Do You Come From a Wealthy Family? You’re More Likely to Become an Artist Than Someone From a Poorer Background

A recent study based on US census data suggests that artists tend to come from rich families.

A photograph from Lauren Greenfield's Generation Wealth. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios ©Lauren Greenfield, all rights reserved.
A photograph from Lauren Greenfield's Generation Wealth. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios © Lauren Greenfield, all rights reserved.

A new study suggests that a major determining factor in whether a person becomes an artist is his or her family’s wealth.

The paper, titled “The Origins of Creativity: The Case of the Arts in the United States Since 1850,” was published in February by Karol Jan Borowiecki, a professor of economics at the University of Southern Denmark. It’s based on census data from the United States going back to 1850, and compares the socio-economic backgrounds and geographic locations of respondents who have identified themselves as artists, musicians, authors, actors, or other creative professionals, compared to those in other fields.

According to the study, for every $10,000 in additional family income, a person is around two percent more likely to go into a creative occupation. For example, a family income of $100,000 makes it twice as likely that a person from that group will become an artist, compared to someone coming from a family that earns $50,000. If a family makes $1 million a year, they’re ten times more likely to have a member enter the arts than if they made just $100,000.

The study also says that the annual income for US artists is typically below average for the country. That makes sense: If one can rely on family support, it makes it easier to enter a less financially lucrative field. The study accessed annual family income based on the total pre-tax income, including non-labor income.

Based on the data, Borowiecki also found that beginning in 1890, there was an uptick in the number of women working in creative occupations. That trend has continued through the present day, most predominantly for musicians, followed by authors, visual artists, and actors. In total, women are 18 percent more likely than men to work in the arts.

“These results challenge the conventional wisdom that the arts are predominantly a male domain,” Borowiecki told Hyperallergic. However, “there are still less non-whites in the arts, especially in visual arts and literature, than in any other occupation.”

According to the most recent US census in 2010, the percentage of minorities in the field has risen to 20 percent, as opposed to just two percent in 1850. The uptick in non-white artists has been most noticeable over the past 50 years. Family income likely plays a role in this disparity, as white families on average have a significantly higher median income than Black or Hispanic families.

The paper also found that creatives tended to gravitate toward areas with established art scenes. The city with the most artists was New York, followed by Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.


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