How Artists Are Weathering the Student Debt Crisis
By art-world standards, Dionne Lee’s career has taken off this year. A solo show of the Oakland-based artist’s largely photographic and video-based work, exploring her personal relationship to the American landscape (folding in issues around race, power, and an environment in decline), was an Artforum critics’ pick in July. She teaches photography at Stanford University and the San Francisco Art Institute, and was a finalist for both the 2019 San Francisco Artadia Awards and SFMOMA’s SECA Art Award. Yet despite her recent successes, she’s been unable to pay down her student loan debt. When she graduated from California College of the Arts with an MFA in 2017, Lee estimates her cumulative debt from both undergraduate and graduate studies was roughly $90,000, despite having worked three jobs while in grad school. For a long time, her calculated income-based repayment amount was $0; she started paying off her loans again a couple of years ago, but the interest keeps accumulating.
Lee’s situation is far from unique. The growing student debt crisis in the U.S. has become a major talking point in the past few years, and in recent months, Democratic presidential hopefuls have debated whether some (or all) student debt should be forgiven. Student loan debt affects graduates (and dropouts) across all manner of major and degree program. But it hits particularly hard those who study the arts, humanities, and other fields that are less likely to lead to lucrative careers than, say, law school or an MBA. Art-school students may be one of the most extreme examples of this phenomenon.
According to a new study by the Clark Hulings Fund for Visual Artists, artists are more educated than the overall workforce: In 2014, 60 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 39 percent of all workers. The average cost of an arts education in 2010–11 was $40,000 per year after grants and scholarships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in 2014, 35 percent of recent art-school graduates said debt had a “major impact” on their educational and career decisions. How exactly does that “major impact” play out in their lives and work? Do they think their education was worthwhile, even if it means they might be paying it off the rest of their lives? Can they imagine a debt-free future?
Lives dictated by debt
While Albuquerque-based photographer Marie-Pier Frigon was studying at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, she worked two jobs in order to keep her loans down. Even so, when she graduated with a BFA from the notorious for-profit college in 2017, she owed more than $160,000 in student loans. Because her parents met a certain income threshold, all her loans are privately held, and there’s no income-based repayment option. She said she now pays $1,400 every month—half her salary working as a communications associate at a nonprofit. In addition to her full-time job, Frigon also works at a photo processing lab, tutors photography privately, and even donates plasma to make ends meet. (She created a GoFundMe page to help raise money, but she says it hasn’t been going well thus far.)
Frigon says her debt “projected me into a more serious career than I would’ve done.” She loves her current job at the nonprofit, but if it weren’t for her debt, Frigon would restructure her life to carve out more time for photography. For now, she says she barely has enough time to cook healthy meals, exercise, or see her friends, much less for creative work. She has 20 years to pay off her loans, which, with compiling interest, will more than double by the time she does so.
For people with federal student loans, there’s an option (at least theoretically) to get their debt forgiven after 10 years of full-time work at a nonprofit. But the bureaucracy around the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is so murky and convoluted that 99 percent of applicants are rejected. After working in art-school admissions for eight years (and paying loans toward forgiveness for three years), Portland, Oregon–based artist Jana Rumberger checked on her status for forgiveness, only to discover that all that time, she’d been “on the wrong payment plan,” and had to start from square one. Although Rumberger has paid between $200 and $900 every month since she graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 1999, the total amount of her debt—roughly $140,000 (which also includes an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2007)—“hasn’t gone down much,” she said. At the age of 40, she completely changed career paths, and now works as a content manager for an e-commerce platform.
Jana Rumberger. Change in Public and Private Tuition, Changes in Early Tuition Salary and Minimum Wage, 1986-2016, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
For those who are unable to pay back their loans at all and end up defaulting on their payments, there’s a lingering threat of wage garnishment. “I knew as a woman-of-color experimental filmmaker without family money that I was never going to make money,” said Brooklyn-based Miki Foster, who got her MFA from the University of California–Santa Cruz in 2009. But it came as a complete surprise when, in 2013, her employer informed her that 15 percent of her paycheck would be withheld to pay off her debt, which she said has since grown from $74,000 to $109,000. As Foster put it, in terms of financial worth, she has “accumulative negative value.” She works full-time for a labor union, a job she thought would provide her with more financial stability. And while she was able to stop that first garnishment of wages (an extremely complicated process), it started again a couple of months ago. Now Foster watches as about $500 disappears from her paycheck every month.
“The whole thing is a pernicious trap,” she said, adding that while she’s again trying to appeal the wage garnishment, she’s also thinking about starting a Ph.D. program—and then another, and then another. If she’s perpetually in school (and federal loans aren’t in repayment), she can avoid this happening again.
Artistic practices impacted by debt
While artists (and recent graduates of all kinds) have been known to suffer financially in the first years after college, the student-debt crisis has only made matters worse. Among artists who are able to make time to work on their creative practices, applying to group exhibitions with entry fees can prove prohibitive, as can many residency programs that charge participants a fee (or taking the time off work to attend one of the free ones). And when artists unable to afford studio space work out of their apartments, limited space and resources also affect the kind of work they make. Foster, for example, said she’s “very frugal in the scope of work that I do,” which means lots of collaborations and informal contracts, which are not paid as well and are hard to get credit for. “I’m a good cast member in an ensemble,” she said.
Grand Rapids–based artist E.J. Cobb, who said her student debt from a BA and MFA totals about $175,000, has to be “very conscious of how much money I spend on art supplies and stretch it as far as possible.” She likes to use concrete in her sculptural work, but doesn’t have room to do larger projects; even if she did, she wouldn’t have the means to transport them. “In some ways, it’s made me more resourceful,” she added. “Lots of stuff I made in grad school was small, and I make works that require little money. My MFA thesis project was made mostly with donated barn wood, a digital camera, and performance.”
Rumberger, who has always worked out of a studio in her apartment—“My house is basically a studio with a bed,” she said—populated her last solo show with miniatures, partly because she didn’t have room to make anything much larger.
As for residencies, Cobb said the one time she went on one, she was so stressed about how much money it was costing her to take time off work, drive there, and feed herself that she wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as she’d hoped. She was offered another residency recently, but had to turn it down due to a lack of paid time off from her job in a college registrar’s office.
“I’ve never done a residency simply because it’s not practical,” said Adrian Coleman, a painter and architect living in London, who graduated from Columbia University in 2012 with $120,000 in student loan debt. He said he now has $19,000 remaining. “The benefit of my restrictions is that I am forced to make sacrifices in order to paint. If I had limitless resources and time, I might not go about it with the same urgency or earnestness.”
How people think about their debt
As much as student debt is a financial burden, it’s also an emotional one. Feelings of anxiety, shame, guilt, stress, and anger around student debt are particularly common. People can become obsessed with the amount of their debt: The numbers are always in the back of their minds, and they can’t help thinking about their debt every day. “Debt is the first thing I think about when I wake up, and the last thing I think about before I go to sleep,” said artist-turned-activist Thomas Gokey, who currently owes a little under $37,000. “Debt has taken more than a few years of my life.”
Frank Blazquez, an Albuquerque-based photographer who graduated in 2018 and has yet to start paying off his roughly $40,000 in student loans, described debt as a “heavy yoke.” A double major in photojournalism and history, Blazquez expressed relief that the student-debt crisis isn’t as bad as the debtors’ prisons in the 18th century, a comparison he said often comes up in conversations with his peers. But, he added, “Me and my friends would spend a couple weeks in jail to get rid of thousands of dollars in debt.”
Frank Blazquez, Miranda , Albuquerque, NM. Blasquez writes, “Miranda is a homeless teenager living in New Mexico's War Zone district. I captured her portrait to magnify the poverty epidemic in this area of Albuquerque, NM.” Courtesy of the artist.
Frigon said she feels like she “literally bought a house when I was 18.” What makes her feel worse is the fact that her parents had to cosign her loans—if she were to be late on a payment or default, it would affect her parents’ credit and financial standing. Gokey concurred. “The thing that kills me the most is that my parents went into debt to send me to undergrad,” he said. “Debt is toxic. It’s material harm.”
Rumberger said that for a long time, she didn’t know exactly how much her debt was, and she didn’t want to know. “I couldn’t handle thinking about it,” she said. “I was angry for about three years, mostly at the system.”
“I went to grad school at a time when the art market was surging and art fairs were proliferating,” said Brooklyn-based sculptor and performance artist Noah Fischer. “I thought my debt was an investment.” Graduating in 2004 with an MFA from Columbia University, Fischer found himself $70,000 in debt. He’s been able to pay off almost half of it over the years. He said he’s been lucky, with a good real-estate situation and a wife with a good job. These days, he sees his debt as just another bill to pay.
A kind of reconciliation
“I know I’ll never make enough money to pay off my loans,” said Lee, the CCA grad based in Oakland. “It’s a forever bill, like an electricity bill. It’s never going to go away, and I’d rather enjoy my life. I’m not going to give 40 percent of my income to my debt.” After years of feeling ashamed about not having money, she said she now welcomes conversations about debt.
“Debt is so tied up in how your family thinks about money,” she said, adding that her family’s view of private colleges as superior to public colleges led to her decision to attend a private college, amassing a lot of debt in the process. “It depends on your financial background how you respond to debt,” she said.
Houston-based fiber artist Rachelle Vasquez concurred. “I grew up not having a lot of money, so the worry about money is always there, but it’s not a stresser,” she said. “The only way I could have gone to school was by taking out loans.”
Vasquez started out at the University of Houston studying photography, but she felt there were too many constraints to being a studio-art major and was worried the degree wouldn’t lead to a stable career. She worked full time at pet stores, veterinary clinics, and her own pet-sitting company during the seven years it took her to get her art education degree, but she still left with $25,000 in debt in 2005. Paying about $200 every month, she’s now got it down to around $10,000.
But even for people who have chosen not to stress over their debt, the vastness of the issue is unavoidable. “Going into my MFA, I knew I was never going to pay,” said Cassie Thornton, an artist and self-styled “feminist economist” who got her MFA from the California College of the Arts and is now based in Ontario. She said her student debt now totals $120,000. “My main problem is the thing below debt: individualism and fear.”
Putting your debt to work
Thornton has been making art about debt for years. In fact, she recently found some of her old childhood drawings of a “superhero credit guy who could save you with debt.” Thornton, who was raised by a single mother, said she became familiar with the concepts of credit and debt from a very young age. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, she was living in New York, and she started making work related to debt (again).
Thornton has created dozens of debt-related projects over the years, many of them social practice projects that help people visualize their debt as something more tangible and somewhat less daunting. She started these “debt visualizations” in grad school, using hypnosis on her fellow students to get them to describe their debt as physical objects. Many people described their debt as foreboding architecture, smoke, or a growing fungus. One person imagined a Richard Serra sculpture, so Thornton started giving tours of Serra’s work as visualizations of debt. She even wrote Serra a letter, proposing he reclaim one of his scrapped pieces, name it Debt, sell it, and use the proceeds to pay off student loan debt. (Serra never responded, she said.) Thornton’s more recent visualization projects have included an audio tour “through an obstacle course of malfunctioning supports” and “feminist economics yoga,” classes that seek to reclaim the spiritual practice from the clutches of capitalism.
Like Thornton, many other artists felt a need to make activist work in the wake of the financial crisis. Artists were key figures in the Occupy Wall Street movement, as well as its artist-founded offshoot, Occupy Museums. One of Occupy Museums’s ongoing projects, Debtfair—which featured prominently in the 2017 Whitney Biennial—seeks to “expose the relationship between economic inequality in the art market and artists’ growing debt burdens.” Through calls for artists, Debtfair gathers images of artworks and artist answers to questions related to how people’s debt affects their lives and work. (Many artists interviewed for this article have participated in Debtfair.) All images and answers are posted on the Debtfair website, and submitted works are “bundled based on financial rather than aesthetic or conceptual relationships,” as artist and Occupy Museums core member Tal Beery put it, reflecting the way debt itself is sold and traded. Bundles are selected for periodic gallery exhibitions, where each is priced according to its creators’ monthly debt payments. Beery said he feels lucky he was able to pay off his $30,000 in loan debt in 13 years. He added that he’s glad Debtfair has been able to build solidarity in the arts around personal struggles with debt.
Installation view of Occupy Museums, “Debtfair,” 2017, in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Photo by Bill Orcutt. Courtesy of the artists.
Fischer is also a core member of Occupy Museums and one of the organizers of Debtfair. He’d been making political work for a long time, but after Occupy Wall Street, he “shifted away from the gallery,” he said, burning his contract with his dealer in an act of protest and diving head-first into activism instead. He said his work with Occupy Museums has been cathartic, especially given the shame he felt around his own debt and “what appeared to be a lack of success in capitalism.”
Gokey also co-founded an activist organization around debt. The Debt Collective is a membership organization that seeks to help people dispute debts of all kinds. The organization works a lot with student debt, specifically from for-profit colleges, and is probably best known for its role in organizing and informing former Corinthian Colleges students. But Gokey was making work about debt years before Debt Collective. In his last year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s sculpture MFA program, he was able to procure a box of shredded money from the Federal Reserve equal to the amount of his debt at the time: $49,983. He pulped the cash, made it into four sheets of paper, and priced each sheet at a little over $12,000. He would also cut the paper down, selling a single square inch at $4.22. (Gokey says the work is still for sale, divided as the buyer wishes.)
Dionne Lee, meanwhile, sees her work around the relationships of Black Americans with the country’s landscape as already “having to do with debt in a certain way.” She pointed out that after the Civil War, very few formerly enslaved people were given the 40 acres and a mule that the U.S. government had promised. “It was the original broken promise that sets the tone for how people relate to spaces,” she says. As she sees it, investment in education is just the latest in a long list of broken promises.
A debt-free future?
Lee said she never expects to be debt-free, but she hopes that at some point, the government will step in to do something about the crisis. Rumberger and Cobb feel similarly. “It’s really hard to imagine paying off my loans,” Cobb said. “When I think of my debt in total numbers, it makes me laugh a lot…or cry a lot.” Foster sees debt in general as a form of “vulture capitalism,” and wishes people would stop paying as a means of rebelling against the current financial system.
When asked about the dream projects they would pursue if they didn’t have the burden of student debt, many artists replied with perfectly reasonable goals. Frigon said that “being able to scale back to just one job is the dream”; she added that she would rent a studio so she could work on a bigger scale. Cobb wants to travel to both idyllic and hellish places to photograph a series on contemporary readings of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Lee would also like to travel—to the Deep South to talk to people who have a lineage of slavery and who own and work off the land there.
Rachelle Vasquez can see herself paying off her remaining $10,000 in 10 years, but she doesn’t see her life changing much. “I love teaching, but maybe I could cut down to just one job,” she said. She also looks forward to prioritizing more experimental work, and not necessarily work she knows will sell; she’s been making a lot of scarves to sell online to help pay her loans.
Fischer said he could see himself paying off his loans “when I’m very old,” but at that point, he also expects to have other kinds of debt, from buying a house or his daughter going to college. Coleman hopes to be done paying off his loans next year, but with a baby on the way, “the money I was diverting to loans may just end up in childcare.” For Coleman and countless others, the cycle of debt has become virtually impossible to escape.
Regrets and the broader impact of debt
Despite their often-depressing answers to questions about how student debt affects their lives, not one of the dozen artists interviewed for this story said they regretted their art education. Some wished they’d chosen a different school, but none regretted going to school in the first place or the subjects they chose to study.
“There’s an aura of privilege around student debt versus other kinds of debt,” Fischer said, “and there are more pressing issues that demand attention that are less abstract, like detaining kids at the U.S.–Mexico border.”
Yet student debt remains a huge problem, and several artists said they saw it as part of a larger means of systemic oppression, especially considering the convoluted nature of the bureaucracy surrounding it. This, they reasoned, is why it’s important for people to talk about their debt, create a community around it, and crush the misconception that people in debt “have behaved irresponsibly, and that their debt is their fault alone,” as Beery put it.
“Debt has political power,” Gokey added. “It connects us.”