The Creative Class of Color in New York

Yasmin Ramirez

Recent studies on New York’s creative sector have established that the arts are a key asset in the city’s economic portfolio. Culture Counts: Strategies for a More Vibrant Cultural Life for New York City (2001); Creative New York (2005); and The Arts as an Industry: Their Economic Impact on New York City and New York State (2007) provide ample evidence that the diverse number of cultural institutions, arts-related businesses, and artists in New York generate employment, attract tourism, and enhance the city’s quality of life. 1 Cultural diversity is frequently mentioned as a chief component that attracts tourism and maintains New York reputation as a global creative capital. However, missing from these reports are data on artists that can inform us on how well artists of Asian, African, Latino, and Native American descent are faring in New York’s creative economy.

Those of us who work in New York’s culturally specific and community-based institutions find it ironic that the population of artists who practically embody diversity have not been counted among the city’s assets. One reason may be that urban policy makers who draw from Richard Florida’s formulas for sustaining a creative city buy into his contention that class, ethnic, race, and gender biases erode as creative class workers interact:

The creative class of people I study use the word “diversity” a lot, but not to press any political hot buttons. Diversity is simply something they value in all its manifestations. This is spoken of so often…that I take it to be a fundamental value marker of creative class values. Creative minded people enjoy a mix of influences. They want to hear different kinds of music and try different kinds of food. They want to meet and socialize with people unlike themselves, trade views and spar over issues.” 2

Florida’s observation that creative people value diversity generally rings true. In all my years in the art world I have seldom come across bigots or homophobes and found that male chauvinists could be re-educated. Nevertheless it is hard to ignore that New York’s creative class is stratified along racial and ethnic lines.

There is a creative class of color—no actually a creative community of color in New York. Whereas Florida’s archetypical creative-class denizen is apolitical and esteems diversity for its entertainment value artists of Asian, African, Latino, and Native American descent have developed networks, organizations, museums, galleries, clubs, clusters, and collectives that operate on the conviction that cultural diversity is a civil right and access to arts is a social good. It goes without saying that artist-run community based organizations of color have been historically under-valued and under-funded in New York City. The economic crises of this last decade coupled with rising costs threatens to shut doors of many who are operating on subsistence level budgets. But our will to survive is strong and new coalitions are forming to sustain our  artists and arts organizations because they serve as the connecters between and translators of multiple peoples, heritages, languages and subcultures that reside in our global city.

Launched in 2006, the Urban Artist Initiative (UAI) is the first and only cross-discipline city-wide individual grant program developed for artists in New York that self-identify their heritage as African/African American, Latino, Asian, or Native American. Bill Aguado, Executive Director of the Bronx Council on the Arts and Ted Berger, former Executive Director of the New York Foundation for the Arts, created the conceptual framework for the UAI as a program that would “strengthen the support and infrastructure for artists of color in New York.” Foster-ing dialogue, collaboration, and resource sharing among ethnic-specific organizations is one of the UAI’s chief objectives. Currently the UAI consortium is composed of the Bronx Council on the Arts, Asian American Arts Alliance, Association of Hispanic Arts, the Harlem Arts Alliance, the Queens Council on the Arts, and the National Museum of the American Indian (Smithsonian Institution).

The UAI motto “embrace diversity within diversity” informed the selection of the grant recipients and public programs. There was a concerted effort to support artists whose modes of self-expression were risky, critical of facile representations of identity, technically innovative. In 2007 ninety artists were awarded grants varying in amounts of $500 to $2,500 each for a total of $125,000. In 2009 fifty artists were awarded $2,000 each, totaling $100,000. Exhibitions of works by UAI visual and media artists were held at the Longwood Arts Gallery in 2008 and Nathan Cummings Foundation in 2009.

Funds for the UAI/NYC Grants Program have been provided by LINC via the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Booth Ferris Foundation, the Buddy Fund for Justice of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Starry Night Fund of the Tides Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation. The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs did not fund UAI.

The UAI applicant pool, which resembled the “majority-minority” demographics in New York, was ideal for conducting a preliminary research study on the city’s creative class of color. Drawing over one thousand applicants, the Urban Arts Initiative awarded individual grants in literature, media arts, performing arts, and visual/interdisciplinary arts—all the major disciplines that make up New York’s arts sector. Between July and September 2008, one thousand past and current UAI applicants were invited to complete an on-line survey that I created in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team of artists and arts administrators drawn from the UAI consortium. 325 artists responded.

The survey provided a demographic profile that generated vital information on the socio-economic resources that artists contribute to New York as well as data on their needs. Among the questions we sought to answer were: what are the median age, income, and educational levels of the UAI applicant pool; where are artists finding employment; how many have medical coverage; what networks do UAI artists utilize to display/market their work; how much of their earned income is derived from sales; how are artists coping with the city’s affordable housing and/or studio shortage; what types of resources will artists need to sustain their creative enterprises in New York?

Summary of Findings

The findings of the UAI survey indicate that this population is largely (65%) female, between 30 and 50 years old, college educated, civic minded, and active in their local communities. 82% report they are regular voters; 63% taught an arts class or workshop; 59% organized local arts events, giving artist talks and participating in panel discussions.

UAI artists report that ethnic-specific and community-based galleries were most receptive to their work and are not finding similar opportunities to exhibit or find employment in the commercial galleries. 47% describe themselves as self-employed; 38% seek entrepreneurial training; 26% report that they were a founder or director of a not-for-profit organization; and 13% report operating a local business.

This data suggests that there may be unseen economic opportunities for artists to start up local businesses with training and encouragement.

There are several professional development programs in New York that train artists on circulating their work in the fine art marketplace. Notwithstanding the recent economic downtown, it is unlikely that artists will be able to fully support themselves in a centuries-old system that relies on intermediaries like art dealers, agents and museums to find patronage. Marketing of work and seeking employment through the internet is standard practice today. Moreover the results from the UAI survey found that the majority of artists of color were not connected to the commercial gallery circuit. Sectors where artists of color found the most employment were in education, not-for-profits, and social services. A professional development program could be tailored to build those assets and networks that focus on social entrepreneurship and to provide artists with access to existing successful networks of artist-run businesses and not for profits that can serve as models for their own enterprises. Additionally, the UAI professional development program should include training in advocacy and community organizing thus supplying the UAI population with tools and strategies to form productive alliances within their communities on common social welfare issues such as affordable housing, healthcare, employment, environmental justice, and LBGT rights.

Yasmin Ramirez, Ph.D, is a visual arts researcher at the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños (Center for Puerto Rican Studies), Hunter College, New York.

Key Findings

Gender Breakdown
65% of the respondents were female; 35% male; 0 transgender

Ethnic Breakdown (respondents were allowed to check multiple identifiers)

7.5% African
33.8% African American
0% Arab American
14.8% Asian
19.3% Asian American
13.4% Caribbean
4.3% Euro American
20.3% Latina/o
12.1% Latin American
7.2% Native American

Time in NYC

45% report living in New York City for 10 years or more
26% of respondents are native New Yorkers
20% have lived in New York City 10 to 5 years
8% have lived in New York City less than 5 years


40% 30–39
29% 40–49
15% 50–59
10% 20–29
3% 60–65
1% over 65


69 % are single heads of household.
11% have households with children.


56% College graduates
30% M.F.A.
30% High school
16% Some college
2.2% Ph.D.
0.0% M.B.A.

Income levels

26% $25,000–40,000
23.8% $15,000–25,000
23.3% $40,001–65,000
20% $15,000 or under
6.3% $65,000 or more

Percentage of yearly income derived from artistic work

47% under 10% to none
29% between half and 10%
22% all or most
47% self-employed
36% employed in education
24% employed in not-for-profit arts organizations
3% employed in commercial galleries or auction houses.
14% directors or founders of not-for-profit institutions
37% belong to an arts collective


75% rent
69% report that half or more of their income goes toward housing costs

Health Care

38% have health insurance through employers
17% pay for their insurance
33% lack insurance coverage

Disciplinary Breakdown

45% identified themselves as visual artists
31% media artists
24% literary artists

Internet Marketing

52% have websites

Exhibition Opportunities
Artists identified ethnic-specific, community-based, and artist-run galleries as most receptive to displaying their work; corporations and commercial galleries were the least receptive.

Participation in Civic Life

82% report they are regular voters.
63% taught an arts class or workshop
59% organized local arts events, giving artist talks and participating in panel discussions.
54% donated artwork or labor to benefit not-for-profit organizations; of that number
46% report donating to more than 5 events/organizations in the last two years.
47% received stipends of $250 or less for rendering services such as exhibiting, performing, giving talks, or sitting on panels.
37% received no compensation for services.
21% sat on peer-reviewed funding panels.
13% report operating a local business.

Statement of Needs

84% of the respondents who are currently looking for workspace cannot find a studio within their affordable price range of under $500.
79% report using part of their home as a workspace.
53% report needing accounting/business skills.
54% report needing website design and management skills.
38% report needing entrepreneurial skills.

Top Issues of Concern

81% funding for the arts
75% housing costs
61% health care cost
57% employment for artists


  1. New York Foundation for the Arts, Culture Counts: Strategies for a More Vibrant Cultural Life for Notes New York City, (2001); Center for an Urban Future, Creative New York (2005); Alliance for the Arts, The Arts as an Industry: Their Economic Impact on New York City and New York State (2007).
  2. Richard Florida, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” Washington Monthly (May 2002): 8.