SMU DataArts - Cultural Data Profile


Arts Organizations Grow Staff Despite Challenging Conditions

3-minute read

Attracting, retaining, and cultivating a strong workforce is a key priority for every arts and cultural organization. But how did the arts and cultural workforce fare through the ups and downs of the labor market over the last few years? And how are organizations approaching their investments in the people – especially the artists – who are essential to fulfilling their missions?

To answer these questions, we analyzed data from FY 2019 through 2023 collected from 233 organizations through the Cultural Data Profile.

The Frick Collection, New York, NY. Photo credit: Lucas Chilczuk The Frick Collection, New York, NY. Photo credit: Lucas Chilczuk

Key Findings

  • Personnel expenses were consistently the largest portion of organizational expenses and played an even larger role post-pandemic – making up 65% of total expenses in 2023.
  • On average, organizations retained their full-time staff through pandemic shutdowns.
  • Average staff size has grown over the last two years (2022 to 2023) through the addition of permanent part-time positions.
  • Payroll has also increased over the period analyzed, outpacing inflation by 11%.
  • Organizations are showing a growing commitment to artists – 19% more artists in total were hired in 2023 than 2019, and increases in total artist compensation outpaced inflation.


Personnel Expenses were Consistently the Largest Driver of Organizations Expenses

Even as expense levels fluctuated throughout the pandemic, personnel expenses represented the largest expenditure throughout that period. In fact, personnel expenses made up an increasingly larger portion of the whole, especially during the most severe contraction of expenses in 2021. As organizations returned to pre-pandemic spending levels, personnel expenses made up a 7% larger portion of overall expenditures in 2023 than in 2019. These trends were fairly consistent across all budget sizes.

Organizations Maintained Full-Time Employees Through the Pandemic

Organizations retained permanent, full-time staffing levels while slowly adding part-time permanent staff over the past two years. This trend was fairly stable regardless of organization budget size. The arts and cultural sector as a whole benefited from 40.1 billion dollars in forgivable loans via the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and the resulting impact on workforce retention is clear.

The stability in full-time employment at arts and culture organizations stands in contrast with drastic increases in unemployment rates within the broader arts, culture, and recreation sector at the beginning of the pandemic. Unemployment within the broader arts sector skyrocketed to twice the national average in early 2020, and remained two to three times higher than the national rate into 2021. Since then, arts unemployment has hovered near the national rate, with some swings month to month which may be due to noise within the dataset as opposed to larger trends. The increased unemployment rates within the larger arts sector at the beginning of the pandemic may reflect the realities of contracted employees and seasonal staff as opposed to permanent staff members, as well as difference between the nonprofit sector represented in this analysis and the broader arts and culture sector represented in the unemployment data.


Re-Investing in People

Corresponding to the 20% rise in staff levels, total payroll was 32% higher in nominal terms, and 11% higher with inflation taken into account. In each of the last two years, growth in compensation has exceeded inflation. All of this reflects a significant investment in people over the last few years, which likely includes efforts to retain employees during a strong job market, as well as a modest expansion in staff sizes.

These trends are confirmed by data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) which show increases in aggregate payrolls in the performing arts and museum sectors over the last two years. While our analysis here does not analyze specific sectors, the BLS data points to variations between performing arts organizations, which show a slower and more uneven increase, and the museum sector, which displays more consistent growth over the same period.


Renewed Commitment to Artists

In 2020 and 2021, compensation to artists declined alongside overall personnel expenses and made up a smaller portion of total personnel expenses than they did pre-pandemic. This changed in 2022 when compensation for artists rebounded above pre-pandemic levels in terms of the amount of compensation and the percentage of total personnel expenses directed to artists.

The number of artists hired also increased in 2022 and 2023. Looking at the five-year period as a whole, the average organization hired 19% more artists in 2023 than in 2019, and growth in compensation paid to artists outpaced inflation by 31%.

Coming Soon: Are Capital Reserves Amassed During the Pandemic Beginning to Erode?

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