The other week, ArtNews published an article by Artie Vierkant directing our attention to the healthcare crisis within the art world. And it’s a severe one– the article walks through the burdened history of the lack of attention to the health, both mental and physical, of artists in the past, and reveals the shocking reality that most working artists have little or no access to healthcare coverage. Vierkant further links tragic and premature deaths of artists in the past to personal narratives from himself and others that explore the devastating financial burden of surviving without health coverage.
The fact of the matter is that it’s wildly expensive to stay healthy in the United States. Medical bills have reached absurdly high prices, even with insurance coverage. The whole healthcare system is plotted against the people who don’t have the money for proper care: we live in an age of autoimmunity and other chronic illnesses that charges patients insane amounts of money for medication and treatments, none of which offer an actual cure to the disease, simply symptom relief. Even to cure an autoimmune disease, which has been most often seen as a result of drastic diet and lifestyle changes, is costly. Purchasing organic and healthy produce is more costly than eating processed and unhealthy food, and artists rarely have the expendable income to spend on such things. As most artistic communities and opportunities exist in expensive cities, such as New York and Chicago, the majority of their income goes to the cost of simply staying alive.
Many artists and other creative types make their living as part of the ever-growing gig economy: a burgeoning part of the global workforce who strings together smaller, part time jobs, or gigs, into a comprehensive income. Of course, many freelance artists have been doing this for a living for years, but as more creative entrepreneurs establish more companies, the part-time opportunities for artists have become far more abundant. While this means good news for creatives who seek work in their field, it’s not-so-great news for their healthcare. Unlike larger corporations or companies who can support their employees with full-time work and healthcare benefits, smaller companies typically do not have the resources to provide their employees with such benefits. This means while more artists are actively working in their field, more artists are also working without health insurance.
So what’s it really like to live without health insurance? Many families are opting out of paying for health insurance because it’s far too costly, which at best is a giant risk. At worse, it could completely wipe out your finances, and yes, even cost your life. And this is only counting able-bodied, able-minded, and otherwise healthy people. For anyone with a chronic illness, disability, or any other health struggle, health insurance is the only way to pay for treatment, and many are getting poor or inadequate treatment due to lack of insurance. These hurdles towards healthcare are further multiplied for marginalized individuals, such as LGBTQ+ and POC folks. The healthcare system, with its accessibility reserved for only some, seems plotted against these vulnerable populations (for example, uninsured LGBTQ+ people who need PrEP pay around $1,300 a month).
This leaves the question of how artists can protect their health and get insurance. The most powerful tool is that of educating others about insurance– either reading articles on what to keep in mind when trying to pay for insurance or holding panels to discuss what health looks like in the context of working as a creative. What can employers do about the current healthcare crisis for artists? If unable to provide insurance for their creative employees, they should understand the value that creatives hold. It is historically known that companies constantly exploit artists and other creatives, as there is a commonly held belief that artistic work is less valuable than work in other fields. It is time for artists to finally be recognized and protected in our capitalist society, instead of pushed to the margins and stripped of their security.