It takes guts to make it as a professional artist. But having a trust fund definitely doesn’t hurt.
Karol Jan Borowiecki, an economics professor at the University of Southern Denmark, studied 160 years worth of U.S. census data to see how things like geography, race, and wealth have influenced generations of creatives.
His findings, published in a working paper in March, show that the art world is becoming more diverse. Racial inequality is changing—albeit slowly—and a growing number of women are entering creative fields.
The bad news is, the barrier to entry clearly pits the financial haves against the have-nots.
Borowiecki compared the uptake of creative careers from 1850 to 2010 to “total family income,” or the pre-tax earnings of immediate family members. The more money an individual’s family had, he found, the more likely they were to become a writer, musician, or other type of artist.
After all, creative jobs don’t pay well, and can be unstable. The metropolitan enclaves artists flock to—cities like New York and Los Angeles—are some of the most expensive places to live, too.
Devoting yourself to the life of a “starving artist” is a lot less risky if your family has enough money to make sure you don’t actually starve. Even if your parents don’t bankroll your lifestyle, Borowiecki points out, “One could hypothesize … if my family is well off, and my career doesn’t go as planned, I can fall back on that financial net.”
The richer the family, the bigger the safety net, according to Borowiecki's research.
With every $10,000 you have in “total family income,” you’re about 2% more likely to go into a creative occupation, according to Borowiecki’s research. So someone who’s family income is $100,000 is twice as likely to become an artist than someone who’s family income is $50,000. And someone who’s family income is $1 million is nearly ten times, or 90 percentage points, more likely to go into a creative profession than someone who’s family income is $100,000.
“Total family income” can include money a creative’s parents and siblings made in the previous year, so it’s not necessarily wealth they grew up with, Borowiecki says. But as myriad studies have shown, if your family is wealthy, there’s a good chance you’ve benefited from it.
Especially these days.
Research cited in a 2017 New York Times story tracked the average amount of money twenty-somethings get from their parents today. Those in the art and design fields get the most help at $3,600 a year, according to the Times. Twenty-somethings in blue collar and military jobs get less than half that, about $1,400 a year.
In 2014, reporters at NPR compared the salaries of people in different occupations to their parents’ income. Growing up, designers, musicians, and artists had some of the highest household incomes ($65,000 to $69,000) — the same as chief executives, engineers, and architects.
If you’re a person in the arts—or want to be—and don’t enjoy the privileges of inherited wealth, this isn’t exactly encouraging. But it’s worth stepping back and remembering that while coming from a wealthy family might make getting into the arts easier, you can’t buy the talent, experience, or fortitude it takes to actually make art (or good art, for that matter).
In a roundabout way, Borowiecki has studied this, too.
His previous research, published in the Review of Economics and Statistics in 2017, dove into the personal letters of three of the most famous composers in history — Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt.
Borowiecki found a positive relationship between the composers’ income and well-being; commercial success made all of them happy. But a lack of money didn’t make the artists less happy. They actually created fewer pieces of music during periods of stability (landing a tenured position, settling into a marriage) than in more economically tumultuous periods.
The point? The circumstances of life—not the benefits of wealth—drove their art.