My key takeaways from Philly Artist Census

In 2018, I directed a group of volunteers to run a project called The Philly Artist Census. This project was conducted by Philly Stewards, an organization dedicated to the collection of art in Philadelphia. 500 respondents each answered 40 questions about their art sales, education and demographics. 

The first question I'm often asked about this project is "why?". Why invest so much time and energy as an unpaid volunteer? Why do you think the data is valuable?

I've been making art my entire life. A good portion of that time, I've wondered what makes some artists appear so successful, while most others remain virtually unknown. A handful of artists I've met in school have gone onto become world renowned art stars, while most others abandoned their art practices. A select few continued producing and showing their work, but could only dream of becoming a full time artist with a self-sustaining practice. 

It can feel like there is a secret sauce, and if you know the recipe, you're on your way to superstardom and financial independence. 

What's the key ingredient? Do you have to make a certain kind of artwork? Do you have to know the right people? Do you need an art degree? Do you need to come from a wealthy family?

One of the most astounding takeaways from the Philly Artist Census was how low artist incomes are. With a range of ages, education levels and other demographics responding, we found that 68% earn less than $40K/year and 86% earn less than $60K/year. Additionally, art sales don't make a large portion of an artist's annual income. 80% of respondents sell less than $4K of art per year. 

Most respondents financially support their art practices through various income streams, including full time or part time jobs, family support, grants or a self sustaining practice. 90% of respondents support their art practices through full time or part time jobs, in addition to other streams. 25% report having a self sustaining practice, with just 5% claiming their self sustaining practice as the only source of financial support for their art practice. 

It's shocking to me is how highly educated Philly artists are, relative to their incomes. 82% of respondents have a Bachelor's Degree or higher and 42% have a Master's Degree or higher. A data scientist working for Philly Stewards, Alec Ricciuti, estimated that advanced degrees result in initial bumps in sales and income, but offer diminishing returns over time relative to other education levels. 

So, what contributes most to success in art?

In my opinion, it's about having access to resources to continue the practice of making and promoting art. An artist needs to invest time into developing their work and building a network to share it with. Some people are just better set up for this than others and this can easily correlate with other issues of access in our society, divided along race, social and economic status. 

Some will keep pushing, because they have a burning passion, but can only continue if they have extra time and resources. I know this applies to me! I've dedicated the past 10 years to making a living off B2B sales, leaving little time left for art. This all changed for recently, opening up time for art making once again. Read my previous post How Covid-19 Changed My Life As An Artist for more on this. 

In conclusion, it is a privilege to have the time, education and ability to consistently make and promote art. The Philly Artist Census project helped me realize how real that privilege is. 

The full Philly Artist Census report, including an analysis and raw data, can be found here:

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