January 31, 2018

Why Pay Equity Should Matter to the Roundtable

Reading Time:   6 mins

This speech was written and shared by actor and teaching artist Heleya de Barros at the Roundtable’s Interactive Townhall in January 2018. For a detailed Roundtable report on TA Pay, click here

Why Pay Equity Should Matter to the Roundtable

How many TAs are in the house tonight?

How many administrators?  How many administrators were, at one point, a freelance TA?  What made you switch?  Having a family?  Benefits?  Stable income?  Reasonable work-load?

I was asked to speak about pay equity in the teaching artist field this evening.  This is a conversation we’ve been thinking deeply about on the Teaching Artist Affairs Committee for the past few years.  It has also been part of a larger national arts education and teaching artist conversation.  The Teaching Artist Guild recently released a beta version of a TA Pay Calculator which estimates what a living wage for a TA in any given city across the US should make based on experience and size of organization.

In 2016 the Teaching Artist Affairs Committee wanted to get a grasp on what the TA compensation landscape in New York City was.  What were TAs being paid?  How were they being paid?  And what were they being paid for?  Lauren Jost, of Spellbound Theatre, Maya Turner Singh formerly of Marquis Studios, and Kai Fierle-Hedrick formerly a Roundtable board member were instrumental in this project from its beginning.  We wrote an online google survey which was diseminated through social media and Roundtable member organizations.  Respondents had the opportunity to provide employment information for up to three organizations they work for.  We received 157 respondants who together reported on over 278 individual TA gigs.  A gig constituted a paying TA opportunity varying from one day to full year placements either through an organization or directly with a school as an independent contractor.  Based on conversations with the Association of Teaching Artists which has run similar surveys, we estimated this sample pool to be approximately 10% of the total TA pool in New York City.  The data we received back was pretty grim.

75% of teaching artists surveyed reported their total annual income to be $45,000 or less.  52%,  of surveyed teaching artists made less than $35,000 annually.  Think about what it means to live off of less than $45,000 a year in New York City.  Less than $35,000?  Now, let me give you some other numbers.  

The Economic Policy Institute’s (EPI) Family Budget Calculator estimates a single person with no children to need an annual income of $43,519 in the New York metro area in order to attain a modest, yet adequate, standard of living (Family Budget Calculator, 2016).  EPI defines this modest, yet adequet living as just above the poverty line.  This means, you make enough to not qualify for SNAP, or welfare, or Medicaid, but not by much.  The New York State Department of Labor indicates that the average annual income for persons in New York City in Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports, and Media professions is $86,210100 (Occupational Employment Statistics Survey, 2016).  MIT research indicates the typical annual salary in NYC for the same occupation to be $61,170 (Typical Annual Salaries, 2017).  The average annual income for TAs surveyed in this report was $38,185.

So, the numbers aren’t good.  

It can be easy at this point in the conversation to get caught in the cycle of talking about how terrible the state of arts pay in general is.  We can all trade war-stories about our #WorstTAJobEver and get caught making lots of “yes, but” statements about why it can’t/won’t/hasn’t changed.  What I hope our conversation can be tonight, is less that, and more imagining what we want.  What do we want arts education pay, both administrative and teaching artist, to look like in New York City?  What would it take to create that?

Many administrators in the room might be thinking to themselves, “I don’t get paid that well either.”  And while I don’t have stats to quote on the state of arts administrative pay, I can guess that it isn’t very good for many.  

So, how do we move the conversation forward?

As I was preparing what I was going to say this evening I was reminder of a cartoon I saw on twitter once that I love.  It’s two panels.  The first panel shows a woman visual artist handing a drawing to a male sitting behind a desk, and the male says, “Why do I have to pay you so much for something it took you 10 minutes to make?”  And the next panel she responds, “because it took me 10 years of training to learn how to do it in 10 minutes.”  Our NYC TAs are dually qualified.  They are trained not only in their art form, but also in classroom management, curriculum writing, and education pedagogy.  So not only can they make the drawing in 10 minutes, they can show a room of 30 eight-year-olds how to do it in a fun and engaging way that connects to Common Core Standards and satisfies national, state, and city arts standards.

I was recently on a call discussing The Teaching Artist Guild’s new TA Pay Calculator and someone said, “a conversation about pay is a conversation about quality.”  Now, I can safely assume that every person in this room agrees that every student in New York City deserves a quality arts education.  But, from the pool of TAs that we surveyd more than half of the field is making below a livivng wage.  Are we satisfied with putting that quality in front of students?  Could the quality of arts education be better if we paid living wages?  Could our programming be more impactful and sustainable if we paid living wages?  

For nearly half of the gigs reported on in our survey the TA had only worked at the organization for 1-3 years.  What would happen if we were able to retain more teaching artists of a higher quality, skill level, and tenure in the field?  

Too often our reaction to money and budgetary concerns as artists, arts educators, and arts administrators is to “just do the work” because the work is good.  We believe in the work, we believe in the power of the work, we wouldn’t be in this room otherwise.  But, we can’t continue to “just do the work” and think about the money later anymore.  If we value quality arts education, then we value quality arts administrators and teaching artists.  And we should pay them as such.  Otherwise, what are telling the students we’re teaching?  We believe in the arts, but we don’t believe it’s a viable career choice.

The question I find myself asking, as I think about the next 25 years of the Roundtable is: How do we create a sustainable pay structure for both administrators and teaching artists?  

Heleya de Barros is an actor and teaching artist in New York City.  She serves as Co-Chair of the Roundtable’s Teaching Artist Affairs Committee.  @Heleya_deBarros