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 33-year-old multimedia artist who makes about $2,200 a month.
Art Practice: Multimedia artist
Location: Hamtramck/Detroit, MI
Pronouns: She/ They
About $2,200 a month
How much of your income is from your art practice?
I work in an art non profit, where a large chunk of my income comes from. But in terms of my own individual work — financial support and commissions are pretty sporadic and unpredictable, so I would say roughly 20%.
Where does the rest of your income come from?
Presently, teaching art where I make roughly $2,000 a month.
How much did you make from recent gig work related to your art practice?
-I did live video projections for a DJ show, $100
-I made a music video for a band, $1000
-I did live video projections for a DJ show, $100
How do you price your art?
It depends on if someone is buying something I made within my art practice, or if it is commissioned work. My 2D work can vary from $80 to $300. My video work can vary from $100 to 1000 (depending on the length and materials needed, time/labor).
For performance work which stretches over lengths of time, I normally get a stipend (which can range form $500 to $2,000). For design work it also depends on all the variables and asks ($150 to $1,000). Sometimes I offer pretty considerable discounts for friends or fellow artists. But I don't do free work, as it is completely unsustainable. Even though people ask me to more often than I'd like.
I live by myself and pay $700 in rent (gas and internet included), and $30 for electric.
What are your major monthly expenses?
By far, food. On average at least $350 a month.
Then gas: $160 a month
Art materials: ~$150 a month
Do you have any expenses related to your art practice?
The largest expense is the Adobe software suit (it's hard that they made it a monthly subscription now), $600 a year!
Since I work in multimedia, I'm always buying cords, adapters, art materials and those expenses fluctuate. Sometimes I'm spending $300 because it is for a specific project. I'm always having to replace stuff.
Larger financial picture
Do you have any financial support from outside sources?
I don't really have financial support from outside sources. Other than the occasional birthday money I get from my dad.
Have you received any grants to support your art?
I've never received grants for my individual art (I need to apply more)! I have worked with other performance groups and collaborative projects that have received grant funding. Those amounts have varied from project to project and I'm not entirely sure how much, as I wasn't involved in that side of the work.
Do you have health insurance?
Yes, Medicaid for now, but I ride that poverty line so feel like they will kick me off of it any day now. I'm very fortunate in that I'm healthy and almost never go to a doctor.
Do you have any debt?
Yes and it makes me so anxious to think about. I have about $40,000 in student loans (and I keep hoping that they will stop letting the $10,000 forgiveness be tied up in court). I did monthly payments back when I had a more stable income and less expenses, but it is hard now. I have about $2,000 in credit card debt too, which feels much more manageable.
Do you have any savings?
About $4,000, which I try really hard to protect in case something happens as I don't really have anything else to rely on.
Did you pursue higher education?
I got a masters degree in London in Digital Theatre
Anything else you'd like to add?
PAY ARTISTS MORE, STOP UNDERVALUING OUR LABOR AND ASKING US FOR FREE WORK
Responses edited lightly for length and clarity.
How do you feel about your overall financial security right now?
I feel [precarious] a lot. I do feel gratitude that I have some stability, partially just by having a bit of my own little savings I've protected over the years. But the past few years, and Covid, and so much stuff undulating around — there's just all of a sudden unknowns. I don't know when another gig might happen or not. Or if I should still do this. It feels hard to wrap my head around, and I feel like that's very often with makers, you take risks and you just try to trust that your investment you're making towards the work and the craft is going to come back in some kind of supportive way.
Has that been true for you, that it has come back and supported you?
I think so. At times, no, but I feel that when I've been really honest with what I'm feeling passionate about, it seems like it makes sense and it works. But sometimes it does feel as though I have to butt up against a lot of capitalistic ideologies and strains. Also, just butt against my moral values, and just my creative passion. I feel that even if perhaps it's not always financially super abundant, there's this other abundance that comes, and then these other things start to fall into place too where I realized that the risk was always worth it.
You mentioned Covid — could you talk about how the pandemic impacted your work?
I got laid off right away in the pandemic. In a way, I was grateful because I was able to get unemployment support, but then other work I was doing, like projects and performances I was involved with, everything just stopped. This rush of momentum just completely stopped. And it was kind of like being whiplashed. Then being in my apartment for two years — genuinely I couldn't really see anybody — and I was making internet art, was making performance through the internet, and was getting some commissions in that way, which actually was quite fun and felt good and positive but was still very, “oh gosh, I don't really know where this roller coaster is going.” And I'm just kind of along for the ride.
And do you feel that things are more stable now?
No, I feel frustrated because I feel that there's this weird rushing to make up for lost time that's happening around me, that I'm not all that interested in. I liked slowing down and doing less and I felt like it was healthy, and healthy for not only myself and my mental health but for the environment. Not to get too broad, but I felt that it was healthier for people around me even though we were all navigating through this weird crisis brain zone.
I don't really want to return to normal as it were, and normal sucked. I hated it. I don't want it. But I do want to integrate some of the lessons learned from these experiences, from being in a pandemic and build something better, that feels supportive and healthy, and that doesn't feel like extractive or exploitative or draining, like burnout. Or feel like I'm saying yes to things that are maybe not really supportive and sustainable, simply because I'm worried about surviving. I want to say yes to things that actually feel good and right and say no to things that don’t.
About 20% of your income comes from your art making and the vast majority is from teaching. Do you hope to see that percentage shift over time or are you comfortable with the breakdown you have now?
I would like this to shift. I would like to be more supported by my making for sure. It's the risk taking of being your own, so to speak “boss” even though I hate that word. Because again, I feel like it puts a capitalistic lens with making and I don't think those things feel right a lot. But it is like — hey, this stuff I'm doing can be supported, and I don't have to just do this thing all the time. I feel like sometimes dealing with some of that stuff, you get lots of weird bureaucratic or ego things that get in the way of the spirit of the making, of the joy of the process, and having joy and processes are really important to me. I find it a lot when I'm doing it on my terms. So, I really would like to do it more on my terms.
What do you think would need to happen to see that shift?
Some of it may be how the system works. I wish there was more grant support for the art world that didn't feel so niche and insanely competitive in the States. That there was a bit more of a healthy relationship to making because I think we have this fetishization towards STEM. And this idea that, quote, unquote, soft sciences are unimportant. It feels to our detriment honestly — you can have all the analytical, logistical skill sets in the world, but if you don't have the creative thinking to apply them, they're kind of like a moot point. I just wish it was more honored and respected and valued culturally. That's a bigger, more zoomed out scope.
But for me personally, part of that is just taking more of a risk and being a bit more brave. And it's a little scary when you're by yourself and you don't really have anybody else to lean on, you get a little spooked out.
What's the risk that you would have to take?
Not doing a straight up job, like getting up in the morning, going to another job and giving that time away to somebody else. That time and that labor and that energy, and just being more protective and precious with that energy for myself and for those passions. Taking that time to trust and put those investments back in, and trust that they're gonna be supported when I cast the net out. I’ve always just did a little bit of both, the hybrid thing. And it’s worked, but it can be hard to have energy to do it.
Could you talk about the challenges you've seen when it comes to artists making a living from their art, and also what resources you think would help with that issue?
It'd be great if there was more mutual aid building around art making, some of that [might look] like, “Hey, I have these materials, hey, I have these materials.” And people met together and were able to collectively work with things together outside of a school environment, because a lot of us aren't in it. And it can be really isolating if you're a solo practitioner. I do a lot of collaborative work too. I feel like more of that collaborative, coalition building sensibility would be great. Also just more support, funding, or grant funding, more of just honoring this is important. This is important to us culturally. This is important to us as human beings. And this should be nurtured and supported because it's to everyone's benefit.
What challenges have you seen when it comes to artists making a living?
It's pretty classic stuff. People asking me to do something for nothing, for the joy of doing it. “Oh, you just love doing this so much, you just give it to me for free.” So many people I know get asked that all the time. And then when you say no, I don't do this for free, there's this guffaw, “What, really? Oh my gosh, you want me to pay you?” You’re like, yeah! I've invested so much time, energy, money, my life into this and you don't want to respect and value my time.
I've been doing this collaboration with these folks. And they weren't really communicating with me, and then they told me that my artwork wasn't mandatory but always appreciated. It's things like that. That's just not even respectful to me. It's this fight sometimes to get respected and compensated. You'll do a gig job and you'll wait three months to get paid, and it's like 200 bucks. It's just wild. A lot of this stuff, it's a 1099. So then you get all these taxes taken out at the end. As an artist, you ride that wave link too between being a contractor or not.
With this current job I have, they told me I have benefits and then now are telling me I don’t, and are trying to take it away after the fact, retroactively. These things happen so much more with this kind of work than I see in other kinds of labor. Because for some reason, there's just these bad cultural ideas and language around art making. So many people I talked to here like, “Oh my god, I couldn’t do that. Or, oh, I don't have a creative bone in my body.” And that's literally not true. Every single human being, by nature of being a being that is alive, is creative. Why would you deprive yourself of that? That's silly.
It's frustrating that it gets undervalued this way. This idea of like, we have to crawl on our knees. I think of that Mary Oliver poem, Wild Geese — You don't have to crawl on your knees repenting. like this. This artists suffer mythology is just so wack and unhealthy and fundamentally untrue. And in my experience, it's not true. Suffering to make my art has not been the art that's been successful. Mostly, the art that was successful was art where I was passionate and excited and felt alive and happy and joyful. That was the stuff that worked. And it wasn't hard, it wasn't a slog to get through, it was a joy. Everyone's process is different, but I just want to untether so much of that for myself, for people around me.
I feel like it's the crux of what I think this project is — helping people understand the importance and value of artists in society. In addition to helping artists understand how to price their work.
Yeah, literally. We don't even know and it's like the industry counts on us not knowing, and saying yes to something that they know is undercutting. That's so different than other lenses. You would never be able to hire a lawyer, or go to a hospital, or anywhere else and have services and it's negotiable whether or not they're gonna get paid and how much it is.
Do you have any other thoughts that you wanted to share?
I like the idea of artists like coming together, even in their own kind of lo-fi union or something. The whole spectrum of artists — writing, performance, fine art — coming together and really building those tools with each other and supporting each other too. It's unifying. If we say no to extractive labor, it will have to adjust. That gives me hope.
Read more about the Artist Pay Project.