A while ago, I wrote an essay about my experience making a living as a creative in New York City. The response was so overwhelming that I created a survey, posted it on LinkedIn and Facebook, and received responses from more than 100 artists and creatives.
The majority of respondents were 25- to 44-years-old (86%), female identified (at 70%, compared to 25% male, 2% gender nonconforming, and 1% transgender male), and BA/BFA holders (at 46%, compared to 17% MFA holders, 43% self taught, and 10% apprenticeship learners).
Respondents worked as freelancers or teaching artists, or had odd jobs ranging from real estate to housekeeping and retail, while others were unemployed. This wasn’t too surprising, given results from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project — which surveyed careers of 92K+ art school grads from institutions such as Tisch, Columbia, and UCLA — that found 75% of art school grads continue to practice work separate from their art, and 32% have never been professional artists due to higher pay and steadier income in other fields.
Similarly, the top five challenges faced by a cross-section of NYC artists were:
- Day-to-day financial challenges
- Marketing their work
- Raising money for their work/business
- Staying focused on their career
- Building an audience
Keep in mind that, given the low number of survey respondents, and the methods I used to publicize it, the results, though eye-opening, can’t be generalized to the larger creative population in NYC. But there is much food for thought here. Read on for more results from the survey, in addition to responses from the artists in their own words.
NYC Creative Living Survey
What is your race and ethnicity? (You may choose more than one.)
What is your creative discipline?
Where are you from?
Why did you move to NYC?
How long have you lived in NYC?
What are the five top challenges you face as a NYC creative?
How did you adapt to the challenges of making a creative living in NYC? What tough decisions did you have to make?
“I am a hustler. Currently, I’m teaching myself coding in order to negotiate a better wage. To make extra money I freelance, sell clothes on Poshmark, and sell electronics on Amazon. I have worked in a very big PR agency as a junior designer and worked in strip clubs over night.” F, 25-34, BA/BFA
“Realized that film school did not teach you how to raise the $ to make films so I started writing screenplays and then plays. I always had a side hustle including working as a go-go dancer for 12 years. After I aged out of that, I signed up with an agency writing academic papers. The pay sucks so I am also getting government help which allows me to survive. I made 11 videos and am still writing, never made $ on any but still hopeful!” F, 65-74, Formal education, didn’t graduate
“I’ve had to accept that the paths many or most people take to working in post or for a media company or something else film-related or at least creative are not available to me. I neither have connections nor the ability to make no money or 20K a year for any period of time. So I’ve committed myself to working any sort of office job that doesn’t take over my entire life and leaves me with some financial stability and ability to concentrate on creative work (writing screenplays, shooting the occasional super low budget short, editing) — and to make sure I keep that focus.” M, 35-44, Formal education, didn’t graduate
“I’ve survived by attaching myself to large institutions and cultivating a very specific niche that bridges rigorous community engaged arts and arts education which allows me to be unique in the field and consult with organizations that want to do this work. It’s a “right place right time” situation. I’ve also taken advantage of artist support organizations both formal (like The Actors Fund, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Brooklyn Arts Counsel) and informal (groups of independent artists and gather and support one another). The hard choices have been to stay employed with toxic institutions for long periods of time because I feared unemployment. I’m in a better position now that I’ve build a network for myself and am fully freelance.” F, 25-34, MA/MFA
“I had to sacrifice stability and security for a shot at living the dream. My priorities have become work-oriented, I’m very disciplined and manage my time well. I’ve also been blessed with support and encouragement from my family, my boyfriend and my colleagues in the incredible creative community of NYC. I choose to live frugally, to conserve resources and further my goals. My physical and emotional health is key, so self-preservation is my prerogative.” M, 25-34, Self taught
“I feel like I have sacrificed Creative time in the sphere of performance to building my teaching practice. In theory one supports the other, but many days especially as I get older I realize I have spent all my energy on my teaching work and less and less is leftover for dance pursuits beyond that. But I often think it would be just as bad or worse someplace else.” F, 35-44, BA/BFA
“I began meditating and focusing on living in the present moment. This is essential to my existence, and my creative lifestyle and business is a byproduct of connecting to my ‘truest self’. By finding peace in the present moment, it is easier to make tough decisions clearly. Most of my toughest decisions revolve around my finances. And my finances suffer when I have draining or negative relationships in my life.” F, 18-24, BA/BFA
If you had to tell one story to sum up your NYC creative life, what would it be?
“I came to New York to work in book publishing. I had no lofty thoughts or ideas of becoming an artist here. I knew I wanted to continue singing but I had no expectations. About 3 years after I arrived, I was done. I couldn’t fathom not doing the things I loved much more than passively. I needed to BE the art that was inside of me. New York definitely helped to inspire that dream in me. I definitely still have a ways to go in developing and achieving the real goals I have and am still realizing, but I still know that being in NY (and then leaving to better find my voice outside the hustle and grind) has helped shape me.” F, 35-44, Self taught
“The first shoot I ever did, I was playing a member of an assassin squad for some webseries. I was supposed to hop out of this van the moment it stopped and run aggressively towards the bad guy. The first take, I didn’t wait until the van came to a full stop so I tumbled onto the ground, ripped through my pants and cut up my knee. It taught me some valuable and enduring lessons about show biz — always rehearse your moves, never do stunts unless you’re getting phat paid, timing is crucial and pants are flimsy.” M, 25-34, Self taught
“I went to Lagos one year on a development scout for a doc series I wanted to do about the tech scene in Africa and I was also looking for financing on a feature film I had written. After a month in country, taking a lot of meetings that were going nowhere, I finally got access to something that was not on my agenda, but that I felt would be infinitely fulfilling. I was invited to go visit the late, great, William Onyeabor at his home in Enugu.
I drove out to Enugu from Lagos and spent an amazing 2 days with Onyeabor, during which he was enticing me with a film project he wanted to make. I was exhilarated on the drive back to Lagos until we got caught in a street riot about 20km from home. I was able to find a safe place to hide while we waited for the army to arrive and disperse the Area Boys who were inciting the chaos, but the experience left me rattled. When I got home I didn’t have the emotional energy to push forward any of those Nigerian projects that I had worked so hard on.
Years of hard work on projects that I thought were important were shrugged off or gently smiled at in New York. My career at home was no better off. 6 months later I got a greenlight for an Albanian sitcom series I created and I went on to do the most rewarding and exciting work of my life. Again, back home, New York could care less.
Now, 15 years into this career and over 10 years in New York, I’m still grinding, still making stuff that I’m proud of, and New York still doesn’t know I exist. But I’m here to stay.” M, 35-44, BA/BFA
“Don’t come to any big city to start to be creative. Be creative first, come to the city to make connections and show off what you’ve already done. Unless you have a benefactor most of your free time will be finding work, not as much time for finding inspiration.” F, 45-54, MA/MFA
“Consider if film school is really worth it.” GNC, 35-44, MA/MFA
“I moved away from NYC and I regret it all the time.” F, 25-34, BA/BFA
“There are a lot of cliches affiliated with making it in New York and as difficult as it is to find people to help you, you absolutely can’t do it alone. Find your tribe, even if it is on a temporary basis. So much of where you’re going to get relies on who you know.” M, 35-44, Formal education, didn’t graduate
“I learned very quickly that NY is not at all how popular media portrays it, or even remotely similar to a tourist’s experience or perspective. The city is ceaselessly fast paced and gives you no options other than keeping your head above the water just long enough to breathe, or fall behind and drown. It’s not glamorous, it’s not glittering, and it’s not made of dreams. The city does not inspire so much as it ‘provides content’. Any resident who says otherwise is either ignorant or in denial, or maybe both.” F, 18-24, MA/MFA
“Keep making art and make money doing it however you can; I once made $100, which was a lot of money to me at the time, drawing a man’s genitalia as a birthday present for his girlfriend.” F, 25-34, BA/BFA
“I’m a firm believer in it being easier to follow your dreams when you aren’t worried about where you’re sleeping or how you’re going to eat. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and get a job…any job to pay the bills. Then, once you get your feet underneath you, you can start worrying about moving into things that suit your interests more. Drowning people can’t be selective with which boat they climb into.” M, 25-34, MA/MFA
“When you’re feeling down on yourself or like a failure or like you aren’t reaching your potential at all, it is crazy to then read a film blog name checking all these people you knew, or to literally see their face on the subway or the Netflix homepage. But you’ve gotta keep going. My first week at NYU, I took a bunch of people on my floor to a movie at Anthology Film Archives in the East Village. Last year, one of my own shorts played on that same screen. Small victory, but a very personal and important one to me. I’m just getting started.” M, 35-44, Formal education, didn’t graduate
There were many more great responses that, for the sake of brevity, I couldn’t share here. I am thinking about how best to present them! As I mentioned above, I will be hosting several webinars and workshops offering up tools and tips for artists. Click the button below to stay in the loop.
In closing, I want to say: create. Be determined. Network. Don’t give up. Many people have been where you are and just as many have given up. To me, the only difference is some of us keep going. The creative economy, especially in New York, is terrible. Lopsided, designed to extract the most value for the least in return. Tech/digital platforms haven’t helped, although the promise is there for a tenacious few. Still, the world is waiting to hear your unique voice, even when it doesn’t seem like it. So move to New York (or LA); leave New York (or LA). Bloom where you’re planted. The sun will find you there. :-)
— — — -
Iquo B. Essien is a writer, director, and business consultant with an MFA in film from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. In addition to filmmaking, she helps artists fund their creative dreams and socially-conscious brands tell stories that connect with audiences. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.
#artists #creatives #fundraising #equity #nyc #careerplanning #howto