Not long ago, my wife, a composer, asked me if I would ever advise a student from a low-income family to pursue a career in the arts.
“What do you mean? Of course.”
“If that’s what they wanted to do, and they had talent–”
“But they don’t have money.”
“If a student were really passionate and talented, she’d figure out a way.” That’s always been something my parents told me. “Think about what you’d do if money were no object. And then work hard. You’ll find a way to make money.”
“Your parents give you $28,000 a year. They paid for your tuition. They made it possible for you to do what you’d do if money were no object—because money was no object for you.”
I got a little defensive at this point.
“Well, my parents did it themselves. They started out with nothing. My mom was a cook for an oil millionaire in Texas. They lived in the servants’ quarters and picked soda bottles off the side of the road for money to go to the movies. My dad worked at a book store and taught himself to program computers by reading books about it. He started two companies, one from his garage. My mom helped and provided additional income by teaching—”
“Right. Your dad loved technology. He loved business. He did not try to go into the arts with no money. Do you really think it would have been the same?”
“You sound like a Midwestern grandpa,” I said. “Not mine—he was the one who said the thing about ‘what if money were no object’ to my dad in the first place. But like a stereotypical conservative Midwestern grandpa. ‘It’s time ya quit that artsy-fartsy stuff and get yerself a useful degree.’”
“You would tell them to go for it? Take out the loans?”
The truth is, I haven’t actually run into a student from a low-income family who asked me for advice about becoming an artist (despite the fact that I have taught English, Drama, and Opera Composition in low-income communities—and a few students have even enjoyed my classes). For the most part, they’ve already ruled that out, likely because they have never met someone (“irl” as the kids say) who actually acts, sings, writes, or plays an instrument for a living. For the most part, students say they want to be doctors or social workers or lawyers—sometimes professional athletes. When students tell me that they want to be professional athletes, I would always ask, “What’s your back-up plan?” Sure, some might make it. But most of them won’t. With sports, though, it sorts itself out pretty quickly. The students get the college scholarship, or they don’t. I don’t really have to discourage them. I just have to say, maybe have a back-up.
With the arts, a student may be accepted to an arts program without a scholarship and find herself $200,000 in debt before realizing she isn’t going to be able to get a real paycheck with her arts degree—at least in the next decade. Sure, there are exceptions. But for every exception there are many more who are impoverished by their arts education or by not being able to take on more than part-time or temporary work as they struggle early in their careers.
“Don’t you think conservative Midwestern grandpas occasionally have a point?”
It’s not a point that I want to concede lightly. But my wife kept pushing me to think about it more. We spend a lot of time in the New York City theater scene talking about how to bring in “new voices.” We talk about ways to create more performance opportunities for historically underrepresented groups, such as women and people of color. We talk about ways in which society as a whole tends to favor straight white guys—and how that manifests itself in the arts. And while these conversations are important, and while I agree that society is, often, skewed to favor those SWGs (bless their hearts), it’s amazing how little time we spend discussing the largest, most obvious barrier to new voices in the arts: money.
Before my dad received several million dollars from his shares in the sale of his second company, I was expected to earn my own living. My parents had paid for everything through my undergraduate degree at Yale, which, because we didn’t quite qualify for financial aid (which is actually very generous at Yale), meant something like $180,000 total in tuition and room and board. I was expected to make my own way after that. After a few months of working as a receptionist at a physical therapy center, I started teaching high school in Baltimore. I was doing well financially. First-year high school teachers in Baltimore make around $44,000. (Trust me when I say, they earn every penny.) In an effort to learn about poverty, I moved to a low-income neighborhood, so my housing cost was very low ($400 a month). I coached three sports and took a couple of graduate courses a semester on top of getting my butt kicked every day under the incredibly difficult circumstances typical to BCPS schools, so I had no time to spend any money. I never ate expensive meals, almost never shopped for clothes, bought my groceries from Aldi, and was able to pay off my heavily subsidized MA in Writing at Johns Hopkins. (Baltimore City pays 75% of Master’s Degree costs for its teachers—or did until they figured out I was getting mine in creative writing instead of education.)
I was able to pursue my goal of writing in a very part-time way during the academic year and in a more serious way over summer breaks. But I wasn’t even attempting to write for theater. I finished drafts of three novels and a short story collection, but I didn’t have time to think about publishing my work. I didn’t have the energy to do the submission/rejection/revision routine (an extremely time-consuming, somewhat expensive process with low returns). I didn’t have any connections to the publishing industry, and I didn’t have the time to go to conferences or do additional networking. So, aside from a couple of stories that I managed to get published in small literary magazines, most of my work sat on my hard drive, where it still is today.
Still, when my parents told me they were going to give me about $2,000 a month, my initial thought was that it wouldn’t affect me much. I didn’t had time to deal with it. But I took it, spent part of it helping my then-boyfriend pay off his student loans and put the rest in the bank.
After three years of teaching, completely exhausted from my crazy schedule and the emotional toll of teaching in a broken system—and frustrated by my inability to finish or publish any major projects–I decided to move back to Missouri to see if a normal “9-5” job might leave me time to pursue my creative writing career. It didn’t. Even though it was significantly less taxing in all ways than teaching in Baltimore, by the time I worked, exercised, and cooked dinner, I didn’t have much more time to spend on writing than I had had in Baltimore. I (like most people) write best if I have large chunks of uninterrupted time—particularly if I’m trying to write something longer than a short story–and it was hard to finagle large chunks of time when 40-50 hours a week were spent on my “survival” job. I only had two weeks of vacation, too–so I had to choose between spending time with friends and family or writing. I still didn’t have connections. I still didn’t have time to go to conferences. I still couldn’t find a foothold. I ultimately managed to scrape enough time together to self-publish a novel loosely based around my teaching experience, which seemed like the most efficient way to get my work to the public—but I didn’t have the extra time to market it. Despite positive reviews and feedback, the book didn’t sell many copies outside of my friends and family.
I needed to change tactics and mediums. I decided to bite the bullet and move to New York to pursue writing for theatre full-time. This time, I knew I’d need regular feedback and networking connections. I quit my job and started a graduate degree—an MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at New York University. My parents agreed to pay the remainder of my tuition after a small scholarship—another $70,000 or so for the two-year program. I was nervous, but I was driven. And I had enough money that taking a “risk” wasn’t exactly risky.
Granted, New York is expensive. When my boyfriend suddenly left me (as men in New York are occasionally known to do), I had to pay $1,450 a month for rent on my own ($17,400 a year) on the lease we had just started, not including utilities. I quickly drained my own savings and found myself completely dependent on the gift money from my parents.
Still, when I graduated, I had a huge advantage over many of my classmates. I was debt-free, and the $28,000 kept coming.
$28,000 is a dollar figure familiar to children of the wealthy. Actually, the new dollar figure is $30,000, as it just increased this year, due to inflation. (Come on, parents! Keep up with the times. Heh heh…) It’s the maximum amount a couple can give to an individual, tax free. Wealthy individuals are frequently advised by their accountants to do this to avoid the (quite low) inheritance tax. It results in free income for wealthy kids. I don’t even report it to the IRS–and that’s entirely legal. I could get this money every year for the rest of my life (or as long as my parents choose to give it to me)—without having to lift a finger. A person in my home state of Missouri can work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year and make only $16,328 (and still have to pay tax on it). I get an annual gift of $28,000, distributed, in my case, in monthly checks mailed to my house for $2000 and $334 (to make it easier to deposit remotely), completely tax free.
In the case of many of us children of the rich, this money comes from capital gains that our parents make through outside investments. Let me explain with a test case—not of the mega rich but of your average small-town rich couple. Say a couple has $10 million in the bank. With $10,000,000, they consistently make $400,000 a year from investments managed by an investment banker. They pay 15% taxes on those gains. So they bring home $340,000 a year, without working a minute. That’s a big chunk of money. They, like most people, are completely comfortable living under an annual budget of $340,000. They can easily travel, have a car per person, own a couple of houses, eat out, and be generous hosts and well-loved philanthropists with that amount of money. They can easily afford to give their children $28,000 a year. They can do all of that and never eat into their capital. That means they never have to work—and, as they can find a way to subsist under their $340,000 personal annual budget, the money only grows.
So what does this $28,000 a year mean to me as an artist? The biggest thing it buys is time. Instead of working 50-60 hours a week at “survival jobs,” like many of my art school friends (or like I was when I was teaching full-time), I was working 20-30 hours a week right out of grad school and was able to use the remaining time to write. I was able to give up 8 hours a day every other Monday to take part in the Composers and the Voice Workshop through American Opera Projects, which got my opera career started—something someone working a regular full-time job might not be able to swing. I could take fulfilling, career-enhancing part-time (no benefits) teaching artist work through the Metropolitan Opera Guild and through an innovative public charter school in New Haven–and make it work.
I could also pay for the “little things.” According to a recent study, about half of our country doesn’t have enough in savings to cover an unexpected $500 charge. But with the gift, when my hard drive crashed, I just went to the Apple store that day and picked up a new $1000 MacBook Air. I had money to pay for recordings and submission fees for workshops and contests. I could take on an unpaid internship. I wasn’t living extravagantly, and I wasn’t putting enough away to retire, but I could keep pushing ahead in my career in those crucial years immediately after school. I made connections. I got my work to increasingly bigger stages. I did that without the financial anxiety that so many of my friends have—anxiety that can be crippling and even lead to panic attacks. I did it without having to rely on a partner for steady income. My parents always spoke of the gift as an investment, and I did my best to make it pay off.
Still, it wasn’t until I got married this year (to, perhaps, the one of the most financially savvy people I’ve ever met), moved to Connecticut, and took on a new full-time teaching position, that I felt financially stable and responsible. Shortly after we started dating, Frances inherited enough money to pay off her student loans—something that, with her standard repayment plan, had been nearly unthinkable for her in the past—and she began her graduate program at a music school that covers tuition for all of its students and provides ample teaching assistantship opportunities. Between teaching and commissions, we now make enough in combined income that we no longer live off the gift, but can pay it forward. We can also start planning for a family and saving for retirement while continuing to work in the fields we love, oftentimes together. We still have to put in long hours—and we certainly aren’t famous—but we don’t have to worry. Finally, at age 33, I can earn my own way and still move forward in an arts career.
All it took was a hell of a lot of work and nearly half a million dollars from my parents.
Of course, I don’t like to talk about money around my colleagues who are struggling. Granted, many of my friends also get support to some degree from their parents or other benefactors. I don’t know how much. It’s awkward to ask, and people don’t usually volunteer that information. It’s uncomfortable (to say the least) to think about our financial advantage. When people asked me how I made it work, I would mumble something about my teaching artist gig paying well. (It did, but it wasn’t that many hours.) If I were feeling honest I might have said something vague like, “Well, my parents help a little.” When the talk went to student loans, I would go silent or say something super helpful like: “Well, almost everyone has them, so they probably won’t hurt you in the long run,” or, “Yeah, it’s a crisis.”
But I think it’s important for us to have real numbers to think about, which is why I’m sharing mine. We should understand the reality of the situation we are in. Or rather, the different realities of the situations we are in. My friends are out there hustling and making all kinds of sacrifices to get a foothold, and, when it’s not working, feeling like failures. Their voices are the “new voices” that we are losing. Theirs and the people who gave up long before. Musicians who couldn’t afford lessons to begin with. Actors who couldn’t pay rent and eat on temp work. Singers who couldn’t afford to go to unpaid young artist programs. Writers who couldn’t afford to take a risk. There’s a romanticized view of the Bohemian lifestyle—but it’s one thing for a person to go for a while subsisting on Ramen and food squirreled away from work events if she knows she has family, a spouse, or people she can fall back on or a regular paycheck ahead of her. It’s quite another if she doesn’t have that support—or if she has others she needs to support. So many potential “new voices” fall into these categories.
Many of them are also the “new voices” we frequently speak about–people of color or women or queer. There is a significant intersection, which makes sense considering that people of color and women were not even allowed to own property for a long time. Many white men (bless their hearts) had a huge head start—similar to the head start that I have now, despite being a queer woman. Historically marginalized people also have additional factors working against them, making it even harder to get by as artists—fewer roles, unacknowledged biases, societal pressure, “biological clocks”—all problems that are exacerbated if they don’t have financial support and a safety net.
As artists, our concerts highlighting marginalized voices, our targeted awards, our identity-based approaches are only going to go so far if we keep working within the current system. We need to be advocating for more far-reaching solutions. Primarily, we need to fight for free tuition for all higher education and single-payer healthcare. These are solutions that free not only artists but all people from the major financial burdens that derail those living paycheck to paycheck and prevent them from moving forward toward their goals.
I also believe that we need to throw our support behind universal basic income, which helps level the playing field a bit by giving every adult over eighteen an annual stipend (often set at $1,000 a month), similar to the one my parents give me—not enough to live on, but enough capital to invest in whatever an individual needs to get ahead in her career of choice. Think about what $1,000 a month would do for someone starting a small business, for an inventor, for a talented student who wants to learn piano, for someone trying to start a non-profit, for a parent in need of daycare, for someone taking care of an aging parent, for someone who can only find part-time work. Capitalism works best when people actually have capital to invest—in themselves, in their careers, in their communities. A low unemployment rate means nothing if full-time work still means scraping by paycheck to paycheck.
Clearly, these solutions cost money, but it’s not hard to see where the money is. The numbers on wealth inequality are mind-boggling and getting worse. In addition to rethinking income and property taxes, we could gradually increase taxes to 30% on capital gains above a certain threshold (so they are in line with Europe) and your average 10-millionaires can still live on an annual budget of $280,000 of money that they don’t work for—which, I think we can agree, is doable. Employers and contract workers have to report wages of $600. Why wouldn’t we require rich kids to report gifts of $28,000 and pay taxes? We can also lower the amount of inheritance that can be passed along tax-free upon death. The latest tax bill just increased the amount that kids can inherit tax-free from their parents from $10.98 million to $22.4 million. (Money above that is taxed at 40%.) That’s a $22.4 million of unearned income for the children of the rich, whereas the working class get taxed on their first dollar earned.
A person could at least argue that my parents earned the capital they live off of. But me? I didn’t actually earn it. Other people—the ones working for the companies that my parents invest in as outsiders (many of whom are making minimum wage)—they are way more entitled to the profits of their labor than I am. Not to mention those who are working their tails off for the public interest—teachers who last more than three years in Baltimore, police officers, fire fighters. Why do they have to work 40-60 hours a week for a fraction of what the wealthy pull in without having to do a thing? With current policy, the real handouts (and all of the advantages that go along with them) go to us rich kids. It’s no wonder the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
If we work to reverse this ever-increasing income gap through public policy, we also help disrupt the feudal artist-patron problem, which, again, is a barrier to new voices. People other than a handful of wealthy donors and producers might be able to have a say in what is funded. People other than the wealthy might be able to afford tickets to performances. I know it’s incredibly difficult to “bite the hand that feeds us,” but if we don’t, we will never be able to feed ourselves. We can’t be free if we are constantly in debt.
Talking to my wife and hearing her–and then others’–experiences opened my eyes to the incredible struggle it is for those trying to advance in this career (as well as other careers that require a significant time investment) without financial help and a safety net. It’s so easy for those of us with wealth to cling to bootstrap narratives of the exceptions to the rule. We take the stories of poor people who made it as proof that talent and hard work make anything possible while ignoring the multitude of stories of poor people with talent and work ethic who did not have the financial capacity to continue on. It’s easy to be blind to the struggle of our peers–and to the reality that talent and hard work are not the only factors.
We have the collective capacity, though, to change this. I do not want to continue teaching in a world where I have to caution a talented but poor student against pursuing a career in the arts. I don’t want to succeed as an artist because no one else can afford to hang around. I want to be surrounded by art that I can’t even imagine. By truly new voices. By perspectives that I have no access to—or that have no access to me. It will make me a better artist and a better person. Everyone will benefit deeply and meaningfully from sharing—even those of us who stand to lose an initial competitive advantage.
If we are serious about new voices having access to the arts, let’s advocate for solutions that will address the systematic problems. We need to be inclusive of every possible ally in this fight, focusing on what we have in common and stand to gain together rather than on the things that make us different from one another. Artists, we are a scrappy, passionate, hard-working bunch. If we focused our efforts on universally beneficial solutions, we can get the message across and reverse the power imbalance. With our work, we can both reflect the world we live in and present a vision that leaves hope for what we could be.
E.J. Roller is a writer, librettist, and educator. Feel free to share this article, but be sure to cite your source. (I’m an English teacher, after all.) ejroller.com.