the financial reality of a career in art in nyc

We speak to five 20-somethings -- from full time gallery assistants to freelance filmmakers -- about how they make money work in New York’s art world.

by Emily Manning
19 January 2016, 5:50pm

In the first installment of this financed-focused series, we rounded up five young creatives in the fashion industry and asked them to get real about money. We wanted to know how much they make, how they make it, what they spend it on, and why they continue to work in an industry that keeps them teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Now, we're exploring how young people working in New York's art world finance their lives and creative ambitions.

Though New York City was once the United States' creative hub for emerging artists, today's young talents are increasingly moving out of the five boroughs and on to cities like Los Angeles, due to the rapidly rising costs of living and working. Can New York continue to be an artistic hotbed even as artists, gallerists and scholars flee? Under conditions of relative anonymity, five 20-something creatives working across art sound off about the financial realities of life in New York after graduation. Their situations span from supportive parents to flying solo with considerable student loan debts and steadily rising rents. Here, they sound off on their struggles, triumphs, questions, and hopes:


Rho, 25, painter

I graduated from the School of Visual Arts with a BFA and concentrated in painting. After receiving a small scholarship, my education was mostly financed by student loans. I owe $30,000 to the government and owe over $150,000 in private loans. Due to income based repayment, the payments are $300 a month, one loan is in deferment and I am solely responsible for repaying. It was stressful to learn that in most cases, you have to have a parent cosign loans. I wanted to go to college and not put additional debt on my family. My parent is moving and their house is in foreclosure, partially because of their own student debt and partially because of mine and my siblings' cosigned loans. The price of being educated is high and it's unfortunate.

Immediately after graduating, I freelanced for a few painters and professors as a studio assistant. The pay was $100-200 a shift and I was able to make rent working a week out of the month. After about six months, the feeling of wanting something permanent set in. I began working for a small company in Williamsburg. It's retail, but I'm a project manager and have had a ton of creative opportunities and room to grow. My income started out at $20,000/year, then I was hired full time at $35,000. I've since gotten a few promotions and make $50,000/year. My salary gives enough room to pay bills, buy art materials, and get the groceries I want. Being full time isn't ideal because the ratio of making art to work is way off balance. But it's satisfying when I get to paint, and I usually work on multiple pieces at once. I think about money once a day (not nearly as much as I used to).

My apartment is in a pretty dangerous neighborhood that borders East New York. There's a lot of gang activity and shootings, but the NYPD have increased monitoring over the area. I lived in different parts of Bushwick for the past seven years, and have been priced out of a few places. I chose space and price over anything else; I'm now living in a three bedroom with one roommate for $1500/month. With this recent raise, I'm able to move out of the studio I was using in my apartment and have an outside studio. Being from New York originally, painting is the only reason I've stayed in the city and it's exciting to have more space to do that.


George, 23, gallery assistant

I'm an assistant at a contemporary art non-profit. I attended a private university and double majored in Art History and American Studies. I was lucky enough to attend a university that employed grants instead of loans for financial aid. Anything I got from my university, I never had to pay back. Everything else was paid for by my parents; I graduated debt-free. I knew I was never going be making the money of a Comp Sci or Econ major, but I still knew that I wanted a full-time, decent paying job. Considering I'm at an entry level position, I feel as though I make enough to be comfortable. That being said, I have plans to move into positions in the art world that are considered well-paying. They do exist!

I make slightly lower than $40k per year, or about 2k per month once taxes are taken out. My parents supplement this with $600 per month for rent and other practical expenses which is unbelievably generous. I don't have any second jobs at the moment, but I am seriously considering doing some arts writing on the side in preparation for attending grad school abroad full time.

My rent is $1,450; I live in Chinatown with a roommate. I chose to live there because it's close to galleries, my job and places I go out. I walk everywhere. I probably get on the subway once a week -- sometimes longer spans of time. I pitch in about $75 a month to cable, which I loathe. Groceries are about $150 per month, and I've also started buying some art, which takes up a solid chunk of my paycheck. My parents view it as an investment too, so they help a bit, but I am lucky to be know dealers who will give a slight discount and allow me to pay in small installments over a long period of time.

I'm really trying to become a more frugal person, but that ultimately requires a fundamental shift in my personality-- which is hard! There is a significant amount of extreme wealth in the art world, so it really warps your perception of what normal finances are for a 20-something.

The current economic situation in the art world is pretty bleak, but not entirely hopeless. In order to dedicate time to developing a practice, you have to have a degree of financial security and for many aspiring artists, that isn't possible. Social media has an upside in that it doesn't cost anything; it provides a free platform to showcase your work. But being able to afford a Yale MFA will still take you farther than plugging away at an arts degree at a community college and that sucks. In addition to working toward racial diversity in exhibitions (which is still in dire need of improvement), curators should consider economic diversity. Providing opportunities to those who may not have them otherwise is essential.


Cleo, 25, editor and filmmaker

I graduated from Tisch School of the Arts in Manhattan with a degree in Cinema Studies and Documentary. I deferred for a year after high school and graduated when I was 23. I received a $26,000 scholarship from my school each year but took out approximately $15,000 in student loans (Federal, Stafford, and unsubsidized), for a total debt of about $60,000 for four years of college. My parents generously paid the remainder of my tuition, $20,000 annually, while I was in school. My monthly contribution to my remaining debt is a little over $1,000 a month.

I interned at a non-profit dedicated to artists' books and as an editorial assistant at an art magazine while in college. Both were unpaid, although I received a small stipend from the latter and was eventually offered a position as their first-ever video producer. Upon graduation, I began interning at a non-profit media arts center (which did not pay but gave me access to free workshops, equipment rentals, and master classes), a small, independent documentary film distribution company (where I worked for minimum wage before becoming a designer), and a film magazine (with an all-volunteer, unpaid staff) at the same time. Within six months, I was immensely fortunate to be hired.

I now split my week as the art and web director of the distribution company and work in public programs at the media arts center to provide low-cost filmmaker services to the New York community. In addition to my full-time schedule and freelance video work at the magazine, I also irregularly shoot and edit videos for art galleries, edit documentaries, and am the web director at the film magazine. Unfortunately, because I am part-time at two companies and freelance at the rest, I do not receive any benefits (paid vacation, health insurance, retirement plans).

I earn $18 an hour at my primary part-time jobs, which estimates to a little over $35,000 a year before taxes. I am much better compensated as a freelancer. With my freelance work, I probably make a total income somewhere between $40-45,000 each year, but I work my ass off and am rarely able to truly relax. Even when I take a night off and do not come home to hours more of work, the work and deadlines still lurk in the back of my mind, causing me to feel guilty and anxious. It's taking a toll on my physical and mental health, as well as my relationships with my family and friends.

I share an $1,900 apartment with my boyfriend of three years, so we each pay $950. After bills (gas, electricity, internet, monthly MetroCard), I spend the majority of my money on food. Most of my main source of income goes towards rent, bills, and food and then I try to save as much of my freelance income as possible. Since I'll be turning 26 in a couple months, I am no longer on my family's health insurance and will have to begin paying my own insurance each month, an additional $150-200.

I lived in Bushwick for six or seven years. I shared three apartments off the Morgan L stop, then spent a year off Jefferson, and a year off Dekalb. Each year, the rent grew more expensive, pushing me deeper into Bushwick and into smaller apartments. This past fall, I bid farewell to Bushwick and moved south to Sunset Park. Although the rent is no cheaper at my current place, the quality of life is much higher: I live in a one-bedroom in a two-family brownstone, near parks, the waterfront, and surrounded by families.

I'm about to enter my third year out of college, and I still have not made my film. It is hard not to question -- daily -- whether I am making the right choice by filling all my hours with work to save money instead of doing what I really want to do. My hope is that I will one day find a job (ONE job) that will compensate me enough so that I don't have to freelance and can spend my extra hours researching and writing instead. Of course, the cost of living in New York is extremely high and goes hand-in-hand with my struggle to be creative. I fight to be creative at my jobs simply so that I do not feel completely depressed about not having the opportunity to be creative outside of work. So I write, film, edit, and design at work, all the while feeling empty that I am approaching my late twenties and have not made something that I can be really proud of.


Alex, 24, gallery assistant

I'm a gallery assistant at a non-profit contemporary art gallery. I attended the School of Visual Arts and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with minors in Art History and Art Theory. I was lucky enough to have my education financed by my family and graduated with minimal student loans that I took out to build my credit in my freshman year. My monthly earnings are about $2,500 and come from two jobs (plus support from my family when needed). In total, I don't make more than $35,000 a year on my own, so I am not where I want to be financially -- to say the least.

I live in Ridgewood, Queens, but previously have lived in neighborhoods in both Manhattan and Brooklyn. My two roommates and I chose this neighborhood because of the size of our apartment, cost of living, and its proximity to Manhattan, where I currently work. My rent is $700 plus utilities; nothing is included. New York and its cost of living stresses me out at times and that can put a damper on my creative output, but New York is also what inspires me. I am very grateful for my job in art that allows me to think critically about my interests, and my future. I probably won't be the millionaire I saw my future self being in my early teens, but at least I enjoy what I do.


Eric, 27, cinematographer

I studied film and video at a private arts college in Manhattan, with a focus on cinematography. While I did take out loans to help pay for it, I'm extremely lucky to have had my dad offer to cover some of the costs. I took a year off after high school trying to figure out what I wanted to do next, and when I got the idea in my head to study film I decided to kind of just pursue it blindly and see where it lead. It was either that, or continue living at home and working in a grocery store.

I currently make my living solely as a freelance cinematographer/videographer, and make around $60,000 a year. I am as stringent as possible when it comes to saving money, and funnel most of my monthly income into any essential costs first. My rent is $825, with collected bills around $340. I spend about $300-$400 a month on groceries, but I almost never go out to eat anymore and have learned to make what I buy last, so it definitely ends up saving me a lot more in the long run. Then there's the $116.50 monthly Metrocard, and anywhere between $50-$200 for various equipment/supply expenses. I still allow myself some fun money, but these days if I go out it's usually just to the movies or a concert, which averages out to about $75-$100 a month. Whatever's left over, I put into savings.

I live in Bed-Stuy right now: I love the area, and when I first moved out here it was definitely one of the best values I could find in terms of space, price, and location. It still mostly meets those criteria, but we all know how Brooklyn real estate is changing: my part of the neighborhood directly borders both Williamsburg and Bushwick, so I'm constantly waiting for the day that I get priced out of here. And while I do like my apartment, I still have three other roommates, and the space is constantly treading a very fine line between cozy and stifling.

Though I'm doing fine right now, I still constantly worry about my finances. New York is a merciless, money-sucking monster, one that only grows in size and appetite each day. And while I do love freelancing, I also realize its risks. Clients can always shop around for someone else, I could get injured and be out of commission for months, the list goes on. But my creative output is definitely where I feel the city's fiscal death grip the most. While I do get paid to basically just play with cameras every day, the content is often less than stimulating. I always joke that I made the mistake of choosing the most expensive of all art forms: making movies, or even web videos, creatively is not cheap, especially when there's rarely any money involved. This past year I was lucky enough to shoot several short films with my friends, but it was the first time since graduation that I really got to work on anything fun or meaningful, and we all had to balance it around our already-full work schedules in order to justify the lack of pay.

New York can be an expensive, oppressive, soul-crushing hell hole, but it still can afford some great opportunities if you're able to find them. And while I absolutely cannot imagine settling down here (I keep telling myself "out by 30"), for the time being, it'll do.

Read more in our Creatives Talk Money series here


Text Emily Manning
Photograph © Nic Lehoux, The Whitney Museum of American Art

creatives talk money