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. I am a writer, librettist, and an arts and literature teacher. I thought the answer was obvious.
“What do you mean? Of course.”
“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 dad worked at a bookstore 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 a low-income student to go for it? Take out the loans?”
The truth is, I’ve never actually been asked that by a student from a low-income family. 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. The reason, I’m guessing, is that for the most part, they’ve already ruled that out, likely because they have never met someone who actually acts, sings, writes, or plays an instrument for a living.
Usually students say they want to be doctors or social workers or lawyers, sometimes professional athletes. When students tell me they want to be professional athletes, I always ask, “What’s your backup 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 backup.
But if students want to pursue the arts, they may be accepted to an arts program without a scholarship and find themselves $200,000 in debt before realizing they aren’t going to be able to get a real paycheck with their arts degree — at least in the next decade. Sure, there are exceptions. But for every exception, there are many more people who are impoverished by their arts education or by working part-time or temporary jobs 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 conceded lightly, but my wife, who lived with student loans, pushed me to continue thinking beyond the often unrealistic narrative that all it takes is talent and work.
We want diverse voices in the arts. But we don’t like to talk about money.
We spend a lot of time in the New York City theater scene talking about ways to create more performance opportunities for “new voices,” meaning historically underrepresented groups, such as women and people of color. We talk about ways 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.
After college, I was expected to earn my own living. My parents had paid for tuition and room and board through my undergraduate degree in English at Yale, which, because we didn’t quite qualify for the school’s generous financial aid, meant something like $180,000 for four years. I was able to graduate debt-free, unlike 71 percent of American students who graduate with student loans.
After school, I worked as a receptionist, then as a public high school teacher and coach in Baltimore making around $45,000 annually. For me, it was plenty. My rent was low. 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 paid 75 percent of my master’s degree cost; I covered the rest.
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. 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.
Then my dad received several million dollars from his shares in the sale of his second company. That’s when my parents told me they were going to give me about $2,000 a month — ultimately, this grew to $28,000 a year.
$28,000 is a dollar figure familiar to children of the wealthy. 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. I took the money, 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 to 5” job might leave me time to pursue my creative writing career. It didn’t. I still couldn’t find a foothold. I ultimately managed to scrape enough time together to self-publish a novel, 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 theater full-time. This time, I knew I’d need regular feedback and networking connections. I started a graduate degree: an MFA in musical theater writing at New York University. My parents agreed to pay the remainder of my tuition after a small scholarship, spending another $70,000 or so for the two-year program. I was nervous, but I was driven. And I had enough money — $28,000 a year, to be exact — that taking a “risk” wasn’t exactly risky.
Of course, New York is expensive. When my boyfriend suddenly left me, I had to pay $1,450 a month, or $17,400 a year, for rent on my own, not including utilities. I quickly drained my savings and found myself dependent on the gift money from my parents. My work-study position and stint as a brunch hostess — all I could manage during my intensive program — were not enough to cover basic living expenses.
Still, when I graduated, I had a huge advantage over many of my classmates. I was debt-free, and the $28,000 kept coming.
What $28,000 a year bought me
$28,000. 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. 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 to 60 hours a week at “survival jobs,” like many of my art school friends, I was working 20 to 30 hours a week, which included reffing for an adult sports league, “matchmaking” for a dating company, typing payroll for a law firm, and coordinating for a youth tennis league.
I was able to use the remaining time to write. I was able to take fulfilling, career-enhancing teaching artist residencies, participate in a well-connected biweekly workshop, and network through an unpaid internship, all of which helped get my career started — none of which I could have done with a full-time job.
I could also cover the “little things.” When my hard drive crashed, I just went to the Apple store that day and picked up a new $1,000 MacBook Air. I had money to pay for recordings and submission fees for workshops and contests. I wasn’t living extravagantly, and I wasn’t putting away enough to retire, but I could keep pushing ahead in my career in those crucial years immediately after school.
I finally made those 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 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, moved to an affordable part of Connecticut, and took on a new full-time teaching position, that I felt financially stable and responsible. Shortly after we started dating, my wife began her graduate program at a music school that covers tuition and provides a stipend and teaching opportunities for all of its students. Between teaching and commissions, we now make enough in combined income that we no longer live off the gift but can pass it along to others.
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.
How we fix this
I don’t like to talk about money around my colleagues who are struggling. 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’re 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” we are losing. Theirs and the those of 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, queer people, or women. 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 had a huge head start — similar to the head start 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.
We need to be advocating for more far-reaching solutions. We need to fight for free tuition for all higher education. This solution frees not only artists but all people from a major financial burden that derails those living paycheck to paycheck and prevents them from moving forward toward their goals. Artists, of course, are not the only people suffering from student loan debt and low wages. We need to find ways to make any job that requires an educational investment accessible to all in a financially responsible way.
These solutions cost money, but it’s not hard to see where the money is. Wealth inequality is mind-boggling and getting worse. At the very least, we can require the children of the wealthy, people like me, to pay a reasonable amount of taxes on their income. 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 (per couple) to $22.4 million. (Money above that is taxed at 40 percent.) That’s $22.4 million of unearned income for the children of the rich. The wealthy, including my parents, paid taxes when they earned it, of course. And they are entitled to give it away as they please. But we adult children of the wealthy should have to report our income, regardless of the source.
If we work to reverse this 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.
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.
This essay is adapted from a blog post.
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.) Find her at ejroller.com.