In the SNAAP study of arts alumni who have graduated over the past three or more decades, this statistic has always stood out: 84% of respondents from the United States are White Non-Hispanic. This snapshot of art school graduates is uncannily echoed by a similarly timed study of museum workers: 84% of museum directors and curators are White.

We suggest that exclusion in the arts is likely an intersectional problem, in the sense intersectionality was first defined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to describe the ways in which social problems can only be understood by looking simultaneously at race/ethnicity, class, and gender. Taking this intersectional approach, we analyzed the 2015 – 2017 SNAAP data to identify potential underlying effects among alumni of undergraduate arts programs.

We made three key discoveries: First, we observed what we termed an attrition effect,” in which we saw differences across the racial and ethnic identities of alumni in the number who said they wanted to be artists when they were undergraduate students relative to those who actually went to work in the arts or as artists after college. Second, we identified what we have called a privilege effect” in which we identified racial/ethnic differences in markers of a socioeconomic safety net, specifically the ratio of personal income to household income. Third, we built an intersectionality matrix,” showing that there are deeply intersectional contributing factors across race/ethnicity, gender, and class (as defined by first-generation or continuing generation college student status).

Figure 1 shows the attrition effect. The SNAAP survey administered in 2015 – 2017 asked whether graduates wanted to be an artist when they started at their undergraduate institutions. We isolated those students who said yes to that question of artistic aspiration and then compared that percentage to the actual percentage of alumni of undergraduate arts programs who go on to work in the arts generally or in the fine arts particularly (i.e., working in occupations where one creates or performs their art).

Figure 1. The Attrition Effect: Alumni Intention to Practice Art vs. Employment in the Arts or Fine Arts

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As Figure 1 shows, we see that 80.8% of White arts alumni said they wanted to work in the arts, while 69.5% went on to work in arts organizations and 57.8% in the fine arts specifically. For Black arts alumni, we see much steeper drop-off or attrition effect with 83.9% saying they wanted to work in the arts, but only 60.6% reporting working in arts organizations broadly and 51.1% in the fine arts. We also see a similarly large attrition effect among Hispanic alumni with 80.6% declaring an interest in working as an artist, but only 66.1% working in arts organizations and only 53.1% in the fine arts specifically.

Next we wanted to investigate whether socioeconomic factors could also be noticeably different by racial/ethnic background. Many studies have shown that working in the arts and as an artist is economically precarious. We suggest that artists encounter more risk in the face of this precarity, and that the presence of an economic safety net could have a strong impact on attrition. To examine this concept, we looked at the survey responses for which alumni reported their personal income and also their household income. We presume that if an artist or someone in an arts-related occupation had relatively low personal income as a ratio of household income, that they were supported economically beyond themselves. This ratio shows the privilege effect in the form of an economic safety net beyond one’s direct earnings.

As Figure 2 shows, we found marked differences in this privilege effect by racial category. White respondents reported individual earnings that constituted, on average, 70.5% of household income, compared to a ratio of 79.88% for Black respondents. As Figure 2 also shows, this effect is compounded by the substantially higher individual income for White respondents ($61,429) as compared to Black respondents ($56,111).

Figure 2. Comparison of Annual Personal Income for Alumni Employed in the Arts and as Share of Household Income

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The blue columns show annual personal income and correspond to the left vertical axis. The orange line shows the percentage of personal annual income to total annual household income and corresponds to the right vertical axis.

We then performed multiple regression analyses to further understand the extent to which different collections of variables — including college experience, social relationships, skill development in college, and additional socio-demographic factors — could statistically explain the different post-college outcomes in the arts.

To summarize the results across different regression analyses (please contact the authors for detailed statistics), we highlight several key findings. First, even after controlling for several different variables, the differences in post-college personal income among alumni employed in the arts appear to be largely explainable by socio-demographic characteristics, including race/ethnicity, gender, first-generation college student status, and age (based on year of college graduation). This finding signals the presence of systemic bias and social reproduction. Alternatively, one’s likelihood of being employed in the arts is largely explainable by college experiences and institutional environments (i.e., artist intentions, major, self-reported skill development; social relationships, high-impact” experiences, institutional control and selectivity) and post-college measures (i.e., graduate degree attainment such as MFA and others; relatedness of first job to undergraduate training, and marital status).

In addition, when compared to alumni who identify as White, all other racial/ethnic groups showed some degree of disadvantage. For example, alumni who identify as Black have a lower probability of employment in the arts while also carrying a greater ratio of college debt to household income. Alumni who identified as Hispanic or of multiple race/ethnicity earned 7 – 10% less than alumni who identified as White, with Hispanic alumni also carrying higher loan debt to household income ratios. We found that social class — defined by first-generation or continuing-generation college status — was less influential on employment in the arts and income measures than race/ethnicity was, but that first-generation college students also carried higher loan debt levels. We also saw gender effects, with female alumni earning 41% less than their male counterparts, even after accounting for skill acquisition, graduate degrees, marital status, and other factors.

Our findings underscore the importance of addressing exclusion in the arts as a systemic problem. This analysis prompted us to undertake future study on the connections of skill-building to creative educational experiences within the arts and across the curriculum. Through this above statistical analysis, situated within a broad, interdisciplinary literature, we find that areas for strategic impact and policy design include alleviation of student debt and the teaching of entrepreneurial skills to arts students, an area studied by, among others, Essig and White. We find that economic precarity in artistic paths necessitates entrepreneurial thinking, and that the training of artists as entrepreneurs not only allows more people to participate in sustainable careers in the arts but can serve as a means of democratizing access to creative educational experiences across the curriculum.

This DataBrief was prepared by SNAAP Research Fellows, Amy Whitaker, Assistant Professor of Visual Arts Administration at NYU Steinhardt, and Gregory Wolniak, Associate Professor of Higher Education, University of Georgia.