The Hustle—Economic Sustainability in the Arts Education Field (Part 1)

Posted by Ms. Erika Atkins, Heleya de Barros, Scott Austin, Jun 12, 2018

A short play:

Me: I want to go into the arts.
Teachers/Friends/Family: What’s your back-up?

All three of us have had this conversation in some form at various points in our lives. We did it anyways. Pay equity for race and gender have been at the forefront of many national conversations, which has led many in arts education to question our own pay structures. In this two-part blog, we explore three different points of view on how pay equity issues affect arts education professionals.

Teaching Artists

Many artists enter the teaching world as a way to earn additional income to support their artistic careers. However, the hustle of obtaining teaching artist gigs can start to become as difficult and time-consuming as landing professional artistic work. Furthermore, additional training outside of their artistry in special education; local, state, and national arts standards; arts integration; childhood development; and classroom management are preferred, if not required. This additional training and continued professional development, increasingly in the form of master’s degrees, does not always translate into a higher professional wage. In fact, many teaching artists in New York City aren’t even earning a living wage.

A recent study conducted by the Teaching Artist Affairs Committee of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable found that 75% of teaching artists in NYC earned $45,000 or less (inclusive of all sources of income). The Economic Policy Institute’s (EPI) Family Budget Calculator estimates a single person with no children needs an annual income of $51,323 in the New York metro area in order to attain a modest, yet adequate, standard of living. The average annual income for teaching artists surveyed in the NYC report was $38,185.

Perhaps the most striking statistic from the NYC study was that only 23% of surveyed teaching artists said they definitely planned to keep working as a teaching artist. The majority of teaching artist gigs do not include benefits necessary for long-term career planning such as health coverage, retirement saving options, or a guarantee of hours. There is also little to no opportunity for advancement or raises. Often teaching artists are paid the same rate whether they are seasoned pros or fresh out of school. Could greater pay equity and career sustainability lead to less turn-over in the field?

Public School Arts Teachers

One financially stable option for artists is to become a classroom teacher. A yearly salary takes us out of the gig economy and teachers have a strong union fighting for their benefits. With a pay scale based on a teacher’s years of experience and level of education, pay equity begins to seem like a non-issue. A science teacher and a dance teacher make the same salary based on factors other than their content areas. However, it is important to look at the disproportion in opportunities between teachers of different subjects. Simply put, there are fewer arts teachers than there are teachers of what are considered “core subjects.” The New York State School Board’s Association (NYSSBA) published an examination of teacher shortage that indicates recruitment lies in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields rather than the arts. How many of us spend our days teaching under multiple licenses because a full time drama teacher is not in the school’s budget?

Arts educators also face a lower rate of job security than teachers in other content areas. A 2013 study of Chicago City Schools showed that while only 4% of teachers in the city were employed in the arts, 10% of the teachers laid off were art or music teachers. Even with a growing economy, there is a prolonged decline in funding for public school dance and theater programs. According to the US Department of Education, the proportion of elementary schools offering art and music has recently dropped from 20% to 3% and 4%, respectively.

Arts Education Administrators

Arts education nonprofit administration is another attractive option for those who are looking for stability. However, early-career nonprofit arts administrators do not make a lot of money, and your job is likely several jobs wrapped into one. There is room for career growth and the ability to earn higher wages further in your career, but you will likely have to invest in a master’s degree and make other financial sacrifices along the way.

Nonprofit employees are often underpaid compared to their for profit equivalents. A recent survey done by PR News showed a communications professional at an agency makes up to 10% to 15% more than their nonprofit counterpart. Nonprofit arts education administrators fall even further to the bottom of that pay range. In a 2013 survey conducted by Americans for the Arts, employees with arts education positions at local state agencies were among the lower paid of those surveyed.

One of the reasons for this disparity is that general funding for nonprofit administrative costs can be hard to find. Due to private and public funders often restricting funding to programming costs and encouraging low administrative overhead costs for funding eligibility, many nonprofits try to generate more programming with reduced support—something researchers call the “nonprofit starvation cycle.” Additionally, grant money is often restricted from being used toward federal and state laws requiring overtime and paid family leave, and some organizations have to struggle to generate income to cover these cost. When the threshold for overtime pay was raised to $47,476 in 2016, it ruffled a lot of feathers in the nonprofit industry.

This results in a group of workers who are burnt out, who are struggling to execute quality arts education programming and effectively manage teaching artists and relationships with school partners. This often leads to increasing turnover rates, which ultimately costs organizations more to hire and train new staff.

We know the picture we painted may seem bleak, but there is work being done to address issues! In our next post, we’ll look at potential solutions to building sustainable careers in arts education.