The nonprofit arts sector uplifts the positive role of arts—yet how are we supporting the artists that create it?

LOL McFiercen. Photo by Devon Lach.

As an artist and administrator who also moonlights as a drag queen, June is always a busy month because of Pride, especially in San Francisco. This year, I was hoping to land a five-dollar-sign ($$$$$) gig at a major tech company. After pumping friends on the inside, I finally got in touch with someone and was sent a lengthy email about what the company hoped to get out of the Pride event.

They wanted an hour-long drag show for 200-300 people and specified they were “looking for someone who is more interested in performing for fun, building their resume, and supporting LGBT rights vs. doing this for the money.”

[Insert 200-300 eye roll emojis here]

After a few back and forth emails trying to gauge their budget and offering standard performance rates (for multimillion dollar organizations), I was told they were actually looking for “a pared down performance. Just one queen and something in the low hundreds of dollars.” They eventually passed when they realized I didn’t come cheap and that they could find a hungrier queen that suited their very limited budget.

Now, you’re probably thinking that $200-300 is a great rate for a drag queen that usually performs in bars and nightclubs … right?

Well, start thinking about how much time it takes to put on makeup, and how much time is spent honing skills in makeup application. And the makeup itself, it’s expensive! Then we’ve got hair, heels, body padding and undergarments, not to mention an eye-catching dress or look covered in sequin AND the time it takes to learn the words to a song and create a dynamic performance.

LOL McFiercen performing at the 2013 Tiara Sensation pageant at the de Young Museum. Photo by Robbie Sweeny Photography.

When it comes down to it, $200-300 for an “hour-long” gig doesn’t cut it for a living wage … knowing full well that the “pared down performance” would include standing and taking pictures with hordes of twenty-something techies earning $100,000/year and looking to get in on the Instagram cache of a selfie with a drag queen during Pride season.

The queen that took the gig inadvertently undermined my ability to earn a living wage as an individual artist. Something we see all too frequently: artists with the individual means to undercut the marketplace offering to volunteer or work for a reduced price, setting an unrealistic standard and ultimately devaluing the role of individual artists.

I’d like to say that this behavior is limited to the tech industry and for-profit sector, but it’s not. Even within the arts field, artists highlighted at major events are asked to perform for “exposure,” or to “volunteer their time” to benefit the community.

One such event here in San Francisco is the Castro Street Fair. Originally founded by Harvey Milk in the mid-1970s, the event is a celebration of San Francisco’s gay neighborhood, the Castro District. Designed as a community fundraiser, Castro Street Fair raised $38,281 for their 21 beneficiary partners in 2016—mostly social service or recreational organizations that volunteer to staff the fair in exchange for promised grant monies; a common practice amongst street fairs and a similar system to how Folsom Street Fair staffs its massive fair attended by over 300,000 people.

Castro Street Fair. Photo by Leah Perloff Events.

Yet, even with increased city funding because of the organization’s tumultuous financial standing, artists and on-stage talent are told, “Volunteering your time and art for the fair helps us raise money to our hard-working beneficiaries.” This categorization of artists falling more into line with board members and volunteer event staff (and not with the “hard-working” organization the fair monetary supports) perfectly exemplifies my point.

Even within our own sector, artists are expected to forgo compensation for the greater good—building a system of support for social service agencies and nonprofits that excludes the arts, and specifically individual artists.

We all know that artists, not organizations, make art—yet why is it so often like pulling teeth to solidify artist fees? And why are there so few funding opportunities for individual artists?

According to Giving USA, in 2016 only 4.7% of the United States’ $390.05 billion giving went to the arts & culture sector … but that’s still $18.21 billion—nothing to laugh at! Yet breaking down the numbers further, we see how little actually gets directly into the hands of individual artists.

In 2016, the NEA gave out 2,500 grants totaling $147,949,000, yet only 70 of these grants went to individual artists—just 2.8% of the total grants, and 1% of the total giving (at $1,525,000) (according to a grant search for individual artist grants on the NEA’s grant search website).

For the State of California and its California Arts Council (CAC) (which just received a $7.1 million permanent increase), there are actually no grant programs for individual artists, but two programs that can support artist residencies through organizations. Even if half the funding of these two programs went directly to artists (which is an extremely liberal estimate), that would mean a mere $581,520 or 6.8% of the state’s total arts allocations would be directed toward individual artists (according to the agency’s 2015-16 annual report).

Here in San Francisco, thanks to the pioneering community members that helped to found the Cultural Equity Endowment Fund, the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) gives out Individual Artist Commissions (IAC) directly to individual artists. Expanding past its original amount of $10,000 in 2015-16 due to community advocacy, SFAC awarded 41 $15,000 IAC grants in 2015-16 totaling $604,000—about 17% of total grant funds and 28% of total grants (according to the SFAC recommendations).

Comparatively, the Houston Arts Alliance awarded 14 individual artist grants at $127,700 (7.4% of total grants and 3.2% of total dollars awarded) while the City of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs awarded 13 individual artist grants at $38,500 (11.1% of total grants and 3.3% of total dollars awarded).

To be fair, these numbers don’t include artist fees rolled up into organizational project and core operating grants, regranting programs, professional development programs or the multitude of other ways that our sector supports individual artists as these numbers are not easy accessible for the general public (despite being recorded by data aggregate organizations like

Yet the Americans for the Arts’ Arts & Economic Prosperity IV summary report states that only 7.8% of expenditures by nonprofit arts & culture organizations go to “payments to/for artists.”

So why is it that we’ve created an arts sector where individual artists have so few opportunities to receive direct funding? And as a sector that exists to create, uplift, support, and disseminate art, shouldn’t more than 7.8% of our budgets be going to artists?

I begin to wonder what our sector would look like if major institutions had multiple year-round residency programs; where foundations employ artists to help simplify their grant applications to reduce applicant and funder time burdens; where community arts organizations that already support grassroots artists are properly funded to expand their capacity building work; where arts funding agencies give artists direct support not just for projects or professional development but core operating grants so we can pay our rent and continue to create without limits. And I wonder what organizations and agencies are brave enough to pioneer this change in our sector.

[Data cited in this article was pulled from public sources like organizational websites, annual reports and grant search sites; Kevin Seaman conducted all evaluation.]

Kevin Seaman is the recipient of Americans for the Arts’ 2017 American Express Emerging Leader Award. Given annually since 2006 and sponsored by American Express since 2011, the award recognizes visionary leadership by a new and/or young arts leader who demonstrates an ability to engage and impact his or her community.