The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If you’re lucky enough to earn a living from your art, you’re probably white

The paints might be colorful, but the professionals, generally speaking, are not. (Wally Santana/AP Photo)

The thing about racial diversity among working artists in America is that it pretty much doesn't exist.

Nearly four out of every five people who make a living in the arts in this country are white, according to an analysis of 2012 Census Bureau data by BFAMFAPhD, a collective of artists dedicated to understanding the rising cost of artistry. The study, which used the American Community Survey to find that there are some 1.4 million people whose primary earnings come from working as an artist, represents a broad population of creative types in the country, and reveals a number of troubling truths.

The lack of diversity is, for instance, even more pronounced for those with art school degrees — more than 80 percent of people with undergraduate art school degrees are white, according to the analysis. And it's most severe among art school graduates who go on to make it (or, at the very least, a living) in the art world — more than 83 percent of working artists with an art school degree are white.

The racial gap among artists in America isn't, of course, a question of desire, talent, or ability. Despite growing minority populations, the United States is still predominantly white — about 60 percent. Naturally then most artists are likely to be, too. But there's something else at play here that explains the jump from just over half (the percentage of the population that is white) to almost four fifths (the percentage of artists who are white). And that's money.

Racial inequality is both very real and very severe in the United States. It's also, as my colleague Emily Badger noted earlier this year, growing. In 2000, white households had a net worth 10.6 times greater than black households; by 2011 it had grown to 17.5. The gap is similarly large between whites and Hispanics.

Art schools, meanwhile, are really expensive institutions — 11 out of the 15 most expensive universities in the country are art schools, according to The Wall Street Journal. Art schools, as it happens, are also anything but a bridge to gainful employment in the art world: only one out of every 10 art school graduates goes on to earn his or her living as an artist. So spending, say, $120,000 on an art education is often more of an extended luxury than an investment in an adolescent's future. It's of little coincidence that most other top liberal arts institutions have much larger minority presences (at Ivy League schools, for instance, the percentage of the study body that is white ranges from about 41 to 58 percent).

"The fantasy of arts graduates’ future earnings in the arts should be discredited," the study says.

That isn't merely true because art school graduates rarely go on to become full-time artists. It's also likely the case because artists rarely make a decent wage, even when they manage to practice art and have it be their main source of income.

An analysis of nearly 1.5 million working artists, which included writers, visual artists, actors, photographers, musicians, singers, producers, directors, performers, and dancers, among others, by BFAMFAPhD found that those with an art school degree earned a median salary of just over $36,100 a year, while those without one earned just over $30,600. A separate survey in 2011, which, unlike BFAMFAPhD's, included architects and designers, for whom salaries tend to be more lucrative, put the median salary at just over $43,200. Neither ranks all that highly in the spectrum of salaried jobs in the country. And both are top heavy — meaning that, like with the general populace, the biggest earners earn a disproportionately large chunk of the dough being paid to artists (take the music industry, where the top 1 percent earns almost 80 percent of the money, according to Digital Music News).