Taking Note: Entrepreneurship as a Career Choice

By Sunil Iyengar, NEA Director of Research & Analysis
Graphs and coffee

Artists have high rates of self-employment. The fact is well-established among cultural researchers, if not in public discourse. The National Endowment for the Arts’ most recent report, Artists and Other Cultural Workers: A Statistical Portrait, ups the percentage. Artists are now 3.6 times as likely as U.S. workers in general to be their own boss, according to data from the American Community Survey.

Specifically, 34.1 percent of artists are self-employed, versus 9.4 percent of the nation’s total workforce. Among photographers and fine artists, art directors, and animators, the rate is as high as 56 percent; for writers and authors, it’s 42 percent.

Those stats have contributed to a popular narrative about artists forming the vanguard of today’s gig economy. We rightly celebrate the entrepreneurship and innovation that artists bring to civic and corporate America. Other researchers have shown the penchant of artists to wade in and out of different sectors and industries, broadening their portfolios—artistically and vocationally—while enriching the temporary work spaces they inhabit.

But if the old stereotype of artists toiling in garrets has been laid to rest, then we should avoid falling for another image: that of the chai espresso-sipping, artist-in-residence who waltzes through successive stints in Silicon Valley. As the new NEA report makes clear, the earnings of self-employed artists are far more variable and, on average, lower than those of artists on payroll. Moreover, a higher share of self-employed artists remain without health insurance (17 percent of full-year, full-time, self-employed artists), compared with their salaried counterparts (10 percent).

On the other hand, a relatively new data source suggests that despite these drawbacks, self-employed artists approach their career paths with eyes wide open. Using data from the 2017 Contingent Worker Survey, the NEA report finds that a majority of self-employed artists gave as the main reason for this career choice either their “flexibility of schedule” (29.8 percent) or their enjoyment of “independence” and “being [one’s] own boss” (28.6 percent). By contrast, 9.7 percent reported that self-employment was in the very nature of their work and/or that it was seasonal. Another 5.7 percent reported that self-employment was the only type of work they could find, and 3.7 percent cited “economic reasons.”

So what’s the problem? Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers Jae Yun Kim, Duke University, et al. claim that one meta-analysis, six experimental studies, and one correlational study “provide converging evidence that people may view the identical exploitative treatment as more legitimate when directed toward more passionate workers.” Put it this way: in cases where employees were perceived to be passionate about their work, it is more likely that people (including managers) will “legitimize” poor worker treatment—for example, “asking employees to do demeaning tasks that are irrelevant to their job description, asking employees to work extra hours without pay,” the authors note.

In two of the studies under consideration, Jae Yun Kim et al. looked at whether participants were more likely to legitimize exploitation of workers who exhibited a strong versus a weak “passion condition.” (Answer: they were.) Tellingly, for the researchers’ hypothetical scenario, they used an artist. Explaining their choice, the researchers state: “We do not suggest that only those who have arts-related jobs (e.g., illustrators, architects, cartoonists) can and do love their work; rather we suggest that people may find it relatively easy to associate passion with occupations that have features such as creativity, a characteristic commonly attributed to artists.”

Because these studies concerned treatment of workers as employees, the findings may not apply directly to self-employed artists. From the journal article, however, it appears that the same quality of passion that drives many artists to pursue self-employment as a career and lifestyle option can, in other working conditions, present a liability.

Note: The National Endowment for the Arts funds two Research Labs devoted to research on artists, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Researchers at Northwestern University and Vanderbilt University are working with the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville to investigate how artists who undergo a six-week intensive training program emerge with insights about becoming better entrepreneurs. The Arts, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation (AEI) Lab at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis is examining how artists bring creativity and problem-solving skills to civic innovation. Another project at the AEI Lab is reviewing artistic and creative projects financed through crowdfunding platforms; see this blog entry. The application deadline for the NEA Research Labs program is July 15! See here for more information.