But those early years are key: A 2014 study of Census Bureau data from The Hamilton Project
found that fine arts majors are among the lowest-earning graduates, but their earnings trajectory is also among the steepest. Their initial earnings barely surpass $15,000, but more than double within the first five years of their careers, highlighting how critical financial support can be during those early twenty-something years. Art history majors make around $32,000 annually in the first year out of school, according to the study.
Internships, many of which are unpaid, present another barrier. When Guerrero worked at an arts nonprofit making $33,000 a year, two of her colleagues with similar responsibilities were unpaid interns.
Those unpaid internships help perpetuate inequality in the art world, says Tom Finkelpearl, the Commissioner for New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, helping those who can afford to work for free get their foot in the door.
“Every time you open the door for an unpaid internship, you’re closing the door on someone else,” says Finkelpearl, who received his MFA from New York’s public Hunter College and who is spearheading a number of initiatives to diversify New York’s cultural landscape.
Last year, the DCA and the City University of New York launched the CUNY Cultural Corps, a $1 million program to place over 70 CUNY students and recent graduates in paid internships across several dozen of the city’s cultural institutions. Corps members will earn $12 an hour and work up to 12 hours per week at places such as the Brooklyn Museum
, MoMA PS1
, and the Studio Museum in Harlem
Another New York institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, offers approximately 75 paid internships for high school students and 40 paid internships each year to college undergraduates, graduate students, and recent graduates. There are opportunities and funding designated for interns who come from backgrounds underrepresented in the museum community, and every intern is paired with a mentor. High school students also receive a transportation subsidy, intended to remove an often-overlooked barrier to participation.
One position, the Lifchez/Stronach Curatorial Internship, specifically targets students and recent graduates “whose economic background might jeopardize the pursuit of a career in the arts or museum field.” The nine-month program pays $21,000, or less than $16 an hour, plus health and retirement benefits.
Sandra Jackson-Dumont, chair of education at the Met (and the first person in her family to graduate from college), says getting the word out about these programs was as important as funding them.
“Awareness and outreach is still the number one problem,” she says, noting the museum had recently held an event with 500 professors from around 100 New York-area colleges and universities to help them use the museum as a teaching tool and spread the word about internship programs and other resources.
It’s not clear those efforts go far enough, though, in a city where the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment was nearly $2,700 in January 2017
, according to real estate website RentJungle. A living wage for a single adult in New York is $14.52 an hour, according to the living wage calculator
from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“The rents in New York City have increased substantially, but incomes for artists have not,” says
, an artist, teacher, and the editor of Living and Sustaining a Creative Life (2013)
, a collection of essays by artists. She points to efforts like the Minneapolis-based Artspace, which builds affordable housing for artists around the U.S., and which opened a space in East Harlem, New York, in 2014.
But Louden said the problem goes deeper than soaring rents. Low earnings across many sectors of the art world stem from Americans’ low esteem of the role culture plays in their lives, she says.
“If there was more value, and more understanding of the function of what the arts can do in society, I don’t think those numbers would occur,” she says. “The public doesn’t realize how [the arts] contributes to their well-being.”
To be sure, some people in the art world certainly do appreciate artists’ value, putting ever-higher price tags on works by certain superstars or long-dead masters.
That’s the part of the art world that Guerrero is keen to avoid. She’d still like to return to the art world, but not at a place where she feels excluded or tokenized.
“I could never work at an art gallery again,” she says, describing an environment “driven by people who cannot imagine or fathom” her life experience. That included her long daily commute to and from the Bronx, not always feeling safe in her neighborhood, or the fact that her father, although loving and supportive, understood little of what her career in the arts entailed. She sees herself at a more socially-oriented institution, such as the Studio Museum in Harlem
, or the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute.
“When the right opportunity comes my way, then I will gladly seize it,” she said. “But it has to fit. It has to be right.”