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Wealth Is a Strong Predictor of Whether an Individual Pursues a Creative Profession

Asweeping survey of 160 years of U.S. demographic data suggests individuals from wealthy families are more likely to pursue careers in creative fields than those from lower-income households.

As Karol Jan Borowiecki, an economist at the University of Southern Denmark, writes in a recent study, someone whose family has an income of $100,000 is twice as likely to become an artist, actor, musician or author than a would-be creative with a family income of $50,000. Raise annual income to $1 million and $100,000, respectively, and the stakes become even higher, with members of the first household nearly 10 times more likely to choose a creative profession than those from the second. Overall, Borowiecki posits, every additional $10,000 in total income, or pre-tax earnings of immediate family members, makes a person two percent more likely to enter a creative field.

The logic behind this math isn’t hard to comprehend: Money’s Kristen Bahler puts it bluntly, “Devoting yourself to the life of a ‘starving artist’ is a lot less risky if your family has enough money to make sure you don’t actually starve.”

In 2017, The New York Times’ Quoctrung Bui quantified this phenomenon using surveys of individuals in their first decade of adulthood. According to Bui’s report, 53 percent of 20-somethings pursuing careers in art and design receive a financial bump from their parents, as opposed to 47 percent of STEM professionals and, at the other end of the spectrum, 29 percent of those working in farming, construction, retail and personal services. On average, parental assistance received by young creatives totaled $3,600 annually; for those in personal services, this figure was closer to $2,200, while for blue collar and military professionals, it amounted to $1,400.

Major obstacles for individuals in creative fields include high entry costs and low financial return.

“Someone who wants to go into graphic design … requires a fair amount of time to get up to the point where you’re independent,” said Patrick Wightman, a researcher at the University of Arizona, who helped Bui analyze the data. “Someone contemplating that kind of career isn’t going to take that first step unless they know they’re going to have that support to take an unpaid internship. If you don’t have other sources of support, that’s not even an option.”

As Artsy’s Anna Louie Sussman points out, private arts schools charge high tuition and offer fewer scholarships than universities with large endowments. Entry-level jobs, particularly in art hubs like New York City, pay little or, in the case of many internships, nothing.

In January 2016, Ben Davis of artnet News, spurred by an email reminding him of video artist Rachel Rose’s family real estate fortune, wrote an article outlining various creatives’ financial backgrounds. He found, for example, that the late Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, an Iranian artist known for her intricate mirrored mosaics, enjoyed what the Financial Times terms a “privileged upbringing” as the child of wealthy merchants whose father was elected to the country’s parliament. Yoko Ono, meanwhile, is the granddaughter of the founder of Japan’s Yasuda Bank, while late multimedia artist Dash Snow hailed from the De Menil family, which New York’s Ariel Levy once likened to “the closest thing to the Medicis in the United States.”