Anyone who pursues an arts degree has heard the cultural notion at least once in their career
Not knowing what career to pursue, Ronny Tam decided to enrol at Ryerson University for arts and contemporary studies. But he soon grew a passion for filmmaking when a friend asked him to come to a film set he was working on.
“Once I was there, I fell in love with it and started doing smaller projects just to get some exposure,” Tam said. “In short, it takes a little luck and someone to show you the way for you to fall in love for good.”
He dropped out of the program and attended Toronto Film School only to return to Ryerson in 2015 and complete a degree in media production. After earning his Bachelor of Arts, his resume started to grow. From directing music videos for up-and-coming artists, to working for big clients such as CBC and NBA TV Canada, Tam was quickly making a name for himself.
Even so, for some artists who dream of making a living off of their passions, there’s sometimes a setback. Tam was discouraged at a relatively young age when his high school guidance adviser questioned his post-secondary interests.
“When I told her I was interested in film, she quickly dismissed it, saying that it could be ‘a fun hobby,’” Tam said. “She said I should focus on something more safe, like business.”
Whether Tam’s guidance adviser knew it or not, she reiterated the age-old notion of “the starving artist.” This belief generally presumes that art degrees are “fluff,” meaningless, and that the people who pursue the arts will not be able to make a decent living. In contrast, professions in fields such as science, business or law are perceived to have more potential.
Every artist has their own way in confronting the notion of “the starving artist,” whether that’s choosing a different career path, or pursuing their dreams; no matter the cost.
Finding the middle
For Brynn Anderson, a third-year media production student at Ryerson, it was all about finding the perfect balance between her passion and what her parents wanted.
“I was able to convince my parents to let me take media production because I talked about how Ryerson is traditionally a broadcast school. I [told] them I could go into social media or public relations,” Anderson said. “If I took film here, they wouldn’t [have been] happy. I was able to make it [sound] less artsy than it is.”
Anderson understands the notion of why people are scared to study the arts, but she says that sometimes people can find a middle ground to pursue their dreams and achieve stability.
“If people want to go straight into acting, they’ll find a way,” Anderson said. “At the end of the day, you should do what makes you happy.”
Anderson says that she would like to work in film, but if that doesn’t work out she’s OK to do other related jobs on the side.
For Tam, the notion of “the starving artist” inspires him to work harder. He says his work in film makes him happy beyond anything else.
“It does make me want to prove [to] people [who] doubted me wrong because something in my gut tells me that I’m meant to do this despite the looming notion,” Tam said.
Art is not just a passion
While the origins of “the starving artist” remain a mystery, it is refutable to say that all art related jobs are poor in pay. Video game designers can make an income of over $75,000 and an animator can earn over $58,000 a year, This is compared to the average salary of a teacher working in Canada — around $43,800 a year, according to Neuvoo, a Canadian job searching site.
With figures like these, the validity of notion is put into question. These salaries can easily feed a “starving artist.” But numbers don’t tell of the journey to becoming a successful artist.
Cynthia Ashperger is a performance acting professor at Ryerson and says that the notion of “the starving artist” does have some truth to it. She says that it is very hard to make a living out of art in Canada and that there is a problem with the societal belief that artists are expected to work for “the joy of it.”
“I have a real problem with the fact that [the notion] is accepted in our society and taken for granted.” Ashperger says that talented and recognized artists are still sometimes expected to work for free.
“I have been in many co-operative and many independent productions where this was the case,” says Ashperger.
She explained that there isn’t enough funding given to the arts or progressive discussion about the need for arts in society. Tam said he learned those things when he was back in high school.
“[My school] was a hyper-academic environment. The arts were pushed to the smallest classrooms,” Tam said. “Even when there was a media studies class introduced late into my high school life, it was taught through a very theoretical lens.”
Students across Ontario have limited access to arts education due to lack of funding. Some schools do not have adequate rooms to accommodate for art classes or specialized teachers for those programs, according to a 2018 report.
Ashperger said that she remains hopeful people will come around.
“I hope society will [see the] value [in] art while the children are in school and even later on in life,” she said. “It costs money to have good art, and it should… because artists do need to be able to live.”
While there is much controversy around the notion of the starving artist, Tam said that concept applies to all disciplines.
“A person with a science degree can be a ‘starving scientist,’ a business graduate can be a ‘starving business owner,’” Tam said. “It’s important to have a roller-coaster of emotions towards your career because it’s what pushes you to continue doing it.”