BLOG: Odds of success

by Alan M. Berks • Nov. 5

In depth |

"While American artists are not unemployed, they remain conspicuously underemployed," writes Dana Gioia (Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts, 2003-2009) in the NEA’s 2005 study Artists in the Workforce. Almost 2 million Americans describe artist as their "primary occupation," but at least one-third work for only part of the year. Only 15% of actors across the country have full-year, full-time employment while dancers and choreographer’s median income is only $15,000 (compared to $31,000 for the rest of the country and $43,000 for employees with a similar level of training and education).1

In this country, we like to believe that what we earn is an accurate representation of what we deserve. Hence, we lack an active outrage at the exorbitant salaries of corporate officers, in part, because we hope and expect that we’ll be worth that amount of money ourselves in the future. In the arts, I suspect, this attitude is exaggerated by the fact that when we do get paid at all it is often the result of an explicitly competitive process. "When I’m good enough, when I’m valuable enough, when my value is recognized, I’ll get paid for my script, or my acting, or my dancing, at the appropriate salary," we believe.

"You can’t make a living in the theater, but you can make a killing," said playwright Robert Anderson.

This may be true. I don’t know. I do, however, know that there is money in the arts industry, but most artists are rarely earning it. Americans actually spent $12.1 billion on admission to "performing arts events" in 2002 (Bureau of Economic Analysis report cited on the website of Minnesota Citizens for Arts). That’s actually $2.5 billion more than they spent on movie tickets that year and only $1.5 billion less than they spent on sporting events. In Minnesota alone, the arts industry has a "total economic impact" of more than 800 million dollars (The Arts: A Driving Force in Minnesota’s Economy, 2006).

Believe it or not, total members, average work weeks, and total revenue earned have all increased in Actor’s Equity Association in the last twenty years. According to their 2008 annual report, during the 1987-88 season, 39.3 percent of members (out of a total of 13, 641) worked an average of 16.6 weeks per year. By 2007-2008, 45 percent of 18,386 members were working an average of 17.1 weeks per year. The median Equity actor income in 2007-2008? $7,340 (compared to $4,371 twenty years ago – Hey! That almost keeps up with inflation!).

Six percent of Equity members make more than $75,000. Nineteen percent make over $25,000. You might be one of them, but you should know your odds. In an average week, only 14.8 percent of Equity actors are employed.

What about playwrights? They just write a play, then they can sell that play all over the place, right? They don’t even have to be in town, and they’re making money, right? Todd London, Executive Director of New Dramatists, partnered with the Theatre Development Fund for a recent report on "New Plays and Playwrights." The results haven’t been released yet (that I could find), but he did provide a preview at this year’s Theatre Communications Group conference:

    Average playwright income is between $25,000-30,000 and only 15 percent of that is from their plays.

    Only three percent of playwright income comes from royalties.

    And, the average playwright commission nationwide is $3000-4000, but it takes, on average, 6 months to 2 years to complete.

And, can you even think of a local freelance director who makes their living as a director in Minnesota? (Peter Moore, maybe? Anyone else?) Directors are more often hired than actors or writers or designers as company Artistic Directors, of course, but when was the last job opening in the Twin Cities?

Don’t despair, however. For one, though all those numbers seem dramatic, they aren’t particularly new. In 1953, critic Brooks Atkinson was writing, "As usual, the theater is dying. ... From an economic point of view, the legitimate theater is like its buildings: it is obsolete."

While searching for the inventor of the quote about making a living and making a killing in the theater, I found this article on playwright Robert Anderson in the New York Times. Even 20 years ago, with numerous successful plays to his credit, he was saying, "If I hadn't been able to write movies and television, I could not have continued as a playwright. Most playwrights I know are moonlighters."

I find comfort in the knowledge that I’m not alone, now or in the past.

Another reason for optimism is, I think, paradoxically, the additional very American attitude that just because something is a certain way doesn’t mean that it has to remain a certain way. Another recent NEA report, All the World’s a Stage (2008), showed that in 15 years the number of nonprofit theaters nationwide with budgets above $75,000 has increased by 100 percent, from 991 to 1,982. More people must be making their living in the performing arts simply to support this explosion of non-profit institutions.

At the moment, yes, I’d guess most of those people are arts administrators, but perhaps that was a necessary part of such rapid growth. In the next phase, we’ll just have to figure out how to pay the actual artists who create the art in all these new companies.

Performing artists are such optimists, aren't we?

1Many readers will consider this a depressing post. Please note that there is more to come as the month goes along. My training as a dramatist, I guess, requires that I establish the tragedy before moving to the comedy. If I had started with the comedy, then you could have expected it to end in tragedy; this way, you have reason to be optimistic.

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