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Why Is ‘Starving Artist’ Even a Thing?

March 8, 2024
By Althea Erickson

Althea Erickson is the Founder of Working Matters, an independent research, policy and advocacy firm focused on building systems of support and protection that enable people to thrive as whole humans. Althea is an expert on labor and social protections for the self-employed and a seasoned advocacy professional with over 20 years experience starting and leading advocacy teams, serving as Etsy’s Vice President of Global Public Policy and Impact, and Advocacy Director at Freelancers Union, among other roles. 

Althea began collaborating with Creatives Rebuild New York through her recent work helping the Center for Cultural Innovation stand up an advocacy program focused on building protections for arts and other gig workers, and currently participates in CRNY’s Artist Employment Working Group. 


Given all the time I’ve spent advocating for creative types, I often wonder why there isn’t a stronger labor movement in the arts. Outside the entertainment unions, which clocked some big wins for writers and actors through the WGA and SAG strikes last year, and the recent uptick in museum worker unionization, the broader arts sector remains largely unorganized.

This is especially true for folks in the Arts with a capital A (think fine artists, performing artists, and the like). I spent the last 18 months helping to stand up an advocacy program focused on building protections for arts and other gig workers, and was surprised to find very few artist-led organizations fighting for better working conditions.

Because let’s be clear, working conditions for artists are pretty dismal. One survey of creative workers in the US found that even before the pandemic, creative workers were three times as likely to live in poverty than the general population, 34% lacked comprehensive health insurance, and only 8% had access to paid leave.

It’s not much better in Europe, where despite a stronger safety net, a recent report from the European Parliament showed that artists don’t have access to those protections. New data from New Zealand tells the same story. Creative work is precarious work.

The community organizer in me believes that changing working conditions for artists has to start with building power among them. We need strong, effective organizations fighting to improve working conditions for arts workers, led by arts workers.

So what’s standing in the way?

Some people argue that it’s exceptionally hard to organize arts workers because they don’t identify as workers. Others point to the independent nature of artists, which undermines efforts to get them to join in collective efforts.

I don’t buy those arguments. In my experience, organizing ANYONE is difficult. You have to spend real time building relationships and listening to people with your best listening ears (as I tell my kids). And it takes time–a long time. Plus, I see a whole lot of artists joining and leading social movements of all kinds. Arts workers can be organizers and can be organized. That’s not the problem.

There’s also the challenge of building collective power in a group that doesn’t have a single employer. And that’s fair. Arts workers are more than three times more likely to be self-employed than the general workforce.

The history of organizing artists supports these concerns, to an extent. The Artists Union, which flourished from 1933 to 1942, successfully organized artists as workers around artist employment delivered through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). But when WPA funding dried up (and their single employer disappeared), the organization did too.

So yes, the underlying structure of the sector is a challenge. But the entertainment unions and professional guilds offer one model to consider. Proposals around sectoral bargaining offer another. In that vein, the folks at WAGE are doing really cool work around setting pay standards in the industry across multiple employing institutions. And the Music Workers Alliance is doing important deep organizing of independent musicians.

There ARE models out there. So why can’t we scale them?

Let’s not underestimate the power of money.

In my experience, one of the biggest challenges standing in the way of organizing arts workers is the lack of funding to support it. So many of the artist-led groups I’ve met over the last few years are either all-volunteer run, or can barely afford one full time staff member. That’s simply not enough people to build long-term power.

Alexis Frasz just published a great article encouraging funders to support cultural strategies for community power building in grassroots organizations. I couldn’t agree more. She also shared a stat that floored me – only 3% of all philanthropic dollars goes to grassroots organizing. That’s bananas.

If we want a society that works for people, we need to build it with people. Right?

But I’m not laying this all at the feet of funders.

The truth is, we need to build artist-led organizations that fund and sustain themselves without depending on philanthropic support. David Rolf has written very persuasively on this topic, arguing:

“Successful worker organizations and networks have three features in common: power, scale, and sustainable revenue. Successful models do not need all three components at the outset. However, they do need strategies to achieve all three over time.”

Ultimately, strong labor movements DO need to fund themselves to remain accountable to the workers and viable as a long-term container for worker power.

That said, we could definitely use a real jump start from the philanthropists.

Funders within and outside the arts could really help get things moving. Over the last several months, I’ve attended and led several conversations on these topics, and I came away with a few conclusions.

First, arts funders need to expand their notion of their work to include supporting the people who make the arts, not just the art itself. They should not attempt to build things from scratch (please no), but they should find and support the groups who are already doing the work, and give them the means to build their organizations.

Likewise, labor funders need to recognize arts workers as true workers, deserving of the same rights and representation as any other workers, and incorporate them into their portfolios. Together, they could give long-term, general operating support to artist-led organizations to build meaningful power.

Folks working in the arts are, by definition, creative! With enough financial runway to focus on organizing strategies that actually work in this diverse sector, I believe we can innovate new, sustainable models of collective power building that work not just for creatives, but for workers across a bunch of different sectors.

Now that’s some creative world building I could get behind.