Though thousands of Americans would throw full colostomy bags at me for saying it, I tend to view the NFL more as a public health crisis than a professional sport. So it's safe to say that I'm not eager to compare Roger Goodell's gladiator combat association to fine art, the field I love.
But earlier this week, a tweet from HBO Real Sports' correspondent Carl Quintanilla forced one particularly striking parallel to the surface. Its subject was the brutal sorting process separating NFL dreamers from actual NFL players:
While Quintanilla and the chart both focus on the legitimately sobering percentage of collegiate football players who get signed by a pro football team, the even starker percentage covers college players who manage to sustain even a four-year career as a professional. Based on the chart's 150-player sample, that figure is a harrowing 0.75 percent.
This vicious funneling of talent calls to mind the one facing artists who want to make a career doing what they love. Anecdotally, I knew that the numbers had to be extreme. I just didn't think there was any way to quantify them.
But then I remembered this passage from economist Don Thompson's "The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art":
There are approximately 40,000 artists resident in London, and about the same number in New York. Of the total of 80,000, [only] 75 are superstar artists with seven-figure incomes. Below those are 300 mature, successful artists who show with major galleries and earn six-figure incomes from art. On the next level down are about 5,000 artists who have some representation, most in a mainstream gallery, who supplement their income through teaching, writing, or supportive partners.
There are thought to be 15,000 artists walking the streets of London at any time looking for gallery representation, and the same number in New York. This number actually increases each year as publicity given to the high prices paid for contemporary art attracts more young artists to the profession, and those already seeking gallery representation spend longer before dropping out. Mainstream dealers... may see slides or completed work from a dozen new artists a week, but take on only one or two a year.
The net result of this process is that there are about 45,000 artists in London and New York who are trying to sell privately or through artist cooperatives or suburban galleries, or who have given up. Many will leave the professional art world by the age of 30, to be replaced by that year's cohort of art school graduates.
Run the numbers above, and the percentages come out like this: 0.1 percent of Thompson's estimated 80,000 New York or London-based artists will make a million dollars or more; 0.4 percent will earn six figures and major gallery representation; and 6.3 percent will keep one foot in a gallery and the other in a supplementary job (or relationship, apparently).
But to me, those percentages only seem to tell us about mid-career or established artists––the rough equivalents of the "4-year career" NFL players. Of the alleged 30,0000 artists seeking galleries in NYC and London, how many rookies make the jump into the ranks of the represented every year?
To try to estimate their success rate, I went back to the 2014 TEFAF Art Market Report. From what I could cobble together there––and I'll put my calculations in the Comments section, if anyone is curious––the two featured cities hosted an estimated 1,728 primary market galleries during the survey year. That would suggest that only about 8.6 percent of artists joined a gallery roster in 2013––which, to me, seems roughly in line with Thompson's figures.
The upshot then: It looks like it's about five times easier to become a "signed rookie" in the art world (8.6 percent) than in the NFL (1.6 percent)... but it's actually almost twice as hard to earn a few hundred thousand dollars by making art (0.4 percent) than by playing pro football (0.75 percent).
Naturally, these numbers come with a couple of warnings. First, they obviously only cover two major art world cities. Second, I'm pulling Thompson's figures from the 2008 edition of his book, which means they're outdated––if we're willing to trust them at all. ("Stuffed Shark" is quieter about its methodology and sources than I'd like.)
But if we trust Thompson and combine the two caveats, the 2015 figures are likely even more extreme thanks to the industry's post-recession growth. Maybe not by an order of magnitude, but in a game of odds this long, every new competitor makes a difference.
I'm not writing this post to discourage striving artists about their chances. I am, however, writing it to make them aware of the battlefield they're entering. Despite all the romanticism still attached to fine art––especially by its hopeful practitioners––it's among the most competitive industries in the world.
So if you want to make a career of making work, approach it with the everyday intensity of a pro athlete, spurred on by what someone smarter than me once called "appropriate fear." Otherwise, the funnel is waiting to make you the wrong kind of statistic.