Waging Culture 2007: the socio-economic status of Canadian visual artists

Cultural Policy in Canada appears written in a vacuum.

[NB: the 2012 study, currently underway, is located here.]
If the arts were not, as economists say, an irrational pursuit, they would hardly be thriving these days. And yet, thriving they are. Embattled, impoverished, and improbable, but thriving nonetheless. If only there were some way for the development of cultural policies that would match.

We at the Art Gallery of York University wondered if, perhaps, the problem is the absence of solid primary research. Even the most basic of questions, so basic that should be the start of all policy decisions that affect the arts, has no answer: how many visual artists are in Canada? Call your local funding agency or Ministry of Culture and ask them. If they give you an answer, ask them where it came from. Chances are, if they even have an answer, it will come from Census statistics — a number that is inherently flawed (see the report for why this is so).

Looking to a comparable model, Australia has conducted a series of extensive surveys on the economic conditions of artists over the past twenty years (this even under the leadership of John Howard). New Zealand has done similarly. In Canada, we settle for analysis of Census data and anecdotal evidence, and a strong serving of free-market rhetoric-laden supply-side economics.

Recognizing that this isn’t enough, we decided that we need to conduct our own research. So, we’ve polled the nation’s artists to get an accurate picture of where our artist’s are, economically and geographically speaking.

Waging Culture: the socio-economic status of Canadian visual artists
Executive Summary

The Art Gallery of York University has conducted the first national survey of Canadian visual artists since Statistics Canada’s 1993 Cultural Labour Force survey. Unlike studies that use Census statistics, this study analyses both the sources of revenue for artists and their practice expenses. The bottom line for artists is dismal, with the typical artist losing $556 in 2007 on their practice. (Other income sources bring median total earnings to $20,000 — not starving, but certainly not affluent.)

According to the study, there are between 22,500 and 27,800 visual artists in Canada. The average artist is 43 years of age, with 80% practicing professionally before they were 35. Compared to the national total labour force, artists are more likely to be female, anglophone, in a relationship, and born Canadian, and less likely to be members of a visible minority. They are overwhelmingly more likely to be highly educated, with an average of more than six years post-secondary education.

Report highlights:

1. The typical artist made, from all income sources, $20,000 in 2007, significantly less than the typical Canadian income of $26,850. Of more significance, however, is that only 43.6% of visual artists made any money at all from their studio practice. In fact, the typical artist lost $556 from their studio practice in 2007. The vast majority of an artist’s studio revenue is from sales (54%), with grants (34%) and artist fees (12%) making up the rest. Expenses that exceed an artist’s revenue are covered by other employment income.

2. Artists pay a significant economic penalty to pursue their practice, and are, through real monetary contributions, replacing potential income-earning employment with what amounts to free labour. In 2007, the average artist worked 26 hours per week on their studio practice, 14.5 hours on art-related employment, and 7.6 hours on non-art-related employment. In addition, they volunteered just over 3 hours a week to art-related activities. Those artists who spent a majority of their employment time in the studio earned significantly less total income, a median of $15,000, versus $28,994 for artists who spent most of their time in art-related employment, and $21,793 for those who spent most of their time in non-art-related employment.

3. Compared to artists who received no grants in 2007, artists who earned large ($5,000+) grants in 2007 also had higher levels of self-generated practice-based income from both sales and artist fees, while artists who earned smaller grants (less than $5,000) had higher levels of artist fees, but a lower level of sales. Large grants resulted in higher studio expenses and more hours dedicated to studio work, while small grants only offset net practice-based losses. Grants, in essence, buy time and materials for the production of art and not increased living standards as average total income across the three categories is comparable.

4. Visual artists are extremely well educated, even though there is no correlation between their education and their practice-based income. Over 84% have at least an undergraduate degree, and almost 45% have graduate degrees (compared to 23% and 7% of the total labour force, respectively). The higher an artist’s education level, the less they earn from their practice after expenses; other income sources, however, do increase proportionately to the levels of education.

5. More than 30% of artists have no supplementary health benefits, and an additional 22% have only self-financed benefits. Over one-third of artists have no retirement funds whatsoever, and another third only have self-financed retirement funds.

Some additional findings:

  • Artists in Quebec earn the largest net income from their studio practices (median: $1,383) and those in Alberta lose the most (median: -$2,000). Ironically, artists in Quebec have the lowest total income (median: $15,089) and artists in Alberta the second highest (median: $21,646). Artists in Ontario have the highest median income, at $22,957.
  • The wage gap between male and female artists is significantly lower than in the labour force as a whole, a mere 10% for artists versus 36% for the total labour force. The difference in sales, however, is a full 48%.
  • Immigrant artists have higher total incomes than Canadian-born artists, if only nominally so.
  • Caucasian artists have slightly higher total income than visible minority artists.
  • 54.5% of practicing artists own their own homes, compared with 68.7% of the total labour force.

The report:

The data for the Waging Culture study was collected online, using Respondent Driven Sampling, from July through December of 2008 and covers the 2007 calendar year. Demographic information is accurate within ±3.96%, 19 times out of 20. Financial information is accurate within ±5.83%, 19 times out of 20.

Download the final report by clicking here.
(please note that the report is designed for double-sided printing)

Download a printable version of the executive summary by clicking here.

For more information, please contact Michael Maranda, wagingculture[at]theAGYUisOutThere.org.