THE BLOG
12/14/2012 04:39 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2013

All They Want for Christmas Is a Living Wage

It is holiday time. The Rockettes are on board at Radio City Music Hall, productions of Dickens' A Christmas Carol are being mounted, a multitude of Nutcracker ballet productions are in progress. Handel's Christmas favorite, The Messiah, is being performed as are the operas Amahl and the Night Visitors and Hansel and Gretel. Holiday music permeates the atmosphere of every store. On television we have oodles of holiday specials from Charlie Brown's Christmas to even the old claymation-type Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Holiday cards are being shared both digitally and by "snail mail."

Imagine a world without television... or literature, dance, theater, film, photography, video games, board games, comic books, music. We cannot imagine such a thing yet, we as a society tend to undervalue artists of all kinds, the very artists who produce or hope to produce all of the above.

We all know we need food, shelter and clothing but we do not all realize how much we need and depend on the arts.

We know we need a specialist to repair our ever more complicated vehicles.

We know we need construction workers to build and repair our homes, businesses and roads.

We know we need law enforcement and firemen and women.

We know we needs medical professionals.

And yes we even know we need politicians to try to run our state and country.

We don't consciously know we need art of all kinds.

We take for granted what we see every day. Much of it is free to us:

Advertising: someone had to be trained in visual arts and design.

Television, film and commercials: someone at one time was just starting out as an actor, writer, cinematographer, digital artist, dancer.

Music: whether it be live, in elevators, film, television, radio, or malls,
someone composed that music and also performed it.

There are nameless, faceless artists in the world that keep larger entities up and running. For every famous actor there are hundreds that are continually hard working, yet unable to make a living wage.

Insert any arts category in the underlined spot above and it will still be true.

So, why, if the arts and artists are needed in our world, are so many struggling to make a living? The "starving artist." I surmise that since artists are born as artists and do not do it solely for the money but because it is a god-given talent, if you will, that dictates who we are what we do and why.

The US Census Bureau reports:

• The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. A minimum wage worker employed full-time (forty hours per week for 52 weeks), would earn $15,080 annually.
• In 2011, the poverty threshold for a single individual was $11,702 and the poverty threshold for a family of four with two children under 18 was $22,881.
• A single full-time minimum wage worker has an income above the poverty threshold.
• A full-time minimum wage worker as the sole source of income in a family of four's income is only 66 percent of the amount required to meet its basic needs.

The other day The Stage.Co.UK reported a survey of over 2,000 musicians commissioned by the union:

• More than half of musicians earn less than £20,000 a year, (about $32,000).
• The majority of those artists have more than ten years' experience in the profession.
• Prior to becoming a professional musician, 65 percent of respondents had spent four years or more in formal music education and training. More than 60 percent said they had studied at a dedicated music college, university or conservatoire and 40 percent have a degree in music.
• 60 percent worked for free to further their career.

The Spokane Symphony musicians just agreed to approve a two-year contract:

• An 11 percent pay cut in the form of reduced guaranteed services, which include rehearsals, concerts and educational events.
• Three weeks unpaid personal leave.
• Core musicians will make about $15,539 a year, down from $17,460, in 160 guaranteed services.

Really? Who of you non-musicians would work for that after years of advanced education?

The website "cattlecallauditions.com"-- yes there is such a site -- lists the following average actor salaries for 2011-12, compiled from the Dept. of Labor and the unions:

• Los Angeles $27,000
• New York $30,000
• New Orleans $22,000
• Chicago $27,000
• Las Vegas $22,000.

God forbid they have a family to support.

PayScale, a website, lists the annual salary of dancers according to the years of experience. As of 10/2010:

• Dancers with one to four years experience earned $17,687 to $32,556.
• Performing arts companies employed the largest number of dancers with an average hourly rate of $19.59 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2009) Not bad but dancers do not dance 40 hours a week.
• Other industries that employed large numbers were: drinking places with alcoholic beverages, $10.66; other amusement and recreation industries, $11.79; other and instruction groups, $16.11; and spectator sports, $14.80.

Many dancers, like musicians, start as children and know nothing else.

The average salary required by opera singers per performance varies greatly. Gigmasters, a booking service for musicians and singers, lists the average salary ranges for opera singers by location. A few examples:

• a Philadelphia-based opera singer, earns between $150 and $1,000 per performance
• a New York and Connecticut-based opera singer earns between $1,000 and $6,000 per performance.

However, as they are paid on a per performance basis and the opera industry is not doing well financially, there usually only a handful of performances a year. They are rarely paid for rehearsal time, which can add up to three weeks, nor for their expenses.

While noodling around the web I found this from 2009:

A recent Canadian study of the annual incomes of visual artists might have implications for other countries. The results are a shock to many.
The study based on research by Michael Maranda, an assistant curator at the Art Gallery of York University in Toronto, Ontario, paints a picture of poverty.

• He figures Canada has 22,000 to 28,000 visual artists
• Average visual artists' incomes in Canada, at $20,000 a year, are $7,000 below the national median.
• He notes the widespread erroneous perception that artists live on grants. According to his study, only 34 percent ever get a grant.
• It seems that most artists receive their modest incomes from sales (54 percent) and fees (12 percent).
• The average visual artist works 26 hours a week doing studio work, supplemented by 14.5 hours on art-related jobs, and 7.6 hours doing something not related to art.

Talk about fiscal cliffs. To many this just looks like a bunch of statistics. To artists it is a sobering reality. The next time you hear music, buy a card, see a commercial particularly during your favorite sports event, read a comic strip, browse a magazine, read a book, walk past public sculpture, watch your favorite show, patronize your local orchestra, opera, theater, dance company or club, please think of the dedication and love of the creators of that which so enhances your lives, often at not cost to you.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.