Dd RESPONSE: Why Are (Most) Artists (So F*$#ing) Poor and Dancers the Poorest?

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The last line on W.A.G.E.’s (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) homepage states:

We demand payment for making the world more interesting.

Yes! But once you start going down this road, talking about income inequality of artists, another chasm divides: the income inequality among artists, with dancers ranking as the lowest paid. A recent article in the Huffington Post brought up this issue, asking the hard questions and exposing what we all know to be the tough realities, but failed to provide any answers.

Here are a few ideas of my ideas, that may or may not be long term remedies, and yes, this is a bit of tough love:

Dancers need more education. According to the study Artists in the Workforce: 1990-2005, conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, “dancers have the lowest median annual income—$15,000” of all the artists surveyed in the United States. In addition, the study concludes that only 13% of dancers have college degrees, making them the only artist group to have an education level below the average workforce. All the other groups of artists, besides “entertainers”, have higher education levels than the general labor force.

While I know many dancers with degrees, not to mention many self-taught intellectuals among us and those currently working towards degrees, the facts speak for themselves. Until we value our minds as much as our bodies, our ability to think critically, analyze workplace situations, and organize effectively for reasonable wages will be diminished. Relegating education to the after career to do list is clearly not helping the viability of dance as a career with a living wage. Embracing the problem is the ultimate solution.

Dancers need to participate in the world outside the studio/stage. We have been waiting for television to bring the average Joe into our highly specialized world and yet, how are we giving back? Maybe if an ex-professional dancer had produced or written for Breaking Pointe, the conversation around it could be about ‘real’ experiences and interesting choreography instead of simply immature romantic relationships among company members. But most of what is put out into the world about dance is not generated by dancers.

Damien Woetzel and Tiler Peck creating resonance for Dances at A Gathering, through teaching the audience the final phrase of movement.

Dancers, in general, do not generate the artistic material they perform. They are trained for artistic interpretation rather than total creation. (In this way, I am definitely seeking to distinguish between dancers and choreographers who are also dancers.) The focus of a dancer tends to be on fine-tuning their instrument rather than participating in a broader discussion of art and ideas. To many–though definitely not all–it would seem a waste of time to participate in events and discussions that do not have direct recourse in the studio and on stage. Time, after all, is of the essence in what is often a short career. But, there are benefits to making the time and changing how you think about your job as an artist and performer:

1. Values can be changed with resonance. Two years ago, Damien Woetzel and Michael Sandel, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard, led a Guggenheim Works and Process program about the democracy of dance. Sandel discussed how our culture values various jobs in relation to actual salaries. In this lecture, he argued that we value jobs not through merit but through resonance. He spoke of resonance in terms of “richness or significance, especially in evoking an association or strong emotion“. We can value a professional basketball player because many of us tried to play the sport in gradeschool P.E. and remember how hard it is to get the ball into the basket. We also might have had fun trying to do it, and so enjoy watching others do it. Damien Woetzel helped apply Sandel’s theory to dance. He taught the audience the opening steps of Serenade and the final steps of Dances at a Gathering. Making the shapes of those steps in time to the music has an inherent power. The audience was immediately engaged with what can be a remote, insular, and highly specialized art form. Resonance for dance was built. If there is a lack of understanding of dance, or if dancers do not broaden their social and educational networks beyond themselves, there will be little value for dance on the larger cultural level. (I believe this is also what Jennifer Edwards is arguing in her Huff Post response.)

The video below is a lecture given by Sandel exploring questions and theories (particularly those of John Rawls) regarding income inequality and justice.


2. Studies show high rates of intellectual and artistic exchange directly correlating to increased income. In Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer cites a study by sociologist Brian Uzzi–just one of many in this book–where the IMs sent by hedge fund traders were studied. The traders who interacted the most with each other made the most money, while those who shut themselves off and interacted the least made less money. Uzzi was able to show the power of connection and collaboration in relation to success, creatively and financially.

3. A broader life experience and new ideas CAN have a positive impact on your performance quality.

It boils down to taking action. Turn down that low paying job if it is not gratifying you. Or if it does bring artistic satisfaction, it is probably just time to do the hard work of finding supplemental income or grants.

The fact is, there are a lot of opportunities for dancers that do not exist for non-dancers. I am able to attend St. Mary’s College at an affordable rate, through the LEAP program, and that 80% discount is only available to me because of my professional dance career. In addition, Career Transitions for Dancers gives various scholarships from $2000-$5000 for education, professional development, and business ventures. These are just the two resources I have utilized to become more educated on a tight budget, but there are infinite options for financial assistance under the broader umbrella of artist. In the NYT last weekend there was an article about a sort of TARP program for artists, helping to bail out those who have experienced troubling circumstances as a result of the financial meltdown and housing crisis. Money for dancers is out there, but it requires effort to go after it. (Even if you are not interested in becoming a self-generator in the dance world, it is highly possible finding a way to organize yourself in some other art form or enterprise will be important to your artistic and financial stability in the long term.)

I am aware of the rebuttal to all of my extra-curricular suggestions. It is simple. Dancers want to be compensated directly and fairly for their work and specialized skills. All these grants and discounts are lovely, but should just be the icing on the cake, not a form of compensation. I understand that desire for fairness, but I also realize in this exact moment, our cultural values are not there yet. (See Point #1 above regarding our cultural values) We bear some responsibility for this problem, but we also have an ability to change it!

“Why Are (Most) Artists (So Fucking) Poor?” William Powhida. Graphite on paper, 2012.

Beyond Lightsey Darst, and Jennifer Edwards, I am grateful to W.A.G.E. and artist William Powhida, for bringing important issues regarding artists and money to light, and to Hyperallergic, for two blog posts highlighting these problems: #1 Why Are (Most) Artists (So F*$#ing) Poor and#2 Artist Payments at NYC Nonprofits. These articles are as informative as they are infuriating. It also seems that artists, as a group, owe a big thanks to Occupy Wall Street for bringing the income inequality debate to the forefront of our political and cultural dialogues. I truly believe it is the only reason we are talking about this issue now.

It is time for dancers, in their own way, as performers and/or self-generators of art and enterprise, to actually make the world more interesting: creating resonance for our art form not only through performance but by also participating in the larger art and cultural community. Once we begin to do that, we will find the confidence to demand payment for it.

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Showing 7 comments
  • Matthew Donnell

    Nicely stated.

  • Courtney Lyon

    Good thoughts, Candice. I appreciated this, thank you.

  • stephanie

    Candice, you know this subject is near and dear to my heart. Artists could get compensated for the work they do. It is our livelihood, how we pay our bills, afford to eat, etc… When morale is sacrificed due to financial strains then artistry is sacrificed. I am also trudging my way through the LEAP program and battling the non-dance-work-environment assumptions that come with not having a college degree. Education is key; not just formal education, but this can only change when the artists start demanding it. It starts from the inside, the dancer.

  • Brighid Greene

    The Dance/NYC Junior Committee’s 2011 Dance Workforce Census found that 90% of participants have college degrees, a dramatic shift from the data found by the NEA in 2005. While our Census focused only on New York dance, I’d still like to consider that this represents a significant shift in the fabric of the dance community. We are intellectual thinkers capable of invigorated response evidenced in the reactions to these recent articles. These conversations are a way to mobilize and implement educated thought. Take a look at our census to learn more about the makeup of the educated New York dance community. http://dancenyc.org/research/id=114

  • candice

    Thanks for keeping the conversation going! And Brighid thanks for bringing new information into this discussion. I looked at the study and did not see the 90%. Instead, I saw 69.7% with 4 year undergrad and of those 18.2% have masters (I am assuming these numbers can’t just be added together since you need undergrad with few exceptions to get masters). But still, obviously 70% is a huge difference from the national 13% in 2005. Even taking into account the relatively small sample of mostly female NYC dancers (1200, and to put this number in perspective there are over a 100 dancers in NYCB and something like 95 dancers in ABT and that is just two of the companies in NYC) in this survey, I agree the result and trend appears very heartening as far as education goes. I am also just very happy to know about the young volunteers who conducted this study–thank you!

    My personal experience has certainly reflected the results of both of these surveys (the NEA and the Dance/NYC) in that the dancers I know in NYC are as a whole more educated than the dancers I worked with in a regional company. But as in politics, I do think it is dangerous to let the progressive ideals of NY stand in as a trend for the entire country. There are in many ways just so many more educational and cultural opportunities in NYC, including the LEAP program I mentioned which is only available in the large urban centers of NYC, SF, and LA. However, as a ballet dancer, there often seems to be more stable job opportunities in the regional companies across America. When I moved back to NY, I made the choice to eschew full time dance work rather than move to another regional city. So now, we are potentially adding to this discussion a geographic disconnect between where there are full time dance jobs vs. where there is a larger cultural and educational opportunity for dancers. How to bridge this gap?

    And how does the larger “resonance” or non “resonance” for dance in the culture support this disconnect? How can community outreach and broader arts education in schools change this problem? How can dancers take on this problem, pushing for that kind of outreach and education that could ultimately support them more or those who will come after them, and be part of the ultimate solution? I can’t help but think the vast majority of our training, company, and programming models are outdated and tend to isolate dancers with each other and aficionados. But there is a whole world out there that we can start engaging………..

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