We do not have reliable data on the social class background of artists, as we only introduced this question in the 2017 survey as a speculative question. We have suspected since the very start of this project that there is an underlying question of privilege at work in the careers of artists and we have always wanted to capture some sort of data that may lay that privilege bare.

It’s generally understood that social class does affect career trajectories, but usually this understanding is in fairly brute forms (access to resources to pursue unprofitable projects, including research and networking trips and unpaid internships). A more subtle understanding of how privilege works, however, would have to include some ineffable qualities that a more privileged background offers: namely, confidence to undertake these activities even if there is not direct financial support. This confidence could also be understood as a belief that failure is an option; that there is a personal safety net (above and beyond the social safety net) that can be relied upon should a project fail spectacularly, and thus risking financial ruin. Indeed, research into the characteristics of entrepeneurs suggest one of the most common trait is coming from money![1]

In all three surveys we had asked indirect questions about this sense of security, through a question of the source of health benefits and retirement plans … one of the sources being family trust. As well, in the first survey, we asked if spousal support played a role in the artist’s lifestyle and practice. These questions were, perhaps, too indirect and we were unable to draw any good conclusions from them. After much discussion of the question, though, and an internal clarifying that it is that ineffable confidence that we were looking for, not direct financial support, we decided to just ask directly the perceived social class of the artist’s upbringing.

Class is a notoriously difficult thing to define, especially at the edges. It’s even more difficult to measure. Using a primarily economic definition works against our understanding that class functions primarily as an inherent approach to the world, and not as identifiable as bank balances. In other words, you can be broke but still receive the benefits of an upper class upbringing.

As such, we decided we were interested in self-assessment of an artist’s background, using a rubric we put together after consulting numerous other surveys and studies. It’s ambiguity may have posed some issues for some respondents, this ambiguity and the rough nature of the divisions allowed for a self-assessment that measured exactly what we were looking for: a subjective self-identified identity.

Our definitions are as follows:

Lower class (Typified by poverty, lack of formal education, precarious employment or unemployment)

Working class (Employment that requires minimal education, including both skilled (the trades) and unskilled (servers, cashiers) jobs)

Lower middle class (Employment that requires education, including postgraduate, semi-professionals with some work autonomy)

Upper middle class (Highly educated managers, business leaders, and professionals, usually with high incomes)

Upper class (The “wealthy,” whether inherited or earned)


And the results were as follows:


Waging Culture 2017: Social Class



Lower Middle

Upper Middle


4.7% 23.3% 51.1% 20.8% 0.0%


There are, of course, accompanying issues with self-assessments. As with Bourdieu, there is a general denial of the role of class in the arts, and a concomitant embarrassment to admitting an upper class (or, alternately, lower class) background. While the rumours of the trust-fund artist continues to appear in the popular imagination, apparently none of them responded to our question! Nevertheless, with the responses that we received, we will be able to look to see if there is something following in the economic questions that can be explained from a class-background angle. Perhaps, though, the only finding is one of omission, with lower and working classes being underrepresented in the artist population.[2]


[1] See, for example, Aimee Groth, “Entrepreneurs don’t have a special gene for risk—they come from families with money,” Quartz, July 20, 2015, https://qz.com/455109/entrepreneurs-dont-have-a-special-gene-for-risk-they-come-from-families-with-money/

[2] As the upper class really represents the 1%, their absence within our pool of respondents is not suprising.

This is one of a series of mini-reports on the results of the 2017 Waging Culture survey, a study of the socio-economic conditions faced by Canadian-resident professional visual artists. Supported by the Art Gallery of York University, it is an undertaking of Michael Maranda. This is the third iteration of the survey which was funded by a Supporting Artistic Practice project grant from the Canada Council.  Comments and questions may be directed to wagingculture@theagyuisoutthere.org

See also
Gallery representation and secondary markets

Gallery representation and secondary markets

Waging Culture 2017
28 Nov 2019


Waging Culture 2017
14 Nov 2019


Waging Culture 2017
7 Nov 2019
Citizenship and Racialized artists

Citizenship and Racialized artists

Waging Culture 2017
25 Oct 2019
First Language, Regions, and Age

First Language, Regions, and Age

Waging Culture 2017
3 Oct 2019


Waging Culture 2017
12 Sep 2019
The socio-economic status of Canadian visual artists

The socio-economic status of Canadian visual artists

Waging Culture 2012
26 Jun 2013
The socio-economic status of Canadian visual artists

The socio-economic status of Canadian visual artists

Waging Culture 2007
01 Apr 2009

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