Artists You Need To Charge More: Income Inflation

When I attended California College of the Arts there was an illustration professor who would often tell students that illustration wages hadn’t adjusted for inflation since the 1980s. He had had a thriving career since the 1980s with firsthand experience in the matter, so my drive to fact check this information was low. However, I’ve been reading so much about the Great Resignation, seeing a tiktok breakdown of construction pay stagnation since the 1970s, and feeling my own personal frustrations about the lack of artist pay, so I thought I would finally investigate the numbers behind this fact. A heads up: what I found astounded me.

I might suck at math, but I can read a chart and talk about the information within it with some degree of confidence. Also, I had the math in my script fact checked by an engineer before I made this tiktok – not that the math at play here is actually that complicated:

According to the document Earnings of Artists: 1980 by author Diane Ellis published in 1987 by the National Endowment for the Arts, Washington DC Research Division, the average household income of a female artist in 1980 was $24,153 US dollars. For men, it was slightly higher at $27,412. This data also shows the racial inequality divide with White artists earning a median income of over $2,000 – $3,000 more than Black and Hispanic artists. The Earnings of Artists: 1980 study pulled information from the 1980 US census to track the data of employment from the 1970s to 1980s. Having information like this publicly available and at our disposal is important. It allows us to gain insight into our own lives today as professional creatives and use data to understand our history in the same career.

If we take the average woman artist’s 1980 income of $24,153 dollars and plug it into the US Inflation Calculator, we learn that in today’s 2021 money that would be $81,073.47. However, when we compare that $81,073 to what the 2020 Census numbers are for artists... we find that the average income in 2020 was only $52,340. Meaning, yes, artists income hasn’t adjusted for inflation since the 1980s. In fact, artist’s income is less than $30,000 more than what it was in 1980, which is about $30,000 under what it should be if it had adjusted for inflation properly over the last 41 years. I am guessing most artist’s lives would change dramatically with an “extra” $30,000. I am unaware of any artists I know getting paid more than they were a year ago, but in that time currency inflation had continued a further 6.1%… which means that one single year later, we are noticeably further behind our income being properly adjusted for inflation.

To preface everything I am about to talk about we need to define artistic literacy, because despite most sources online defining artistic literacy in a way that benefits common CORE K-12 education for kids… artistic literacy is for adults too.

Artistic literacy is the ability to authentically contribute, participate, and understand the arts through education, learned knowledge, and practice.

Here’s the problem with my catchy Artists You Need To Charge More title… it victim blames. Artists are the victims in this situation. Things have changed in the last 40 years and a lot of artistic practices became digital and we gained the ability to share and market our art ourselves via social media and free to consume platforms. Digital art is no less difficult than traditional medium art, it simply is a modern tool in the way that paint coming in tubes was a modern tool in the late 1800s, versus grinding pigments and making paint. The addition of social media has been great for artists in a lot of ways, but also has really devalued art in most other ways and made room for greedy people with no artistic literacy to swoop in and take advantage. When people repost art on their instagram feed for a for-profit company, they are taking what previously would be paid advertising art and getting it as free content. Oftentimes artists don’t know they can bill for that repost because they weren’t educated to understand they can. They also don’t feel empowered to be able to do this – because of course it’s overwhelming and the flattery of exposure can feel exciting. And on the flip side, most people have no artistic business practice literacy so they don’t know they should be paying for that art. In a world where people aren’t taught anything about art, they make baseless assumptions about it – that it’s easier than other professions, that it’s not valuable. When we see celebrities being fashion designers with their name stenciled all over clothing brands, people assume they designed the clothes and think “what a cool thing, fashion design is such a cool hobby”… when the reality is a team of designers presented them with options and they chose what they wanted.

I am all for everyone learning art and truly believe that art is intrinsic to the human experience so it benefits us all when we encourage creation. I also feel that everyone can make art, and with enough hours, most people can become proficient artists in the same way they can learn to be proficient at a sport or any other thing. With enough drive, man hours, and education on a topic you can master it, and develop respect for it.

Photo of Macky Hall (National Register of Historic Places #77000286) on CCA’s Oakland, California Campus. Image © C. Grey Hawkins.

However, we as a society have eroded the integrity of art as a pursuit, devalued art so that art education is seen as less-than. My former college is a shining example of this! California College of Arts and Crafts was founded in 1907 during the worldwide Arts and Crafts movement, specifically California – a subject I had the good fortune to learn about as a child in school and at home (my parents are big fans). Inspired by nature, flora and fauna, and wood, the Arts and Crafts movement changed design thinking after the bleak but transformative period of the Industrial Revolution. In the 2000s, after almost 100 years, California College of the Arts and Crafts decided to do away with their roots and drop the “Crafts” for fear it made them sound like a school of knitters and scrapbookers. They are now just California College of the Arts. They failed to embrace their roots by standing proudly on the history of a transformative arts movement and using that arts movement as an educational platform… instead they buried it and shed the Arts and Crafts history. They’re finishing that process in the 2020’s by selling their historic Oakland campus to developers for… wait for it… luxury condos (shocking).

I could also go on and on about how we degrade even the word “Crafts” because it’s historically been associated with women’s work. What’s so damn awful about women’s work? Is it not artistic enough? Does it not inspire the same artistic integrity that other historically male-dominated art professions have? Anyways, back to the plot…

The problem is that while we sometimes include art education in our general education, we do not put it on an equal level to our other studies. Americans, but the problem is not unique to America, love cutting funding for the arts and art education to save a few bucks. We treat art like something you only do as a kid, except not even kids get to do it anymore. Searching for sources on artistic literacy, the top sources were K-12 education resources for CORE curriculum. We have demoted art to an occasional class taken in elementary school where students have fun before shit gets real and it’s dropped so they can learn to score well on standardized tests. Art proficiency is viewed as less valuable than testing proficiency. Just look at the private art colleges who wave ACT/SAT scores in favor of simple portfolios… they aren’t surely as good as a University that requires test scores…? Right? The current mainstream logic says so.

Art, just like math, history, or language, is a skill to be taught and learned. Yes, art is something you feel and are driven to create, but good art is something formed with critical thinking and an understanding of artistic practice. Artistic literacy is gained through the education of art and artistic practice, and by immersion in those things. Art is not easy or simple – though it sometimes can be. Art is complicated, woven through history and formed into impassioned movements that changed the worlds perspective on humanity. The power of art is the very reason why we have museums all around the world dedicated to showcasing and preserving the artistic interpretation of human nature.

Art is not only valuable to society, as history has shown, but a practice that takes time, education, and knowledge.

When you pay for art, you are paying for the education an artist has gained, their skills they have taken a lifetime to cultivate, and the world view they are so uniquely bringing to the table. When we pay for art we understand with our own artistic literacy why art is valuable… or maybe, we show our hand, and we show our artistic ignorance.

So what do we do with the information that artists are underpaid and that their income has not adjusted for inflation since the 1980s? We strike back in the ways that we are able. Freelancers are less likely to make a strike because of the individual nature of freelance work, unlike more organized fields in art like creatives in the film industry, who have the IATSE Guild information and network to help organize strikes. So, from an empowered standpoint knowing we deserve more… what we do is charge more and we do not settle for less. If chain restaurants like Subway, McDonalds, Panda Express, and others are feeling the pressure of The Great Resignation and starting to pay upwards of $20 an hour with benefits… then I ask you why are you settling on a job for less than that that – unless you work in-house for a company – doesn’t have benefits? You deserve more. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re willing to work for pennies you could take the pressure off of your artistic passion and just work any job that pays the bills and takes care of your benefits, and sets you up for retirement… and keep your passion on the side as a hobby (no shame in that). This reduces the pressure on you to perform in that area and allows you the freedom of expression to keep creating without the burden of turning enough profit to avoid starving. I know it sounds less-than-ideal to many creatives to work any front-facing retail/food service job over following your passion. But, I also know far too many artists who charge less than $20 for a commission that will take them more than an hour to complete (this is not a fair wage according to the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook by the way).

You, my artistic friend, have taken your passion and are trying to turn a profit off of it. This is a thing to be very aware of. Turning passion into profit for a career creates a great way to exploit you as a worker… because don’t you love your job? If you do, then you should be willing to do anything to keep it. Right? Wrong. Just because you love something doesn’t mean you get to be exploited and work for less. Anyone who truly respects that you love your work that much should want to pay you more for that work because your quality should be so much higher than that of someone just putting in the hours. The feeling of being expected to perform more because you love your work is often and regularly exploited by bosses. I felt it acutely in animation – if I was unwilling to do extra, even with a union behind me, I was fully replaceable. I feel it less in publishing but I still know there are armies of people with stories ready to take that low ball advance so there is only so much negotiation I can do before feeling like I would have to burned a bridge just to make a livable income. Spoiler alert: your favorite authors more than likely don’t make a lot of money.

Why is the narrative now so focused on just a livable income? It’s like at some time we all settled on this idea that livable – bare minimum to survive – is all we can ask for. Why can we not have more than that? Is it so greedy to ask for enough money to be able to justify treating yourself every once in a while? Definitely not. I don’t know how CEOs who have multiple houses, private jets, and fancy cars have made us feel like we are the problem for asking what we are worth. I also don’t know why we have just accepted this as fact – that we don’t deserve more and should settle for less. It’s true on the whole, not just for artists. The problem with art is, we are all struggling to prove that we are successful to each other and the world. Look at us! We aren’t starving artists! No, we are successful! In this process, we sacrifice contract clauses and accept less than fair trade pay so we can say that we are one of the successful ones. However, the numbers show that we aren’t as successful as our predecessors from the 1980s who made a more comfortable living than, on average, we do now.

I recognize that there is only so much artists can do. It’s why I am asking us all to charge more. This is my direct call to action to you: we all need to do our part to stand stronger and ask for more. Because while we can demand more and negotiate contracts until we are blue in the face… there’s only so much we can do from our side. That is what we can do.

However, we need the people of the world to stand up for us too and get some artistic literacy and get educated on fair wage practices. The best thing I can advise is not just for artists to demand more, but instead for artists to stop carrying the burden of our value by ourselves alone. It isn’t up to us to tell you we are valuable over and over like the beating of a heart no one can hear. It is up to the average non-artist Joe to help us. We need people who aren’t artists to respect the artistic process. To take art classes and understand how hard art truly is and expand their minds through art. We need people to patronize art museums and galleries so they can grow their artistic well of knowledge. We need people who choose to skip hiring artists in favor of doing it themselves to understand their stuff isn’t selling because is it is a showcase in their artistic ignorance. We need hiring managers, social media marketing people, and bosses to get the Graphic Artists Guide Handbook: Practical & Ethical Guidelines and read it. This way when they people they know the proper hiring rates and can budget accordingly.

It’s not on artists to ask for more, its on all people to respect us as individual creatives and as an occupation on a whole.

Artists, you do need to charge more. Myself included. If you don’t have the latest Graphic Artists Guide Handbook: Practical & Ethical Guidelines – you need to buy it or get it from the library and read it. When people ask for jobs, you need to have a solid contract ready (templates are in the GAG Guide) or get an agent or lawyer to look over your contracts if you feel uncomfortable doing this yourself. I understand that isn’t as easy as I make it sound, but there are lawyers for the arts programs all around the world. Erase the shame in getting a part time job (especially if said part time job allows you to charge better rates for your art) to supplement that income. In my ideal world artists pay will have adjusted beyond inflation and that won’t be necessary. Mostly this is my manifesto to you, my fellow artists, you need to stand proud and tall in your talent, cultivated skill, and artistic literacy. You need to demand proper compensation and if that doesn’t come down your way, you need to learn to say “I am valuable and I deserve more”.

We deserve more and it’s about damn time we shift the narrative of the starving artist to instead put the blame on the bosses who don’t budget properly. Why are we starving artists? Because the bosses are greedy. Shame on the greedy artistically ignorant boss who devalue what they both need and cannot do.

Respect us.

Pay us.

One Reply to “Artists You Need To Charge More: Income Inflation”

  1. Love this so much. I’m an illustrator in Australia and despite having base wages set by the government, freelance illustrators are still often expected to do work for less than minimum wage. You are right, society takes art for granted. Even with my own family I am forever arguing for my right to pursue illustration as a career. Honestly it’s all very exhausting.

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