Out of the Garret

A new study examines the real economic life of artists

Whatever became of starving artists? Was the legend of painters in garrets lit by 40-watt lightbulbs just a quaint cultural delusion? Or do they actually exist? If the '50s were last great soulful age of Cedar Bar bohos (with their toxic macho and hard-drinkin' gals), the Pop '60s heralded an era of unabashed materialists. Yet it wasn't until the '80s that American artists came into a collective

George Jefferson period, when all semblance of cultlike asceticism fell away.

No longer were artists ashamed to be seen moving up to the East Side. Hauling their loot home in wheelbarrows, they sunk their earnings into lofts and then buildings and then blocks and then towns. Often their houses were better documented than their art. And so, in many people's minds, the image of the contemporary artist morphed out of all recognition. In place of the impecunious genius scraping up a livelihood in some Loisaida bolt-hole, we got shelter magazine spreads on Philip Taafe's villa in Naples—and, later, his immense converted Chelsea schoolhouse where uniformed assistants scurry about. We got the assorted Manhattan and Montauk compounds of the art-world Bluto, Julian Schnabel, built to prop up his more protean fantasias. We got Jennifer Bartlett's Greenwich Village wonderland, whose Babylonian terraces were arranged by the society gardener Madison Cox. We saw Brice Marden's houses on St. Luke's Place and in Bucks County and on the Greek island of Hydra. We were treated to Calvin Klein's embrace of Minimalism in Marfa, the West Texas backwater snapped up virtually in its entirety by the late Donald Judd.

With his computer, fax, and cell phone, artist Michael  Joseph represents the inverse of the anarchic boho waving a palette knife.
Sylvia Plachy
With his computer, fax, and cell phone, artist Michael Joseph represents the inverse of the anarchic boho waving a palette knife.

True, there were famous artists living the old life. There was Vito Acconci, uncompromisingly hunkered anchorite-style in a loft below the Manhattan Bridge. And there was...well, Vito Acconci, whose loft's one concession to amenity was an inside toilet. There were others, of course. There are others still. But, as a study released this week by Columbia University's Research Center for Arts and Culture makes clear, the starving artist was always in large part myth. "American artists are overwhelmingly and squarely in the middle class," explains professor Joan Jeffri, an author of the study. "Even though they may not be making their living from their art so much as to support it."

Surveying 7700 artists in four cities, "Information on Artists II" followed by a decade a Columbia study that sought to establish benchmarks on the condition of American artists—their "income, education, community involvement, health coverage, legal and financial needs, technology, and professional status." The findings of both studies were both consistent and striking. With a mean age of 41, most artists surveyed were highly educated, had health insurance, and retirement plans. They had strong ties to their neighborhoods and, in many cases, had performed community service at rates that would qualify them handily for membership in the Kiwanis. They were Ozzie and Harriet with less colorful clothing and more Derrida on their bookshelves. As many as 75 percent owned computers. An even greater percentage held major credit cards. Still, adds Jeffri, "almost none of them said they were artists to get them. They figured, probably correctly, that if they told the truth, they'd be turned down."

It's in the disjunction between reality and perception that most contemporary artists find their limbo. On the national level, explains Jeffri, the perception is that "artists don't vote, don't work, don't contribute to society." Even among arts advocacy groups there persists an unbudging sense of artists as "wacky, alienated, and off the wall. People can't stand thinking about this group of people who're 'doing what they want.'"

Artists "doing what they want" are in actuality trying nothing more radical than to "work and live in society," as Jeffri says, for which read the middle class. "For example," she says, "people think that artists don't vote. All the arts administrators say, 'The last thing artists do is vote.'" Yet 70 percent of those surveyed voted at national, state, and local levels, more than three quarters of them as registered Democrats. And 30 percent were active in advocacy organizations. "You'd think that's the kind of thing that politicians would like to know when they're cutting budgets," Jeffri notes.

It will surprise no one to learn that white artists fare better than blacks and Hispanics at all levels of income. Figures showed that of 257 respondents who earned between $20,000 and $30,000, 78 percent were white, 5 percent black, and 5 percent Asian. A meager 2 percent were Hispanic. Curiously, says Jeffri, "non-Caucasians did better than whites in grants and awards." While this might mean that "all that foundation and institutional multiculuralism has had an effect," it could equally signal "that those multicultural artists got savvier faster." Any gains in grant-hustler status, however, were more than offset by the predictable and durable fact that, when it comes to applying for bank loans, lines of credit, mortgages, and credit cards, blacks and Hispanics are far likelier than whites and Asians to be turned down.

The majority of artists surveyed took home less than $30,000 a year. Tellingly, 45 percent of them derived less than $3000 of that income directly from their art. This figure won't come as news to that sizable population of New Yorkers who stubbornly persist in identifying themselves as artists while paying for the privilege by waiting tables and building bookcases in yuppie lofts. "Survivalists is what we are," says painter Marney Fuller. "We'll do anything to support ourselves when our art doesn't."

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