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 performance artist who makes about $2,000 a month.
Art Practice: Performance artist
Location: Phoenix, AZ
Pronouns: She/ Her
It varies – about $2,000 a month.
How much of your income is from your art practice?
I work as a teaching artist as well, which is part of my arts practice but not necessarily as such – I probably make $200 for my performance art a month.
Where does the rest of your income come from?
At the start of this year, I was a postdoctoral fellow and my income came from teaching at an institution and now it is gig work.
How much did you make from recent freelance work?
- I did a burlesque show and was paid a box office split for my 3.5 minute act and I received $50.
- I was a teaching artist for a seven week arts-based series with a non-profit organization working with an elementary school and was paid $100 for prep time for each session, $120 an hour for teaching time, and then $100 for the arts exhibit set up and $75 for attending and facilitating the exhibit = $1,300 total.
- For a prior client, I've received $2,000 for 11 weeks of youth mentorship. I had a group of six young leaders working on social change projects and I helped coach and guide the projects through weekly group meetings. I was paid in two installments of $1,000 6 weeks apart.
Rent is $1,835 a month.
What are your major monthly expenses?
- Food is a large expense – about $700 month
- Professional development like dance and fitness classes and attending aligned events — $300 month
- Gas I probably spend about $200+ a month
Do you have any expenses related to your art practice?
Not set expenses, but I find a reason to buy things that I can use for performances or arts engagements.
Larger financial picture
Do you have any financial support from outside sources?
Have you received any grants to support your art?
I have throughout the years — nothing larger than $5,000 for various projects such as expressive arts workshops with former foster youth and communal skillshares.
Do you have health insurance?
Do you have any debt?
$110,000 in student loan debt
Do you have any savings?
I have about $6,000 in savings and most of that money is from student refunds that I’ve managed to save.
Did you pursue higher education?
Yes, I have a PhD in gender studies.
Anything else you'd like to add?
It feels incredibly unsustainable to do the artist grind, but I don’t want that to scare me.
Responses edited lightly for length and clarity.
Your comment at the very end of the survey was really interesting. I'd love to hear more — why is being an artist unsustainable from your experience and how do you navigate it?
A big part of why I wanted to participate in [the survey] now is because I'm trying to do this thing as an artist and separate myself from academia. There was a lot of fear surrounding my decisions of — I'm going to get my PhD in something that is not specifically art because that's going to be devalued and I need something different. So many people have told me along the way, “that's not going to be a sustainable path,” or “you're not going to find a job,” and I don't know, that shit’s scary. Part of this last year, what I’ve been trying to do is start my own business where I get to use art and creativity all of the time and see how that pans out. I have not made that much money doing it, but I also learned a whole lot.
The artist grind just feels kind of scary because of the overall devaluation at a structural level of what some of us try to do under the guise or name of art and creation. I'm talking specifically about bringing communities together, deeper introspection, connection, advocacy work, radical liberatory stuff, decolonizing education — there's so much one can do.
I'd love to hear more about your decision to make that leap. You said you haven't made that much money yet, but have you found making that choice has been worth it, even though it is more of a grind?
Oh, absolutely. The things that I have been able to process on a more embodied level, because I have slowed down and because I have had to take the time to more seriously consider what success means for me or how I want to live my life. Those things are absolutely worth it. This feels like my adult-ish gap year. That's where I'm at, re-figuring out the relationship between money and labor and work and myself. I thought it would be super empowering to do this and step away from academia because it's just so toxic there, like endless toxic relationships. But there's so many other things that are toxic.
So leaving academia felt like leaving a toxic work environment? And the experience has been worth it?
Yeah, that's a huge part of it, absolutely. Thinking about this idea of “worth it” — to have time to stop and be a fucking person again, or figure out what part of me was not able to be a person before, it's definitely worth it. And I don't know if I could put a price tag on it.
What does a living wage for what you do look like, and how do you get there?
That's been a hard part too, checking your own elitism. Shoot, I have a PhD, I deserve at least $169 an hour. If I do consulting work for an entity that has the access to the resources enough to pay that, that’s what I will ask. No one has hired me at that rate to do that work so that's interesting. But fair, what is fair? And what is livable, what's equitable in any of this?
I definitely am the proponent of, let's look at all of the root causes and structural issues. So bartering, having all our basic needs taken care of, and we can just create for the sake of experimentation, and curiosity, and connection. But on a more practical level, I'm really trying to figure that out now. How much of what I do in the world is to make money — and I'm not specifically just trying to ask for money — but full and robust compensation. That's what I try and ask for whether that's granting studio time, or some kind of exchange, or I will write a grant for you. That feels good to me. But I have not quite figured out yet how to get to that point and what it looks like.
When I was in my postdoc at Carleton, I made about $61,000. So in my mind, I'm like, well I should make at least that. And that definitely was not for a 40-hour standard work week. Things really fluctuated for me there too about how much work went into receiving that $60,000 annual salary.
What are the biggest challenges you've experienced when it comes to being able to make a living or even get to the number you were at in your postdoc position as a full time artist?
I'm learning it’s not what you know, but who you know. So I'm trying to figure out exactly what kind of work I want to do as an artist. I don't feel like I have a very strong artistic community that I'm connected to, people to have these kinds of conversations with necessarily. So many of my friends or people I went through grad school with who are working artists too will be teaching artists. A lot of them are in the K through 12 system teaching art, and a lot of people just have multi-income households, so they're able to do gig work in a different way. What I've learned along the way is your art just isn't going to cut it. Particularly if it's art that doesn't conform to mainstream, normative ideas.
What resources do you think would help you and other artists the most when it comes to making work that might be unconventional, or not geared toward the mainstream?
Some really cool things are unrestricted funding. So much of the funding is tied to specific entities, or you need to have a certain nonprofit or business status or operating budget. And I don't want to have to conform to those things. Gatekeeping things that does not make it accessible — so unrestricted funds for communities to just create and be curious and go through creative processes. Maybe even workshopping ideas. Universal basic income and other structural things.
I come from poverty and so even getting a good middle class job, I was like, fuck, I don't understand any of my benefits, like I don't know how to do this. I made an appointment with a someone similar to a wealth manager. And one of the things that he said is, everyone has their own financial advice. You need to keep talking about money with people, that is how you learn.
How have you come to price your services? Is it something that you’ve talked about with other artists, or just picked up along the way?
I have talked to lots of different people and looked at lots of different websites, like LinkedIn. Luna Dietrich on Instagram has a pleasure-based, feminist, consensual business course. So one of the things I learned on there is how exactly do you try and determine for yourself what that number is? What is it for other people? I read things on the message boards there.
It's kind of an equation of what life do you want to have, and if you can literally buy your freedom in certain aspects, what is the number on that? Is it enough to not have to look at how much groceries and gas are — what is it? I came to my number being like, damn, I'm in like, $120,000 worth of student loan debt and that feels crumbling.
How are you thinking about your student loan debt right now?
I don't. I'm gonna wait and see how long this debt forgiveness thing takes, keep deferring payments. At first I was like, I’m gonna put $1,000 a month towards this and I'm just gonna knock it out of here in five years. I'm not on that boat anymore. Because I was really not into trying to do service work needed for a lot of the loan forgiveness programs. I don't want to pay it back if I don't ever have to. And I will just do the bare minimum. That's how I'm thinking about it.
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