Place and Income Inequality

In the research I was doing today around place-based or geographic idiosyncrasies of local arts economies, I came across an interesting 2005 paper by Mark Stern published as part of the Dynamics of Culture series by the Social Impact of the Arts Project. “Artists in the Winner-Take-All Economy: Artists’ Inequality in Six U.S. Metropolitan Areas, 1980 – 2000”[i] looks at the Gini coefficient, a widely accepted measurement of inequality, across artists in 6 metropolitan areas over three sets of census data, 1980, 1990, and 2000. I read the paper because I am trying to write something about the unique characteristics of New York City and why the artists I interview for An Ouroboros: Art, Money, and Entrepreneurial Action make conscious choices to locate – or not – in art hubs like New York or Los Angeles.

I find two of Stern’s findings particularly interesting. The first is that “artists’ inequality did not increase as quickly between 1980 and 2000 as that within the rest of the labor force.” So, during a period when income inequality increased rapidly across the US (remember the 1980s?), it actually increased less rapidly among artists. Reading further into the paper, Stern finds that this is not because artist incomes continued to be much lower than other professions; instead, he finds that the median of artists’ incomes rose significantly closer to that of the rest of the population during the period of his study. But to reiterate, income inequality did increase, as this table[ii] from the paper illustrates:

Screen Shot 2019-03-03 at 2.23.20 PM

The second finding of note, particularly with regard to my current topic of interest, place-based arts economies and the place-based economic decision-making of artists, is

the analysis finds significant variation in artists’ income inequality across metropolitan areas. The winner-take-all hypothesis would lead us to expect that metropolitan areas that are ‘global cities’ in the arts world—notably New York and Los Angeles—would have greater inequality than other cities. This is not the case, however. On the one hand, Los Angeles displayed the highest level of income equality among cultural workers. New York, on the other hand—even though income inequality among all workers was generally higher than elsewhere—had among the lowest levels of artist income inequality. (Stern, 2005, p. 2)

I can guess as to why this is the case for LA, my newly adopted home. There is a robust nonprofit arts economy similar to other cities but layered on top of that a large commercial arts industry potentially skewing the results for several of the artist categories Stern considers in his analysis: actors, directors, producers, writers, and musicians. Of course, this is only a guess, and I have no data to back it up. Chicago is also a bit of an outlier, and also by far the city with the largest increase in artist income inequality between 1980 and 2000. I can’t even hazard a guess as to why. New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and San Francisco are all more similar to one another with regard to income inequality despite differentiated arts and culture sectors. Perhaps geography is not destiny after all despite

Stern’s research predates the Great Recession. He has done some work quite recently on equity and inequity among New York City cultural organizations, but I can’t find any research that includes post-recession analysis of income inequality among artists using 2010 census data or the CSS. If you know of any, please drop me a line.

[i] You can download the paper from SIAP’s digital repository:

[ii] Steven Ruggles, Matthew Sobek, Trent Alexander, Catherine A. Fitch, Ronald Goeken, Patricia Kelly Hall, Miriam King, and Chad Ronnander. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 3.0 [Machinereadable database]. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Population Center [producer and distributor], 2004.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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