Studies on Aging Performing Artists

By Joan Jeffri

October 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

The following is a reprinting of an executive summary written on an ongoing research project regarding aging artists in America, what the project has been finding, and where the research is planned to be directed next.

No one has tackled the unique and urgent needs of artists as they grow old. While foundations and other funders have long directed their largesse to emerging and even mid-career artists, notably few have concerned themselves with the artist as s/he matures into old age—artistically, emotionally, financially and chronologically. Special attention to aging artists is important for material support and policy-making and is made more urgent in a time of scarce resources when the baby boomer generation is about to enter the ranks of the retired.

By studying and documenting the situation and circumstances of aging artists, we can provide choices for a generation now dealing with challenges artists have faced and surmounted: retirement, multiple jobs and careers, the connections of life to meaning and to meaningful work. Artists’ lifelong engagement with their work, their tenacity and resilience, are qualities sought by a population that will live decades longer than its ancestors.

In 2007, the Research Center for Arts and Culture at Columbia University’s Teachers College (RCAC) conducted its pioneering study, Information on Artists III: Special Focus: New York City Aging Artists (IOAIII Aging). The purpose of this study was to understand how artists—who often reach artistic maturity and artistic satisfaction as they age—are supported and integrated within their communities, and how their network structures change over time. That pilot was the basis for this study’s next phase: Information on Artists IV: Aging Performing Artists (IOAIV Aging) in four US Metro areas: Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.

For twenty years, the Research Center for Arts and Culture at Columbia University’s Teachers College has collected information, testimonies and research on living artists. It has also updated its studies over time to be able to compare its findings over two decades (its first Information on Artists Study was done in 1988 in ten US locations, in 1997 in four of the original cities, and in 2003 in the San Francisco Bay Area, leveraging over $1 million for artists there.) These studies have documented the artist’s situation in the United States over time in terms of health insurance, retirement plans, life insurance, live/work space, education, income, and income from art. In 2000, the RCAC became the first investigator in the arts to use a new method to locate hard-to-find populations called Respondent-driven sampling (RDS). This method, developed by world-renowned sociologist Douglas Heckathorn from Cornell University and used for our NEA-commissioned Study of the Worklife of Jazz Musicians (, yields important data and information that may otherwise remain undetected by other research methods. RDS effectively identifies and verifies the social networks of the hidden populations studied.

Capitalizing on both its track record with Information on Artists and this new method, IOAIII Aging interviewed 213 visual artists in Spanish, Chinese and English. The research results were quickly turned into action through convenings with NYC’s Departments of Cultural Affairs and of Aging as government agencies, artists and aging service organizations seek to change policies and programs using aging artists as a model. The results of our work are being featured at conferences at Grantmakers in the Arts, the National Conference on Positive Aging, the 2008 American Society on Aging and the Gerontological Association of America.

The RCAC’s data from IOA III Aging reveal the following about the average professional NYC visual artist 62 or over:

-73 year old who is highly educated with a Bachelor’s or probably a Master’s Degree
-Median income of $30,000
-Has health insurance and retirement plan other than Social Security
-Will never retire from art
-Ranks high in Life Satisfaction scales
-Has high self-esteem as a person and as an artist
-Feels validated as an artist
-Communicates daily or weekly with other artists
-Is satisfied or very satisfied with career
-Has been discriminated against because of age, gender, and sometimes due to artistic discipline
-Goes to studio every day even if it takes 1.5 hours to walk 2 blocks
-May have changed medium due to physical/other restrictions, but never considered giving up being an artist
-Has sold work in the last year
-Has made no preparation for work after death
-Is not planning to leave NYC

IOAIV Aging for which we are currently seeking funding will take place from 2009-2011 and will focus on 1,200 aging actors, musicians and dancers/choreographers in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Through Dr. Douglas Heckathorn we are making alliances with academic research teams already familiar with the RDS method, including faculty and researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, UCLA, RAND and UCSF. These local research teams will interview 300 performing artists in each location in one of three languages. For this phase we will form relationships with the few performer-specific retirement homes such as the Actors’ Home in Englewood, NJ; the Aurora Residence in Manhattan; the new Schermerhorn House in Brooklyn and the Palm View Residence in West Hollywood. Partnerships will be formed with arts and cultural organizations, the aging community, and policy agencies both national and local, many of which the RCAC has worked with before.

We suspect there are meaningful differences between performing and visual artists, especially since most performing artists depend on others to determine their employment. Some examples include:

Work and Retirement: While 88% of our professional visual artists said they will never retire from art, their art process is both self-motivated and self-controlled. For performing artists, there are a whole host of considerations: the physical demands of their art forms combine with the physical realities of aging. Situations will likely be different depending on the art form.

Identity and professionalism: We learned from visual artists that having a “body of work” helps to define them as professionals and from jazz musicians that the number of gigs in a year does the same. Dancers have told us that even when they stop dancing, many continue to call themselves dancers. How will these markers of identity and professionalism manifest in performing artists who are aging?

Legacy: Visual artists, for the most part, have the physical manifestations of their work to pass on and while a huge majority has made no preparations for work after death, performing artists pass along their legacies in a very different manner—some through film, television and photographs and others through their bodies; through teaching, mentoring, collaborating. What are the implications of this for transmitting the legacy of their creations and who owns these “legacy documents”?

Implications for younger artists and freelancers: More flexible retirement plans which people can contribute to at a younger age, redefining “work” and “age,” are prescriptions for society in general, and because of artists’ tenacity in their art forms and their work, they can lead the way. Do performing artists, especially those who belong to unions, face the same dilemmas?

Artist funding: The majority of programs that fund individual artists concentrate on emerging and mid-career artists. Emergency funds and funds for retooling (Career Transition for Dancers, The Actors’ Fund) exist, but virtually no funds are available for the purpose of supporting the work of aging performing artists. In addition, performing artists generally depend on the venues in which they perform and the companies that hire them.

How can these results change policy and programs for older artists, younger artists and both older and younger adults?

An industry based on the lives and talents of the people in it, the arts has very little information about the condition of these people as they age. The next wave of service in all organizations will be for their aging populations. Arts and social service organizations are not research organizations. They need researchers who understand their industry and develop mechanisms that speak to the needs of their constituents so they can plan strategically and make informed program judgments.

Aging artists can build a new kind of participation in the arts, one which values legacy. In an age where technology isolates as well as facilitates relationships, unique human experiences can provide access to new kinds of learning and improved equity for younger generations.

Changing policies for artists has much broader impact: for freelancers to access services, for insurers to develop new kinds of policies, for retirement legislation to allow younger generations to save for their future.

Artists – whose social communication networks are strong – can be carriers of the message: this has already proven true in politics, AIDS awareness and other aspects of daily life.

As unions have diminished their power in modern life, arts unions are microcosms for reform – to protect their older members while giving their younger members access to services, protection for the artists’ future and fair employment practices.

Older artists can be a prototype for the new use of learned skills towards different employment opportunities, engagement, life satisfaction and health benefits.

Past evidence shows that as people age, they often become more isolated from each other, making it difficult for organizations to serve them as a group and posing many individual problems. While artists have a long history of self-sustaining mechanisms often outside the mainstream system, aging poses particular challenges that artists themselves may no longer be able to meet. Such needs range from establishing health care and retirement savings to dealing with the loss of a community of colleagues, managing unrealized career expectations, and finding a stimulating environment where creative work can be nurtured at a time when many artists are maturing in their art. In our recent study of jazz musicians, for example, musicians seemed very satisfied with their musical work, but not with their career situations.

This study provides the first needs assessment of aging performing artists in the Metro areas of Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

As the graying of America progresses and the baby boomers begin to enter their twilight years, the government and other agencies are deep in discussion over issues of physical and mental health care, social security, retirement and pension benefits, and attitudes and policies towards aging. Traditional solutions to the challenges listed above are not sufficient. A plethora of programs from ‘lifelong education’ to more user-friendly assisted-living facilities have been created as we grapple with social and public policies towards aging. This is one case where artists can show the way.

This article appeared in the October 2008 issue of In Dance.

Joan Jeffri is director and founder of the Columbia University Research Center for the Arts and Culture in New York City (, and director of the graduate program in Arts Administration ( at Teachers College, Columbia University. Author of several books about the management of arts organizations, including the just-released Respect for Art: Visual Arts Administration and Management in China and the United States, The Emerging Arts: Management, Survival and Growth and ArtsMoney: Raising It, Saving It and Earning It, and academic director of the Arts Leadership Institute with the Arts & Business Council, she has a particular interest in the care and survival of artists. Her latest project, Above Ground, is a study of aging visual artists in New York City which is being expanded the performing artists in 4 U.S. cities. She has edited the 12-volume series entitled Information on Artists and Artist-Help: The Artist’s Guide to Work-Related Human and Social Services, as well as the 6-volume Information on Artists II. She has recently completed Making Changes: Facilitating the Transition of Dancers to Post-Performance Careers with cultural economists William Baumol and David Throsby, and Changing the Beat: A Study of the Worklife of Jazz Musicians (NEA Research Report). For ten years she was an Executive Editor of the Journal of Arts Management and Law and has published articles on a wide variety of arts administration issues in it, as well as in Poetics, the International Journal of Cultural Policy, American Demographics, among other journals. She has served on a national task force for health care and insurance issues for artists for the National Endowment for the Arts, has served as President of the Board of the International Arts-Medicine Association and is on the Advisory Board of the Cultural Policy and National Data Archive at Princeton University. She has taught and consulted in Brazil, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Hungary, Israel, Japan, Portugal, Russia. A former poet and professional actress, Ms. Jeffri works closely with artists, arts service organizations, arts unions, and arts researchers. © Research Center for Arts and Culture, Teachers College, 525 West 120 St., NY NY 10027 212-678-8184, Joan Jeffri, Director.