $50,000. Compounding this distressful reality, nearly half of the survey participants (45.5%) said that they depended on gig work and temporary jobs, while 63% revealed that if they were suddenly required to pay an unexpected $400 in cash or a cash equivalent today, they would be unable to do so without using credit.

Adding to these findings, more than 60% of respondents described their financial circumstances as either “unstable” or “extremely unstable,” whereas another 31% said that this status fluctuates.

Of the nearly three-thirds of respondents who answered that they were currently carrying debt, nearly half (45.7%) characterized these outstanding payments as “unmanageable.”

“The survey results complement what we’re already seeing in the arts labor sector in New York: Artists are facing real economic challenges, while policymakers are waffling on critical funding for the arts,” Jamie Hand, who works as CRNY’s director of strategic impact and narrative change, told Hyperallergic.

Nearly a quarter of respondents were visual artists. Most participants lived in New York City and were between 25 and 44 years old. From a race and ethnicity standpoint, approximately 38% of respondents identified themselves as White, nearly 30% identified as Black or African American, and about 21% identified as Hispanic or Latinx.

Artist Jacinta Bunnell constructs a three-dimensional structure composed out of latch hook rugs. (photo by Michael Wilcock)

To further illustrate the results, CRNY spotlighted various experiences of New York artists and community organizations who have received support through the initiative’s Guaranteed Income and Artists Employment programs. A video profile series shares stories from people like Akwesasne-based artist Kiera Pyke, who balances her practice of traditional Mohawk quillwork and beadwork alongside her full-time duties as a caregiver, and New York City-based artist Sanga of the Valley, who struggles to tackle the rising costs of rent in order to support his work.

“Fundamentally, our economy doesn’t view artists as workers. For this reason among others, there is no wage protection, paid — or even affordable — healthcare options, or any other elements of the social safety net that are afforded to other classes of workers,” CRNY Executive Director Sarah Calderón told Hyperallergic.

“It’s no surprise that we see drastic disparity in artists’ pay, but this survey paints a picture of the problem and what needs to change,” Calderón continued. “We need to establish that art is labor, and we need artist-centric solutions to improve the lives and livelihoods of artists.”

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