Artistic Careers Are Tough; This Startup Is Aiming To Change That

Broadway legends Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel in ‘Wicked’Joan Marcus

“You can’t make a living, but you can make a killing.”

That old chestnut has been bandied around Broadway more than “solutions” to Merrily We Roll Along. It captures the high-risk-high-reward ecosystem of the Rialto, and professional theater more broadly: big shows cost millions to mount, and most of them never make it back. But when they hit, they hit big: Wicked, Hamilton, and The Lion King are some of the most lucrative entertainment ventures in the world.

While the saying may apply to some Broadway producers, however, it is not true for many working artists. And it’s even less applicable to the myriad marketers, agents, and administrators who support the arts on the national stage, and make solid living wages doing so.

What the sector seems to be missing – especially at the entry level – is guidance. There’s a lot of money floating around the arts, but it’s rarely seen as a viable market for advisors, and the sector has its own romanticized stigma against financial literacy.

Two entrepreneurial brothers think they can change all this – but more on them in a bit. Let’s start by breaking down some real numbers.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the arts and cultural sector generates 4.2% of the U.S. GDP, contributing more than $763 billion to the economy yearly – more than either agriculture or transportation. In 2015, the sector employed 4.9 million people, with a median income of $48,000. That would be just under $51,000 today, assuming wage growth matched that of the overall U.S.

In other words: not a killing, but absolutely a living.

There are exceptions, 100 of which Forbes has handily compiled here to stoke your ambition and/or despair. Among non-celebrities inequality can be huge, too, especially in expensive hubs like New York and Los Angeles. While a Broadway actor can earn $100,000 yearly, Off Broadway contracts are functionally part-time gigs. And as a Broadway show only employs about 40 actors at any given time, it’s easier to understand why performers struggle more than, say, designers, whose skills transfer more easily across industries.

But the fact remains: for those who find work in the arts, whether self-employed or part of a larger organization, the money is there. Undermining it is a lack of support resources, and the built-in costs of hustling for contract work (in addition to the nationwide systemic issues).

“So many of us feel like we’re in survival mode,” says Mia Yoo, artistic director of La MaMa, one of New York’s most storied theater companies. “We plan artistically or programmatically, but we’re not really thinking about our future financial health.”

Yoo is far from alone. Even when the wages are livable, the nonstop hustle collapses the telescope of financial planning into a lens suitable only for glassing the next gig. Five-year plans become fuzzy, and retirement savings are often a distant what-if.

“One of the baked-in ideas artists have is that they’re not supposed to think about finances,” agrees screenwriter David Bar Katz. “That’s not ‘what we do.'”

Katz has a rare perspective on the intersection of art and commerce. His foundation bestows the Relentless Award, which grants $45,000 to an unproduced playwright every year – the largest cash prize in American theater.

However, as lottery winners and pro athletes frequently squander lump sums, so too can those in the arts.

“It begs the question,” Katz continues, “if you’re an artist and someone suddenly hands you a check for forty-five thousand dollars, what is the best way to handle that?”

Even for more realistic sums – say, their first paycheck from a regional theater – most artists aren’t prepared with an answer. According to students and administrators at the country’s top drama schools, only one, Juilliard, offered a single course on financial planning for their graduates beyond the occasional guest lecture.

“One of my classmates was very wonky about finances and stocks, and ended up making a guide for my class” says a recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama. “But it wasn’t a teacher. We just got lucky with a peer.”

One could always seek out a financial planner or online tools on one’s own. And the bigger institutions do have pension plans. But the sense that financial security is even possible, let alone merited, is missing from great swaths of the sector.

“Many of us don’t have the knowledge or the access,” Mia Yoo explains, “and we don’t usually get approached by traditional financial advisors or money managers.”

Enter stage left: Darren and Erik Sussman, two brothers looking to bridge this gap. Erik is the CEO of MassMutual South Florida, Darren a Tony-nominated producer who founded Theatermania and its national ticketing platform OvationTix. Together they’ve formed a startup dubbed the Institute of Financial Wellness for the Arts (or IFWA).

“Everyone with a career in the arts – musicians, actors, visual artists, writers, directors, DJ’s, dancers, administrators – all deserve a well-planned, successful, financial life,” says Darren over the phone, as he guides a remote tour of the company’s website.

The venture is two-pronged. One half is a free online database of videos, presentations, and research on the basics of personal finance, the star of which is an hour-long course deconstructing myths about art and commerce.  There’s also a fun, surprisingly robust set of calculators to help estimate everything from life expectancy to potential IRA income.

The second half is a personal coaching service, which pairs artists with financial advisors, who can assist with both planning and investment management. Organizations can sign up too, like La MaMa, which had an established staff and history but no long-term plan in place.

“They facilitated a savings and protection program for our whole staff,” Yoo explained. “And it’s such a relief. I feel like we’re really taking care of our people.”

Despite its name, the Institute is not a non-profit endeavor. It is, however, designed to be agnostic and mostly philanthropic, with the brothers Sussman taking the brunt of the risk by funding it themselves – no seed money, and the only revenue comes via commission as a percentage of each coach’s earnings.

The coaches are contracted by the IFWA and include both dealer-brokers and fiduciaries. This means they can operate either on a fee basis or on commission, depending on the client. The company does not charge artists for a subscription or access to resources.

“That is not what we’re about,” Darren insists. “You don’t need $100,000 and a six-figure income. And the coaches know that. They understand they’re not being served up doctors, lawyers and tech CEO’s.”

If you’re questioning why these coaches are taking on this clientele, you’d be forgiven – one does tend to associate wealth management with banking, not busking. And then you might remember that tidbit about how the arts contributes more to the U.S. economy than agriculture or transportation. There’s plenty of money here for planners to manage. They just don’t have an easy access point.

“Educators are a big market for advisory firms,” says Darren by way of comparison. “They’re easy to find, and you can meet with them in aggregate. Working with five teachers in a week is like working with one rich guy from Google. What we do is aggregate artists instead.”

The proof will be in the proverbial pudding. Educators are perhaps not the most flattering comparison; according to experts in the field, bad practices tend to flourish in such captive markets, with advisors hocking subpar products for higher commissions.

The variance in artistic careers may help mitigate such risks – it’s not easy to recommend a one-size-fits-all option, which should lead to greater attention to detail and more personalized plans. Those who engage the IFWA’s services owe it to themselves to be clear about their needs, and to be vigilant about which hat their coach is wearing.

For their part, the Sussmans say this right-sizing is the IFWA’s chief priority, and they’re upfront about the industry’s trend toward the fiduciary requirement, with its higher legal standard of care. (And if that sounded like financial gobbledygook, check out this John Oliver clip).

Already the IFWA has attracted big name clients: the Broadway cast of Aladdin arranged a workshop, and other New York institutions like The Barrow Group are following in the footsteps of La Mama’s new program.

The industry goodwill is perhaps not unsurprising. Underneath the IFWA’s artsy hood is the kind of modular, steady outfit you’d expect from any Fortune 500 advisory firm. The key difference is the market it’s serving, and the message that such services can be for artists, too.

As David Bar Katz says: “The general unsexiness of thinking about investing as an artist, making that acceptable – that it’s actually going to enhance your ability to make good art – is the biggest game-changer.”

Katz is a part of the IFWA’s Inspirational Board, which is a fun way of describing successful advocates available for interviews. But his interest is more than PR for a good cause: it pivots around his responsibility over the Relentless Award, and finding answer the question of how to manage a career-launching paycheck.

“It’s such a no brainer, yet clearly it hasn’t been fulfilled before,” he says, before confessing how useful he would have found such a service. “I was the perfect example of an artist who was incredibly ignorant in handling any financial matters. When Darren asked me to join, I thought: what, as a cautionary tale?”

He’s in good company now. Other board members include Broadway legend Kristin Chenoweth, whom savvy readers will have spotted, coincidentally, in the John Oliver segment above. She runs a theater mentorship program in her home state of Oklahoma, and plans to refer up-and-comers to the IFWA when they strike out on their own.

Even she cops to a bit of envy: “I would have loved something like this when I was first starting out.”

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