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The Hustle: A Snapshot of Artists' Money in the Bay Area

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Sasha Kelley at Alena Museum in West Oakland. The artist and working mother combines side jobs and cost-cutting measures in order to stay in the Bay Area. (Graham Holoch)

Despite reports to the contrary, artists are still here in the Bay Area.

It’s true that the region is not the haven for cash-strapped dreamers it once was. But despite astronomical rents and dwindling resources, those still hanging on here are finding creative ways to, well, stay creative.

Over the past six weeks in a series called ‘The Hustle,’ we interviewed six Bay Area artists about balancing their artistic principles with family responsibilities, grueling schedules and the highest cost of living in the continental United States. All of them were very transparent about the money coming in and the money going out.

Along the way, we realized that there were more artists whose stories we wanted to tell, and that each person’s story was different.

Thus we launched our online artist survey, asking the same probing financial questions we asked our profiled artists: What’s your living situation? How much money do you make? Do you have any side hustles or freelance gigs? Why do you choose to stay in the Bay Area?

Raphael at home.
Artist and sex worker Arabelle Raphael at home in the East Bay. (Graham Holoch / KQED)

Over 60 artists responded to the survey, repping the East Bay, North Bay, South Bay, San Francisco and even Vallejo. Over half were visual artists, while writers, musicians, graphic artists, performance artists and dancers filled out the survey as well. Everyone had advice for other artists trying to make the Bay Area their home.


Their answers help us understand both the precarious financial situation that many artists in the Bay Area face, but also the resilience and determination so many of them evince.

Living not-so-large

The majority of our survey respondents – 75 percent – live in shared rentals, and only a few are homeowners. Some have carved out resourceful living solutions in the Bay Area housing crunch. Joy Tyler, a writer, lives in a tiny house on wheels for $600 a month in the Laurel District of Oakland. A dancer in southwest Berkeley shares a camper van with one other person for $700 a month. And Sou’Lo, a multi-talented musician who lives rent-free in a friend’s car in Hayward, takes advantage of a life on wheels by running a mobile recording studio, among (many) other side hustles.

For many, shared rental situations are the only way to make living in the Bay Area financially feasible. Two of our respondents live in shared houses of eight. One film and installation artist recently moved into an in-law studio with one other person, but only after two years of living with 11 other people.

Our respondents’ rents range from zero (a Vallejo home owned outright) to $6,000 a month (a house in the Mission District). Fifty percent of our respondents pay over $1150 a month in rent.

Don’t forget: making art costs money too

On top of home rent, 40 percent of our respondents pay for studio space or time. The median monthly rent for those recording, rehearsal or fabrication spaces is $310 a month. Many respondents have carved studio spaces out of their homes.

Visual artist Deb Leal, who lives in the Mission, says, “Living room is the studio, for sure.” Others have claimed garages as their work spaces. Others have transformed their homes into live/work spaces. But for many in shared living situations, there simply isn’t room – and paying for outside space isn’t an option. A musician living with family in Richmond says, simply, “I don’t make enough or have enough money for a studio of my own yet.”

James Jackson and Lilie Hoy had a residency at Zoo Labs in September 2017, which gives them free access to the studio.
Yassou had a residency at Zoo Labs in September 2017, which gives the band free access to the studio. (Graham Holoch)

But studios are only one resource many artists need to make their work. Out of our 60 respondents, only one answered no to the question “Do you have other costs associated with your art?”

These costs range from paints to submission fees to marketing to shipping. Each discipline comes with its own expenses. Dancers listed toe tape, dance shoes, body work and hairspray. Musicians cited expenses like violin string, sheet music and instrument maintenance. Theater artists pay for sound, lighting and costume design. Visual artists pay for museum tickets and memberships to local arts organizations.

Other costs? “Endless,” says one Oakland musician.

How do you pay for it all?

While over 70 percent of our respondents have day jobs (one has nine different day jobs), these non-art pursuits aren’t necessarily making them financially stable. In San Francisco, the 2018 area median income for one person is $82,900. Translated into monthly paychecks, that’s just over $6,900 a month.

Only two of our respondents make more than the AMI at their day jobs. Then again, not all of them live in San Francisco. But the AMI does show the staggering amount of wealth in the Bay Area right now, which affects everything from apartment rents to coffee prices.

Fifty percent of our respondents make less than $2,000 a month in their day jobs. Many of them teach in addition to their art practice, some at as many as three different institutions.

Earnings from art

Despite the inherent costs of producing work, we were surprised by how many of our respondents make a not insignificant amount of money from their art. These are not Sunday painters and dabbling hobbyists. And though there are many signifiers of artistic accomplishment that can never be measured on a tax return, dollar figures will have to suffice.

On the low end of the spectrum is a musician and photographer from Richmond who makes no money: “I DJ or tour with friends who do shows, but they barely pay me,” he writes. Alternately, a painter in Oakland brings in an estimated $7,000 a month from art, with no day jobs or side gigs.

Simply asking to be paid, several artists note, is the first step. “Demand more money from organizations/companies/etc that profit from your work,” writes a visual artist from Oakland who makes $1,000 from art. That idea flows both ways, she adds: “Support other artists, especially monetarily, if you can.”

One question we added to our survey (suggested by producer and musician Chhoti Maa) dealt with race and identity as a factor in being able to get work. Several respondents, especially in theater and dance, saw white men as more likely to get work. Others felt tokenized: “I am a queer/non-binary filmmaker,” one replied, and “when I get recognition in certain circles it is often to fill a bill with women/non-binary filmmakers.”

One of the ways Beth Wilmurt saves on her monthly bills? Having a flip phone instead of the latest high-ticket iPhone.
One of the ways actress Beth Wilmurt saves on her monthly bills? Having a flip phone instead of the latest high-ticket iPhone. (Graham Holoch)

Cutting corners

Of course, one way artists make it work is by doing with less. Among the tips we received from artists: don‘t eat out, use cheaper materials, don’t own a car, buy used clothes, pack a lunch, print things out at work, use the public library, build your own furniture, bike to work, don’t pamper yourself, don’t go out for drinks, and many others.

An Oakland musician says, “I can eat nothing but ramen for days — just throw in various veggies. I generally busk if I need train fare but don’t have funds. Your average liquid soap can work for showers, dishes, and laundry. Glasses last forever if you take care of the lenses — superglue fixes most things (but not instruments). There’s are never too many layers of T-shirts if the one jacket isn’t enough.”

A San Mateo-based painter had pointed advice for people and organizations ready to take advantage of your status as a struggling artist. “DO NOT participate in art competitions that ask you for an entry fee,” they write. “Do not hire or pay for marketing advisers or ‘teachers’ who promise to straighten up your art business. They charge too much & are not useful. Instead check out books on this topic from your public library.”

Advice for Others

More than any other piece of advice, “know your worth and demand to be paid” was mentioned by our survey respondents. Beyond that, we found artists generally split into two camps: those who advised to achieve financial stability before making art, and those who advised to work odd jobs that fit an artist’s schedule and don’t compromise creative energy.

A mixed media artist in San Francisco says, “Network, Network, Network! Make connections with your fellow artists and the art collectors that have a genuine interest in local artists. Join forces, share your resources, show up for each other. There are many more components to being an artist than just making art. One of the most essential is being recognized as a valuable asset to the community by contributing your talents, camaraderie and support.”

Theo Alvarez in San Francisco.
Musician Theo Alvarez in San Francisco. (Graham Holoch)

Mission District-based painter Arika von Edler says, “Live here and show your work at local galleries, but jump at any opportunity to show your work in L.A., New York, Miami, or Europe because that’s where the money is. Being a financially successful SF artist means showing outside the city. Unfortunately the amount of people who support the arts by buying art has decreased significantly in the last couple years, so show in cities where they do.”

Other advice was plentiful: share space, don’t give away your work, find alternative housing, get paid under the table, work in the service industry for the flexibility, teach, take advantage of the internet’s diverse market, volunteer at a gallery or art center, don’t be a flake, keep going, never stop, never give up, work jobs that don’t change your ability to make art, be well organized, understand what you’re getting into, research what resources are around you and use them.

Some advice was more sobering. “Marry rich, like your grandmother suggested,” wrote a San Francisco photographer. “Get used to eating canned tuna or peanut butter sandwiches.”

Hemenway with a cardboard mock-up of a commissioned piece for a hotel in Healdsburg.
Artist Dana Hemenway with a cardboard mock-up of a commissioned piece for a hotel in Healdsburg. (Graham Holoch / KQED)

What can be done?

When we undertook ‘The Hustle,’ we did so knowing that more artists had left the Bay Area in a five-year span then ever before. Like janitors, teachers, and waitstaff, artists are important to the day-to-day existence of a city, but are rarely compensated accordingly.

We asked what sort of action, by lawmakers or the public, respondents believed could help artists most in the Bay Area, and the responses ranged from the sensible to the radical. Rent control, affordable housing, universal healthcare and special designations for artists were floated as options.

One mixed media artist from the Mission says, “Artists should be given a monthly stipend to live and work in San Francisco. If all the creatives are forced to leave, San Francisco will deteriorate (more than it already has) and become a place no one wants to pay for. All the big money will leave for somewhere more interesting, likely wherever the artists went to. San Francisco will lose ALL her magic and ALL the money. If you want to keep the people with money here, you have to keep the artists making the magic! Pay the artists to stay.”

Beth WIlmurt's share of her rent-controlled apartment in the Haight is just $500. "Rent control is the golden handcuff," she says.
Beth Wilmurt’s share of her rent-controlled apartment in the Haight is just $500. “Rent control is the golden handcuff,” she says. (Graham Holoch)

Several answers posited that artists’ survival is not an issue of policy, but of education. One Oakland musician put it simply: “Educate people on the costs and energy that go into creating art so when they are asked to or made to pay a fair rate for art, they won’t think they’re entitled to it to it.”

“Art is generally considered to be a non-fundamental education, and receives not only little funding, but is treated of little importance,” writes Heidi Black, a comic artist and illustrator based in San Jose. “Yet art is everywhere — architecture, design, entertainment — all forms of art! As a culture we need to assign value to art, and that means giving it value in education. Teach kids the importance of paintings like Guernica, of the resistance art movements in the Soviet Union. Teach them how music can move a culture. Make the arts just as important as sports.”

Sasha Kelley, pictured in West Oakland with daughter Ameenah.
Photographer Sasha Kelley, pictured in West Oakland with daughter Ameenah. (Graham Holoch)

Why do you stay?

With costs as high as they are, why do artists stay in the Bay Area? Responses ranged from the practical (“I moved here 20 years ago, how can I start over at 51?”) to what can best be summarized as a nostalgia for a different San Francisco, one more welcoming to the dreamer. Others simply said: It’s home.

Some even exercised a bit of vision, like musician Joel Chapman.

“I’m staying here because I want to believe in a future of San Francisco art,” he said. “And I want to contribute to that future.”


Read all profiles in ‘The Hustle’ here. Thanks to those who participated.

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