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 21-year-old drag performer and multimedia artist who makes less than $500 a month.
Art Practice: Drag performer and multimedia artist
Location: Springfield, Missouri
My monthly income is less than $500.
How much of your income is from your art practice?
About 10%, $50 to $100 in a month.
Where does the rest of your income come from?
I do odd jobs and part time work like cleaning and picking up jobs from my temp job. I make about $100 to $300 a month from this work.
How much are you paid for your recent freelance or contract work in the arts?
From my most recent show, it was a tip based spot and I made $17 dollars. Before that, I made $200 from a show that I was booked for, and the last show I made $35 dollars from my tips and booking pay.
How do you price your art?
I sell my art for not a lot of money. I price it based on materials and most of my stuff is from found materials or from the Dollar Tree. It ranges from $5 to $35 dollars.
I do not pay rent anymore because I moved in with my partner, and she gets assistance with rent from her mom so I only pay utilities or for groceries.
What are your major monthly expenses?
I pay $500 dollars a month for my car note, $175 a month for my car insurance, and $130 for my phone.
Do you have any expenses related to your art practice?
My Drag stuff, I have to keep very cheap. I only spend maybe $50 dollars a month on Drag stuff.
For art, I might spend $20 dollars a month on things.
Larger financial picture
Do you have any financial support from outside sources?
My partner provides financial support, my parents could if I asked them.
Have you received any grants to support your art?
No, I have not but I also have not applied for any. So I should definitely get on that.
Do you have health insurance?
Do you have any debt?
Yes, about $2,000+ because of my car note.
Do you have any savings?
Yes, I have $2,000+ in savings.
Did you pursue higher education?
I got my associate’s degree in teachers education.
Responses edited lightly for length and clarity.
How do you feel about your financial security right now?
Currently, I live with my girlfriend, and I don't really get much financial support from my parents. I probably could ask, but I tend not to. They haven't really financially supported me since I graduated high school. I work very part time and my income usually comes from part time work, or from doing drag performances, or art. As far as security, it's okay because I've built up savings from the past, but I don't have a lot of money coming in each month.
You mentioned having a temp job — what do you do?
I do substituting, but there's also other things you can do. I was doing a warehouse packaging job, and I get to pick my shifts and schedules and stuff like that. I get to work through that job whenever I feel like it.
What are the biggest challenges you face when it comes to making a living and also doing your art as well?
It's hard to find a job that either gives enough hours or doesn't provide too many. It feels like some jobs are either, “we can give you eight hours a week,” and another job is, “we can give you 80 hours a week.” Working full time, working 40 hours is not something that is okay for my lifestyle because I do other things. If I was working a 40 hour, full time job, I wouldn't have time to do drag performance, but also I need some form of income so I can buy the things I need for performance and art. It's a little hard to find a good balance between working a regular job and also having time to do the stuff I need to do outside of that.
In the survey, you shared your pay rates for drag performances. I was a little surprised because I thought performers would make more from their gigs.
Could you talk a little bit about how the pay structure typically works for drag performers?
It really does depend on place to place. There's one place in Springfield that is technically a gay bar even though they don't label it as a gay bar anymore. They do drag six days a week. It used to be where if you were in the main show, you would only make tips. And it’s Springfield, Missouri, so people aren't tripping a lot. So I would have days where I would only come home with like $10, $20 for doing two performances.
They changed their structure to where you would get a paid booking. If you were chosen to be in the main performance and not pre show, that ranges anywhere from $15 to $45. It depends on what day of the week you [performed]. When I did my first paid booking there, I only got $20, and then with my tip, it was like 30 bucks.
But for other places — I'm a part of a drag family that does their own variety shows at different places around the 417 area code. There's been times I came home with $200 — $100+ dollars and tips and then a $50 booking fee. Last night I did a show, it was a $50 booking fee and I made $70 in tips. So it really does vary a lot of times. I found that honestly doing private shows or really big book shows get you more money than doing the everyday, Friday and Saturday gigs. It's like the specific gigs that get you the most money.
Are there any drag performers in your area that are making decent money or are paid enough to live from their art?
There's one person I know, they live in St. Louis. That's a little far away, but they used to be a Springfield performer and they mostly make their living off of drag. They do work still. They work on like a Halloween thing. So it works with their performance, but they're booked and busy.
A lot of people down here, they have to work to also do drag. But there are people who I see, they're everywhere… but it's still not enough to where they're living off of it. I'm sure they're making a decent amount of money because they perform like two or three times a week.
Is it your goal or hope that you will be able to make a living from drag performances and your other art one day?
Yeah, I would hope to. I do more than drag. I'm hosting my first show this weekend. I want to do stuff like that where I'm able to host events, performing events, and make art. I do poetry, I do everything. I want to get to a point where I'm able to mostly live off of that and maybe even work for an art type of job, but I would like my art to be centered in my career.
What resources would help you the most as an artist who needs to make a living?
Grants — I need to start looking into them and planning for them. I didn't realize that you could get individual grants. So I really want to look into those. It's really just about money because unfortunately that's what the world revolves around. If I just had more disposable income to a certain extent, it would help. I don't want to buy up a whole bunch of things. It's not the point. But also I need [money], for gas, for food. Just to make sure that I'm taken care of before I can do my art stuff. And it's hard to balance — what do I want to do? Do I want to buy this thing that I need for drag, or do I want to eat a good meal that night, or get gas? It feels like I have to choose sometimes which things I want to prioritize for myself.
If you had to calculate your own performer fee or art fee — I'm curious what would be a livable wage or gig rate for you?
$50 as a base, as it has been a good start so far, and then the tips have been really good after that. Because when I have a $50 booking fee, I do two numbers. I usually don't spend too much money on my drag anyways because I try to use found materials, thrift, or cheaper materials. I go to a lot of secondhand places or I just make my stuff so I know I'm not spending too much money on it.
But I think anywhere from $50 to $100 plus tips is good. And if I was performing once a week and making even $100, I know half of that was going back into drag. And then half of that I would be able to spend immediately because I need gas, or I need to get food, and by that time it's like you get 50 bucks and then you spend $40 on food and you're like okay, well, I got $10 left.
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