Five facts about professional artists in the United States

June 29, 2013

This is where the artists are. (Katherine Frey / The Washington Post)

Instagram and Etsy have made everyone seem like artistic geniuses, but according to the National Endowment for the Arts, artists make up only 1.4 percent of the U.S. labor force. Last week, we learned a lot more about the roughly 2 million artists in the workforce thanks to the NEA study,  “Equal Opportunity Data Mining: National Statistics about Working Artists.” The study, based on Census data, classifies artists by occupation, demographics and region. The NEA also provides this handy interactive map, which ranks states according to artists as a share of the state's total labor force. Here are five of the more surprising findings. (And check out an interactive map here.)

California is still America’s favorite artist commune

Congratulations, California. You’re still an artist haven, with Los Angeles and San Francisco boasting the highest percentages of artists in their workforces, according to the NEA’s city-to-city comparison. Artists make up 4.86 percent of the Los Angeles workforce and 4.3 percent of San Francisco’s. The third-ranked city? That would be Santa Fe, New Mexico, with artists making up 4 percent of all workers.

New York City isn’t as artsy as it seems

New York City is home to more artists than any other U.S. city, with 140,915 people engaged in artistic professions, but with a workforce of 4.1 million people, that’s only 3.4 percent of its total workforce. In fact, New York City has only a slightly higher percentage of working artists per capita than Washington, D.C., where artists make up 3.1 percent of the workforce. (This may seem unlikely, considering that the New York data include Brooklyn. But remember that the New York metro area is enormous. And to count, artists had to report income or be actively pursuing work as a primary profession, which means thousands of aspiring poets in Williamsburg were probably excluded.)

Source: National Endowment for the Arts
Source: National Endowment for the Arts

Design is the most common artistic profession.

The NEA divided artists into seven categories of disciplines. Design is the most common artistic profession in the United States, with a whopping 39 percent of artists in the workforce classifying themselves as designers. Photography and directing/producing are the least popular artistic professions, with both categories claiming only 7 percent of total artists in the workforce.

D.C. pays its artists pretty well

The NEA also published a state-by-state comparison of artists' salaries. Washington, D.C. was included in the comparison and has the highest-paid artists in the country, with one in 10 making more than $125,000 a year. California ranks second, with just under 10 percent of its artists breaking the $125,000 mark. D.C. is also the only region that reported more high earners than low earners: There are more artists making more than $125,000 a year in D.C. than artists making less than $15,000. Contrast that statistic with the numbers in New Mexico, Idaho or Mississippi, where one in three artists make less than $15,000 a year.

Female architects still have a ways to go

In the field of architecture, women still have to re-design some glass ceilings. Only one in four architects in the United States are women, according to the NEA data. But in Massachusetts, Maryland and Delaware, that number jumps up to one in three.  Washington, D.C. falls behind the rest of the country in this area, as only one in five architects here are women. And sadly, in Arkansas and Wyoming, that number drops to one in 10. But kudos to Mississippi, which has more female architects per capita than California and New York.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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