The Artist Pay Project is a series exploring how artists in the U.S. survive and thrive amid a cost of living crisis.
This Artist $napshot tells the story of a 31-year-old dancer and choreographer who makes between $25,000 and $28,000 a year.
Art Practice: Dancer and choreographer
Location: Peekskill, New York
Pronouns: She/ Her
Between $25,000 and $28,000 a year
How much of your income is from your art practice?
75 to 80%
Where does the rest of your income come from?
Personal assisting and video editing. For personal assisting, I get paid $35 an hour. (I started at $20 an hour in 2017 and have been working for the same person since). This work varies, and sometimes I only put in 5 hours a month and sometimes it's more.
For editing, this is newer gig work for me. I'm not a professional editor. Recently I got paid $730 for editing together two short trailers for upcoming dance shows. I got paid $2200 to edit a 30 minute documentary.
How much are you paid for your freelance or contract dance-related work?
I was a dancer in a choreographer’s process for 24 hours of rehearsal, I made $600.
I performed a solo for 45 minutes at a gallery, I made $500.
I performed a solo for 25 minutes at a church, I made $500.
How do you price your art?
I split rent with my partner. We pay $1840 a month for a 2-bedroom.
What are your major monthly expenses?
Healthcare: $700 (I have to be on my husband’s plan through his work … but it screws us over because they don’t cover my premium).
Do you have any expenses related to your art practice?
Studio space rental (varies greatly): around $200 a month.
Pilates classes for maintenance and cross training: $50 a month.
Larger financial picture
Do you have any financial support from outside sources?
I sometimes receive private donations for my work, on average: $100 a month.
Have you received any grants to support your art?
I have. Mainly from Canada since I’m a Canadian citizen.
Do you have health insurance?
Do you have any debt?
Credit card debt: we have about $7,500 total between two credit cards.
Do you have any savings?
Between investments, savings and retirement we have $42,000.
Did you pursue higher education?
Yes, a BFA in Dance.
Anything else you’d like to share?
This is my current situation [March 2023] that is going to be changing in April — moving, separation, and changing healthcare.
Responses edited lightly for length and clarity.
Can you talk about how you feel about your financial security as an artist?
I'm pretty much fully freelance, so there's not very much security in terms of consistent income. It's definitely stressful, especially when it comes to thinking more long term. Just thinking about as a dancer, my body is very much how I get paid. So if there's something like injuries or a reason I can't dance anymore, it would require a huge pivot career-wise, which is something all dancers are nervous about. There's definitely insecurity there.
How long have you been freelance and I'm curious if it's gotten easier, or harder, or the same in terms of making money?
I've been freelance since 2016. And before that, I wasn't really quite full time with the company either. So that was also kind of freelance, but it’s been fully gig work since 2016. It's gotten easier in that I think I don't get so stressed about days without having work. Because for so many years, I know that it's gonna come, it's gonna happen.
In some ways, it's gotten easier. In some ways, it's gotten harder just because things are more expensive and thinking a bit more about future planning and wanting a child and so I’m especially now thinking about how I need to make more money. So it's gone through a wave of finding a bit more security and comfort and then now, feeling more insecure and trying to make more money.
I see you do personal assisting and video editing. Do you envision that taking up a bigger piece of the pie in terms of how you make money, or is it just a security blanket to fill in the blanks while you're between gigs?
Before the pandemic, I was doing a bit more personal assisting work. And even before that, I did some babysitting, front desk work, even things like TaskRabbit and stuff like that to fill in some income. I do envision more administrative video editing work as becoming a more consistent paycheck right now. It's very on and off. But I actually just started looking for admin jobs that maybe are like 10-15 hours a week. So I can actually have some consistency of a weekly income.
I'm lucky I have a tie to an organization that my mom runs in Canada, and they've used me for a lot of design and video work. Slowly, it's something that I might step into more of a leadership role. So that's how I'm envisioning getting into more of a place where I can have a better income.
What are the biggest challenges that you face when it comes to making a living as an artist, especially as a dancer, choreographer?
As a dancer, there's still an expectation that you'll work for very cheap or free. I've refused to work for free for a very long time, but I'll still sometimes work on projects that don't pay enough, because I just want to be in the studio dancing. I would always prefer to make money dancing than I would doing something else.
As a choreographer, it's been so varied. I'll sometimes get opportunities that I'm like, wow, this is a great check. But you're responsible for your flights, your studio space, paying yourself, and paying your dancers, and all the other admin work. So when you've added all those costs, you realize that actually, it's not very much money. Also as a choreographer, a lot of opportunities don't pay or they'll say something like, we can't cover your flights and accommodations. And then you're like, okay, do I take the risk and lose money or not?
For me, the most challenging thing is dealing with a lack of funding, especially in the performing arts. Dance is like the smallest field and just having to fight and justify a decent wage for what you do.
What resources do you think would help you the most as an artist?
I feel like it's really more societal. I thought about this a lot in the pandemic and something like guaranteed income is super attractive, so that there's a base of security to then take more risks and to focus on your work. But then there's just societal things — like really strong rent laws, so that your rent isn't so expensive, and things like single payer health care, stuff like that. A way for freelancers to pay into an unemployment system would be huge also. I think of it more as big structural changes that are needed in order to feel more secure, and more arts funding of course.
You mentioned wanting to have a child. I'm curious, have you thought deeply about how you would make that work as a dancer, choreographer? What does it take to be comfortable?
[laughing] A partner who makes lots of money.
I'm always seeking out mothers who are dancers and choreographers. My mom was also one so that's cool. I know it's possible. But there's usually always a family member that can come on tour with you to help with child care, or you're part of a company that does have a lot of finances and can pay for childcare. So there's all these things that feel like okay, well I don't have that right now. But I've definitely thought about how to get my career to a place where my fees are good, so that I'm then able to take financial losses to bring a child on tour with me.
I mean a huge thing is having a support network and having enough savings so that you can take a good chunk of time off for pregnancy and childbirth and everything. It's just like getting savings up to a decent place. It seems kind of impossible right now, but we'll get there.
Do you have any other thoughts that you wanted to share?
I'm Canadian and I do a lot of work in Canada. So I have a sense of how things work there. And something that I've seen help a lot is standard wages for dancers. So there's all these different organizations in Canada that put out new standards for pay rates for artists every year. And in the US, we don't have that for dancers specifically. That's something I was working on with a group of people over the pandemic and I think that's something that will be super important nationally in the U.S. — putting out a standard wage sheet. And then having granting organizations require that people who are funded pay those rates.
Would you say it's easier for artists to make a living in Canada versus the U.S.?
I don't want to make a generalization, but I just did my taxes. Of course, the exchange rate is not great, but all my fees I've made in Canada have been higher than what I've made in the U.S. So something's working there. Of course, it depends on the city. I grew up in Vancouver and that's uber expensive now. When you're not paying for health care, and if you are hired as a dancer in a funded project, you're getting paid a good wage. There's little things that add up. I think, yes, it is possible. It is easier to make it as an artist, or to work as a dancer in Canada, generally, especially in places like Montreal, where the funding is super strong.
I've heard from artists who split their time between the U.S. and Europe and it does seem like there's a lot more resources for artists abroad.
I do have to say I'm going through a life transition right now. The Actors Fund is a pretty amazing U.S. organization that I'd never like tapped into, so they've been really helpful. Now they change their name to the Entertainment Community Fund. They have all these financial literacy workshops, stuff to help you apply for social housing. They have free counseling.
Read more about the Artist Pay Project.