Trying to find the money-motivation sweet spot

for love and moneyLast week, over on New Beans, Clay Lord wrote a post in which he mentioned the release of a new report on the salaries at arts agencies and used some of the findings, as well as some personal experiences, to discuss (among other things) the relationship between passion and salaries. He opined:

 We, as a field, need to get out of the cycle of allowing passion or lack of knowledge to displace financial worth—especially when this (and other) data show that such passion likely in part allows for disparities that should not exist.  We, as a field, need to better understand that we have inherent disparities, that we have created systems where moving up is challenging in part because our leaders are being paid in passion as much as they’re being paid in salary, and that passion isn’t something that you can retire on—systems where talented would-be leaders reluctantly fall away, frustrated at or unable to afford the reality of working in it—systems where some of our brightest cannot devote their whole energies to what they’re doing and also afford balance, family, time, space.

The link that Clay makes between intrinsic motivation (e.g. passion) and extrinsic motivation (e.g. salary) is one that has been studied quite a bit, particularly in the creative industries. People have theorized, and studies have confirmed, that people accept lower salaries than they might otherwise make (or than what they might actually need to live) in exchange for the various intrinsic benefits that they derive from a life in the arts.

Interestingly, some researchers have also looked at this question from the other direction. That is, what happens when you pay people to do something that they might normally do just for the love of it? Bruno Frey is a leading discussant on this topic and, in particular, on Crowding Theory as it relates to motivation, money and the arts. He writes in his 2000 book, Arts & Economics: Analysis & Cultural Policy:

Crowding Theory analyses the effect of external interventions on intrinsic motivation. It is thus applicable to the creativity of individuals, which relies strongly on motivation to act for its own sake, rather than because of external compensation. The external intervention may consist of monetary and non-monetary rewards, as well as certain stipulations. It is based on a well-developed psychological effect known as ‘Hidden Cost of Rewards’ and ‘Cognitive Evaluation Theory’, stating that rewarding highly motivated persons to undertake a task tends to reduce their intrinsic motivation. Due to the external incentive introduced intrinsic motivation is no longer needed nor appreciated. This psychological relationship has been generalized to the Crowding-Out Effect.

In other words, money tends to crowd out intrinsic motivation.

Crowding theory may help explain such things as:

  •  Why volunteers may get a warm glow from a job well done, a hearty thanks, and a token gesture, like a T-shirt or a free meal, but may feel less enthused (and appreciated) if they are instead offered a low hourly wage for their efforts.
  • Why, once you have been paid very well to do something you love, over time it feels more like a job and you both expect to be paid and (perhaps) enjoy it less than you did when you weren’t making much money doing it.
  • Why people often romanticize the early days of nonprofit startups when no one was being paid but everyone was there for the love of it—and why they often feel something is lost as the organization grows and begins to hire others, often paying them a living wage.

Therese Amabile is also a leading scholar on the relationship between the external environment and internal motivation for people working in the creative industries. Amabile has found that money, severe deadlines, competition, and fear of retribution all (contrary to some myths) tend to hinder creative work.

And some months ago (in a post called Not In It For The Money) I shared a link to a terrific RSA video (called Drive) in which Daniel Pink reflects on the findings from a couple studies that look at the relationship between monetary rewards and work performance and found that–with the exception of jobs that are mechanical (e.g., working on an assembly line)–larger financial rewards do not necessarily lead to higher performance and may even be inversely correlated with performance. He describes non-mechanical tasks as those that are complicated or require a high degree of conceptual or creative thinking.

However, Pink also makes the critical caveat that this finding only holds once you are paid enough that money can be taken off the table as an “issue” (meaning, you can stop thinking about money and think about the task). I recommend that you watch the entire video to get the nuance underpinning these statements. It’s a great animated talk and is only ten minutes or so.

Reflecting on Clay’s post and these ideas, I began puzzling on this relationship between passion for the mission/arts and money and wondering  (particularly with regard to larger arts nonprofits):

  • Which jobs within a typical art group would be categorized as “mechanical” and which as “creative/conceptual/complex”? Do we (or should we) reward accordingly (i.e., using financial rewards to get higher performance out of the former, but not the latter)?
  • Does money crowd out passion for the mission the way it crowds out intrinsic motivation for the job itself? And how might equity in pay relate to this? In other words, does paying exceedingly high salaries to a few at the top crowd out intrinsic motivation/passion of the rest?
  • Is there a money-motivation sweet spot, where a staffer or artist is paid enough that money can be “taken off the table” but not so much that the job attracts even those with no intrinsic motivation for the task? In other words, is there any benefit to leaving a modest “compensation hole” to be filled by passion for the work or mission of the nonprofit?


Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Peter Rybolt says

    I like this, but I don’t think we can reduce it to a simple binomial equation. Certainly people are motivated by more than money, but I think we make a rather fantastic leap if we conclude that there is some optimal combination of monetary and non-monetary compensation that (a) leads to lower costs and (b) is predictable. The right combination for you or me likely differ; the result is deeply personal and no doubt affected by other exogenous (and possibly endogenous) factors.

    I would have to go back and look at Frey again, but I suspect this dynamic has more to do with disparities in compensation within the organization than in individual effects attributable to a change in compensation. It’s not that some pay causes us to reevaluate our personal worth, it’s that when we were all paid nothing, we were all paid equally. We take a certain satisfaction in believing that no one’s effort is valued more than ours. As companies grow and compensation disparities emerge, we now have a yardstick by which to measure the value others place in us, and it can be dispiriting if we’re on the low end.

    I think thoughtful leaders recognize this, and try to balance monetary compensation with other forms of compensation, such as opportunity, praise, recognition, responsibility. Given that we’re all grossly under-compensated in the arts — leaders and creatives and mechanicals alike — finding that balance is critical.

  2. says

    Thanks for addressing this important topic. While I agree that motivation is complicated and that financial compensation can have unintended negative consequences, the idea of paying someone less than the market says they’re worth because you don’t want them to lose their passion seems paternalistic and infantilizing. The labor market already “discounts” non-profit salaries because (1) qualified employees are willing to accept less because they receive some degree of intangible compensation in the form of warm fuzzies, and (2) there is a widespread belief that it is morally problematic to be highly compensated for doing charitable work. (For what it’s worth, I accept #1 as reasonable and legitimate, but #2 contributes to chronic underperformance in much of the non-profit sector.)

    Daniel Pink’s point relates primarily to incentive compensation, which is a different issue. Incentives affect how people behave after they’ve been hired, and I agree they’re dangerous. Basic compensation, however, is more relevant to who you can hire in the first place. “Taking money off the table” only goes so far. As long as employees are inclined to compare their compensation to that of their peers (both within and outside the organization), then they will continue to think about money – not because of what it can buy them, but because of what it signals about their worth.

    • says

      Hi Adam,

      Thanks for commenting and for clarifying the important distinction with Pink. With regard to your point 2 above, the IRS does concern itself with the issue of “excessive compensation” in the nonprofit sector. This is something that can threaten a charity’s nonprofit status. So I don’t think it’s just a “moral” issue (for some); I think it’s a legal one, as well. The difficulty is that the IRS is not very clear on what is meant by “excessive compensation.” Here are the basic guidelines (which I copied from Guidestar’s Website):

      “Five Basic Concepts

      (1) Exempt organizations can pay their executives market rate.
      (2) “Market rate” is determined by researching what someone in a similar position would earn at an organization that is of the same size and has a similar mission or field of activity.
      (3) Exempt organizations can look at for-profit compensation when determining market rate, as long as the job, organization size, and organization mission/purpose are comparable.
      (4) The IRS has no standard formula, such as percentage of total revenues or expenses, for determining compensation.
      (5) If the IRS finds that an executive at an exempt organization has been overpaid, it can fine both the executive and the board members who approved the overpayment, or even revoke the organization’s tax-exempt status if the board has not (1) based its decision on appropriate research and (2) documented its decision-making process at the time it approved the compensation.

      That last one is the kicker, especially when you consider that the IRS is looking more closely at nonprofit compensation every day.”

      Available at:

      • says

        Absolutely there are legal issues as well. I’m not arguing that non-profit executives should be allowed to loot their organizations through excessive compensation. They shouldn’t, and neither should CEOs of publicly traded companies, for that matter. Essentially I’m arguing that (1) the labor market should be allowed to function as a market, (2) we should pay people market rates, and (3) the appropriate definition of the market includes both non-profit and for-profit firms. I believe this is compatible with the IRS rules.

        • says

          Adam Huttler notes that the labor market should be allowed to function as a market, and that we should pay people market rates. Given the massive over-supply of high quality musicians, and the extreme under-supply of orchestras (as seen in international comparisons) we could halve the salaries of every orchestra musician in America, even if some lengthy lockouts would be necessary before they came to terms. Quality would be affected, but not to a degree that would be especially perceptible to most patrons. Anyway, this illustrates that something is missing in these discussions.

          • says

            There is actually a market based reason why this doesn’t happen. Orchestras of a given tier have determined they are in competition with one another for the best talent that they can get. And this is true: musicians looking for an orchestra seat will audition anywhere they can, and if given the choice between jobs, will choose either the highest pay or the highest prestige (the two of which are highly correlated).

            I think this basic reality is exaggerated by musicians, particularly in times of labor negotiations. The musicians of any given top tier orchestra think that if they aren’t paid the very highest scale, then they won’t get the best new talent in the future. Of course, since the differences are often in the neighborhood of 1% or less, while cost of living between these cities varies considerably more, this argument can tend to ring hollow and come across as self-serving.

            If only one of the top-tier orchestras were to halve musicians salaries, they’d obviously take a quality hit. It would take most or all of them acting together to achieve your tongue-in-cheek recommendation, which would require illegal collusion.

            So, the reason top tier orchestra members receive the high compensation that they receive is because they already ARE negotiating with managers in an open labor market. The only way to do what you suggest is for managers to violate anti-trust legislation, which would be very anti-market behavior.

          • says

            Even without illegal collusion, a gradual lowering of pay is clearly evolving, as exemplified by the various orchestras I mention in my post below. The top five or six orchestras still have enough status and are such important prestige symbols that they haven’t faced these problems, except for the Philadelphia Orchestra, which used bankruptcy as a way of reducing pension and other musician costs. So it might be a mistake to take your perspective working for the Chicago Symphony as a norm. And it might be premature to think these trends won’t eventually reach the top, as in Philly.

            The top US orchestras have developed an unfortunate habit in recent years of trying to poach musicians from each other, which has indeed raised musician costs. The first trumpet in Philly, for example, makes $297,000 per year because that was the price to take him away from Dallas. I do not think the issue is solely about quality, but about the status gained by stealing players from other top orchestras. In short, the colored ribbons of status can also result in artists being paid more. Is that sort of behavior in the top six orchestras, which results in a hogging of resources, the best thing for our cultural lives?

            Germany has 133 fulltime, year-round orchestras as opposed to about 17 in the USA for four times the population. Those 133 German orchestras are all under a single union contract called the TVK. There are five categories of orchestras and pay among each category remains relatively similar. The result is that very good orchestras are spread around the country through public funding and a uniform union contract, and not concentrated in a few financial centers as with America’s system of funding by the wealthy.

            The Met is perhaps the worst of all examples. It’s budget is $325 million per year, twice the cost of corresponding houses in Europe, and even though its season is four months shorter. The wealthy service themselves luxuriously while the rest of the country is neglected. Germany has 83 year-round houses, while the USA has about six real houses and the longest season is only seven months. As a result, we only have 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year.

            Is this sort of hogging of resources exemplified by the Met and our top six orchestras while most of the country is culturally impoverished the best thing for our cultural lives? Does it make any sense for the CEO of the LA Phil to make $1.5 million per year while the average salary of a regional orchestra musician is $13k per year? Are these the sorts of contextualizing view points missing from these discussions?

          • says

            Just to add a bit more perspective, the salary of Deborah Borda, the CEO of the LA Phil, comes to $5769 for every week day of the year. If you told a European that the manager of an orchestra should make five thousand dollars a day, they would think one of three things: 1) you’re joking, 2) you’re insane, 3) you’re an American.

  3. Carter Gillies says

    Wow! This was very close to what I was thinking when I read Lord’s post. I’ve been aware of the overjustification effect in my own life as an artist, how sometimes I won’t feel motivated to make work that I have trouble selling, when I would previously have joyed in making it if selling were not an issue. And because I teach classes where my demonstration work has this non-commercial motivation its something I’m acutely aware of. Things I would be happy to make for my students can be the worst sort of drudgery when I think of making them for my own inventory production…..

    I suppose that as long as intrinsic motivation is enough to keep us engaged, our sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose sufficient to keeping us at the task, things like monetary rewards are less pressing. But the issue I see is that pay is only one of many external conditions that affect us. Pay equity is only one of the criteria by which we judge overall equity and our happiness. There are other social criteria. Those extrinsic variables seem to also include respect, and in employment situations that can often get tangled up in issues of pay equity. Respect is its own extrinsic variable, but its often not unrelated to things like pay. The difference between it and the extrinsic purely monetary reward is potentially that it may not cripple performance and motivation the more of it there is. I’m not sure. Does it?

    The difficulty I see is that on the one hand we have to acknowledge that paying people what they deserve may unmotivate their performance, but that NOT paying them what they deserve may also be construed as a lack of equity and a sign of disrespect (And I’d wager that respect DOES affect performance, independently of issues of pay). How to navigate between those variables is not an easy question.

    I am curious what studies have been made of the effects of respect on performance in relation to intrinsic rewards (the “passion” that Lord describes, the autonomy, purpose, and mastery that Pink mentions), and what the relation of respect is to other extrinsic rewards like monetary compensation. Will feelings of disrespect defeat even more stubborn intrinsic motivations? These seem like interesting questions.

    Thanks for the great post Diane!

    • says

      As a postscript to the above, Carter Gilles sent the following message to me, which he gave me permission to post (thanks, Carter!):

      To: Webmaster

      Carter Gillies

      I guess there is a bit of research insight on the question I asked
      relating to the issue of respect independent of monetary compenastion.
      In Dan Ariely’s TED talk he relates “The bad news is that ignoring
      the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort
      in front of their eyes. … The good news is that by simply looking at
      something that somebody has done, scanning it and saying ‘uh huh,’
      [you] dramatically improve people’s motivations.”

      It was a fascinating talk, which you can find here:

      Thanks as always for the work you do!


  4. says

    The Detroit Symphony recently had its base salaries cut by 24%, from $104,650 to $79,000. The Baltimore Symphony’s base salary has been reduced 17%, from $81,000 to $67,000. The Minnesota Symphony has been locked out for a year because it refuses to accept to 32% pay cut. There are about 15 similar examples from smaller orchestras that could be mentioned –Syracuse, New Mexico, San Diego, Honolulu, Nashville, etc, etc..

    All the same, the musicians keep working. Napoleon long ago described this very succinctly: “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” As we see, this has become a new policy in American arts administration. Exploit then flatter. Brilliant!

    On the other hand, Reynold Levy, former CEO of Lincoln Center, worked for a salary that came to about $7000 for every week day. Meanwhile, the New York City Opera essentially ceased to exist. I haven’t seen any articles or talks that explain phenomena like this — which are unique to the American arts world. There is nothing remotely similar in any European country. Why have Europeans not let “The Market” wreck their arts world? It leads me to believe that in all of these discussions on ArtsJournal, important contextualizing points are being missed – or overlooked.

  5. says

    In the various studies cited, seems that part of the missing context might have to do with how “performance” quality is measured. I’m suspicious of the notion that extrinsic reward (financial compensation) can lower the quality of performance by “crowding out” intrinsic motivation. Does that question come up at all in the for-profit world? I think the “overcrowding” theory reflects an underlying assumption that making art is not a legitimate livelihood. It belies an attitude that artists need constant policing to keep them from slacking off. The logic seems to rely on the old starving artist trope: if those wacky artists actually get a living wage for their work, they won’t be hungry enough to produce great art. Am I missing something?

    • says

      Tyler Cowen, a popular and somewhat conservative economicst, recommended in one of his books that you not give your kids an allowance based on their chore performance for this very reason. You will crowd out their intrinsic motivation, which is hopefully connected to being part of the family unit. This theory is not merely employed as an excuse to underpay people in the nonprofit field.

      And yes, some of the most glamorous for-profit companies, particularly in the tech sector, do not pay as well as you’d guess, because their employees are working for one of the most prestigious and well known companies in the world. The for-profit publishing industry also pays ridiculously low wages, paying with intrinsic rewards instead.

    • says

      In my professional experience, I’ve never heard of an orchestra musician or opera singer losing motivation because they were paid too much. The higher paid the orchestra, the more the pressure for perfection. This might make the job less fun, but quality is raised, not damaged. Higher paid orchestras also bring much more status, which also becomes a motivating factor toward higher quality.

      On the other hand, according to a Harvard study, many orchestra musicians have low job satisfaction. They would prefer more creative endeavors where they have more autonomy. It seems that high pay and low job satisfaction are not necessarily detrimental to quality in orchestras. Higher pay compensates for low job satisfaction among orchestra musicians.

    • says

      Hi Corey,

      Thanks very much for your comment. I think the easiest way for you to get clarity may be to watch the Pink video. I could try to explain the nuance of it but the video is really short and enjoyable and I couldn’t do a better job. One part I like in particular, is towards the end where he talks about the “profit motive” getting un-moored from the “purpose motive” in companies and how detrimental this can be. I’m not sure I have fully wrapped my head around this topic myself and I acknowledge that the provocations at the end may be a little far-fetched. But I am sincerely wondering what keeps people (particularly in large arts organizations) moored to the purpose motive, to use Pink’s term.


  6. says

    There is one dimension of extrinsic motivation that is not mentioned here, but that is definitely a factor in low pay for entry-level jobs in the prestige or glamour sectors (and nonprofits, too). That is the pervasive idea that you have to “pay your dues” and work for future opportunity and experience and your resume rather than for the rent.

    Internships are the most extreme example and get all the press, but you’ll see the same thing every time a young person with student loan debt to service nonetheless takes an entry level job paying $25,000/yr in an expensive city.

  7. says

    Thanks Diane. It seems that I misread your comment above and just watched the Ariely video instead of the Pink. Ariely is taking up the undeniable need for meaningful work that Is such a strong element within our human nature. In fact, he seems to be addressing the question of financial compensation only to discount it as a motivating factor of much importance in the experiments he cites. He says nothing that I would argue with. What he says about work, meaning and the importance of being seen/acknowledged by others certainly fits my own experience in theater. Who among us hasn’t suffered the depression that goes along with having one’s work ignored by funders, press or public and the felt the elation that comes when our work has impact. On to Pink’s video now.

  8. says

    The RSanimation of Pink’s talk is fantastic. If, for example, every group in the Network of Ensemble Theatres could afford to pay its people enough to “take the question of money off the table” we’d see an unprecedented flowering of theatre. In practice, I think that the money-meaning relationship in the more corporate or institutional modeled orgs is the inverse of the one in artist-led ensembles. In the latter, the issue of purpose and meaning has been taken off the table, leaving all that space for the huge question of money. In the former, money is off the table but, as Pink et al are telling us, money is no substitute for purpose, and beyond a certain point, will not compensate for lack of meaning as an effective motivator. To which news I believe a lot of us would react with a heartily ironic “No kidding?”

  9. says

    It seems to me that the idea of looking for a “sweet spot” regarding money and motivation is getting ahead of the current state of the arts, and therefore feels like it’s asking the wrong question. And it does feel a little bit patronizing/infantilizing towards artists and other no-pay or low-paid cultural workers to imply that they need prodding by institutions to do their work, especially in the case of artists, when often work on their own for significant periods of time before payment or the recognition required to garner it is even a possibility.

    One of the key points raised in the post is that people have to be paid enough not have to worry about money, but the rest of the piece also points out that pretty much everyone in the arts is underpaid (I’m assuming that the piece is referring mostly to administrators/cultural workers, because much of the data I’ve seen shows that the majority of artists are paid no fees at all, or extremely low fees when they are paid anything–here’s just one piece articulating some of the data to back that up:

    Certainly some artists who still union contracts, but even among those with union contracts, very few are getting an annual salary from those contracts–all the contract does is ensure for the period of their temporary contracts they will be fairly compensated. I was just talking about labor issues with someone who had been fighting for a union contract in the past at the Bronx Opera, knowing full well that even with the union contract no one there was going to be able to live off the money that they would earn in only three short performance runs–it was about fighting for fair compensation for the temporary time they were being employed by that organization.

    Which is to say, there’s a big disconnect here. Administrators/cultural workers are often salaried with some benefits, even if at a very low rate, while artists are typically contingent/temporary/contract workers when they are paid anything at all, regardless of union status–look at Actors Equity, they require six weeks of work every six months to maintain health benefits and a LOT of members of Equity simply cannot get that level of work, and that’s just for health benefits, the pay during those six weeks for many people wouldn’t cover other costs. Based on what I can tell only a tiny fraction of working artists are salaried, and it seems problematic to compare salaried and contingent workers in any discussion of economics/working conditions, as they are dramatically different circumstances.

    Also, so often, when people talk about money and the arts (and I’ve been guilty of this myself) they refer to only the 2% of arts institutions that garner the most funding (the Met, MoMA, LA Phil, etc), but as anyone who has worked outside of that 2% knows, administrators are often making below median incomes and artists are receiving no money or tiny fees that almost never covers the costs associated with the work being presented and certainly won’t pay rent or health insurance premiums or buy groceries.

    All of which is to say, this post seems to be two steps ahead of the real problem. From the perspective of the artist who is paid nothing by most arts organizations for their creative work, and the other no-pay (interns) and low-paid cultural workers, we aren’t anywhere near step 1 – paying a living wage to everyone who is contributing labor to our cultural institutions.

    It seems step 2, as some of the comments touched on, is then to spread out those wages across organizations in a relatively equal way.

    Only THEN, after achieving those things, can you begin to talk about the incentives or variations ABOVE a living wage that might alter people’s relationship to their labor.

    So many economic models rely on the fact that people are meeting their basic needs. But the reality in the US right now a huge portion of the population (including a large number of artists I know) are making their economic decisions based on an inability to access healthcare and pay their rent. Which is to say, from my experience and research about artists, it feels a little exploitative to start asking questions about finding a “sweet spot” when so few artists are being compensated at all when contributing labor to cultural institutions, let alone compensated in a way that meets their basic needs. Even the NEA recorded data showing that the median income for dancers in 2005, including non-arts earnings was only $15,000–that’s below even the incredibly skewed official poverty line in the US. And that’s the median income, which means a ton of dancers make even less than that. So, we have a long way to go to achieve basic levels of compensation before we can start to talk about what kind of carrots to dangle in front of artists to increase their motivation. I don’t think anyone I know who calls themselves an artist is lacking for motivation.

    • says

      Thank you so much, Alexis, for so eloquently re-grounding the discussion with this healthy, uncomfortable and sadly accurate analysis of our current situation. So glad to have discovered your work.

    • says

      Alexis writes: “So, we have a long way to go to achieve basic levels of compensation before we can start to talk about what kind of carrots to dangle in front of artists to increase their motivation.”

      Yes, we have a long way to go, but are we even going in the right direction? Will our private funding system ever take us to “basic levels of compensation” for a reasonable number of artists? What happens when we ground our conversations within a set of established parameters even though they will never take us to a successful result?

  10. says

    Thanks, everyone, for the comments. I can see that my post failed to adequately acknowledge the very low wages already paid to most artists and administrators–though this is something I have written about several times in previous posts. I tried to convey that I was thinking primarily of large organizations and that I was concerned about inequity between those paid very well versus those not paid enough “to take money off the table” but, I see that this idea of a money motivation sweet spot strikes many as one that is in denial of low wages and insulting to those that work at nonprofits. I do acknowledge (and tried to state this in the post) that wages first need to be enough, then we might ask whether (in some cases) they are too much? I do think some people are overpaid in the arts and culture sector. But no, not most people. And I regret that I didn’t point this out more explicitly in this particular post.

    Thanks, again, for the thoughtful comments. I appreciate the debate very much.

  11. says

    Detroit has declared bankruptcy and owes $18 billion to creditors. The city has 78,000 abandonded homes. Painting’s in the DIA worth 2.5 billion are at risk of being sold.

    Over the last 12 months, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and JPMorgan paid compensation of $41 billion — a sum over twice the entire debt of Detroit to a hanful of people.

    Our confusion about appropriate compensation in the arts seems to be a reflection of the winner-takes-all mentality in our larger society as a whole.

    • says

      Art and Economics are strange bedfellows. Time Warner canceled their Ovation arts cable channel claiming it was too expensive to run.
      Is running an arts channel really more expensive than say, a sports channel, or it it just that they don’t make as much money?
      And while Crowding Theory analyzes intrinsic motivation when it comes to the arts, in the business world it may more focus on productivity.
      This is dangerous for the world of Art when neo-liberal politics insist that intrinsic value, compensation, and public engagement, and productivity all exist on the same level of value.

  12. Carter Gillies says


    Thanks again for the great post! Interesting discussion it prompted, too. I guess its not surprising that most commenters took it in the direction of general marketplace conditions rather than individual and personal significance. Those are such big issues that its little wonder they seems to dwarf the more humble lessons that can be learned….

    Some last thoughts on the issue from my perspective: It seems that almost all the commenters were looking at art as a commercial product, something that professionals do, and that this is the most natural expression of art and its relation to money. The difficulty with that narrow view is that it leaves out all the untold amateurs, hobbyists, and part-timers who possibly make up the majority of folks working at creative cultural production. The model of professionals, of people wanting to make a living at art-making, is hardly the model of amateurs, and I remember you talking quite persuasively about this in another blog post you wrote for the McKnight Foundation, “Are we a sector of underemployed ‘professional’ artists or successful ‘pro-ams’?”……

    My sense is that very very few people become artists simply to make money. And they only become professionals almost always because they want to do their creative work more exclusively or even full time. Its rarely just about the money. Its rarely just one job alternative from many equivalent possibilities. We usually become professional artists because its what we love doing. And this intrinsic motivation can override the downsides of many extrinsic variables that don’t go our way…..

    But as soon as you start to make a living from your art you ARE receiving extrinsic benefits. And if we are unlucky, the extrinsic and intrinsic motivations can become confused, something that is simply not always an issue where creativity is not being expressed or motivated commercially. The stresses of extrinsic motivation, therefor, are often much more visible in the for-pay efforts of professionals and full-timers. Amateurs and pro-ams often have the external lenience in their situations that they are not confused about why they are creating their work. If its done not simply as a means for paying the bills and putting food on the table they can more easily remember why they grew to love making art in the first place. Their intrinsic motivation is far less threatened than that of their professional counterparts…..

    One of the commenters suggested that the conditions of art-for-pay only helped make the ‘quality’ of the art better, but I’d like to suggest a different perspective. Art that is made as part of the extrinsic conditions of commerce isn’t often simply a search for quality, its usually a search for content. And the truth is that what sells often becomes justification for what gets made or performed. THAT is the cost of confusing our intrinsic motivations for the extrinsic market oriented ones. We simply end up putting on the shows that will make money and pay salaries. So, while this may not reflect the ‘quality’ per se it obviously affects creative expression. In an art-for-pay setting the work is justified by the commercial returns it brings. And this inevitably runs into conflict with intrinsic variables that are independent of the marketplace. The natural human temptation is to suffer risk avoidance. When money is at stake we often find ourselves playing it safe.

    But even deeper, if we end up believing that an artist’s job is merely to serve up some product, and we do this because we are paid, how often will it be the case that the performance escapes all the cost cutting efforts and efficiency manipulation that stands at odds with quality? The more our efforts become about product the more they end up serving the transactional flow of money. Isn’t it obvious that artistic concerns that are not based on commerce have a certain amount of freedom that is often absent or constrained in significantly commercial circumstances? Artistic choices become economic choices under the threat of shortened supply or feasibility. Artistic choices remain artistic choices when they avoid that complication……

    The pay inequity in the professional marketplace is a whole other issue. There may be no simple answer to cut through the Gordian knot there. And the discussion in these comments was highly instructive. But what I took to be the thrust of your post still remains: The further we move from personal intrinsic motivations the wider and more tangled the external variables, perspectives, and motivations become. I think that still needs to be addressed. But as far as solving the riddle of the art marketplace in general, its perhaps even more complicated.

    For instance, are there too many professionals to divide the art income pie between? Is it being sliced fairly? How do we make the pie bigger so that it can sustain more artists? How do we expend our current resources between giving a hand up to today’s artists and cultivating future audiences? If we can’t do both well, what things get sacrificed at what cost? What is the long term goal and what things possibly occupy our attention out of all proportion just because they are of the present and in our faces right here right now? Are we simply afflicted by present bias more than we acknowledge? Is our plan for the future more of the same, only better? Or do we have different dreams that square with a different future reality? Are we sufficiently open to change? Which institutions have possibly served their purpose and need to be downsized for the eventual good of all? Or is that potentially a selling out and an appeasement to mediocrity? Is it? Which, if any, institutions are worth preserving at all costs? And why? If we can’t satisfy everyone, which set of values are we to be guided by? Are the concerns and circumstances of professional artists more important than those of the numerous amateurs, hobbyists, school children, aficionados, audience members, and general public who surround professional artistic endeavors?

    None of these are easy questions, but it seems we need to be asking them…..

    Thanks again for helping us think these issues through! I thought you post was right on the mark, and I too would love to see answers for the questions you raised at the end of your essay.

    Keep up the good work!

    • says

      Hi Carter,
      I worry that much of what is discussed here is based on myths and generalizations. The idea that artistic growth or uniqueness or purity is somehow corrupted by money I believe is a myth (propagated by social politics which is another topic). We may “become professional artists because its what we love doing” but I don’t think that at all negates the desire or the very real needed to also get paid for what we do and even to get paid well for what we do. I don’t see a conflict between, on one hand, working really hard to develop the thoughts and ideas behind my work in a meaningful, unique manner and on the other hand selling that painting for as much money as I can.

      Asking if artists struggle today because the artistic arena pie is too small or suggesting that there are too many artists for the amount of demand is a bad generalization unless we also investigate why the demand is getting smaller or changing.
      And lastly I find the 5-6 blogs that I follow about “the arts” and their organizations to be mostly about the theatrical world, a world tied intimately to the entertainment segment of society yet the talk is generalized about “the arts”. I find a lack of close similarities between being an actor and working in the theatrical world and say being a potter and selling pots. Sure we have similar pressures and interests, but how we go about what we do and how we market ourselves to be two different worlds.

  13. says

    Sampling salaries at local arts agencies presents an incomplete and skewed view of the compensation in the field. As someone who conducts salary surveys for performing arts boards, I can tell you that the median compensation for heads of mid-level to large performing arts centers in the US is over $400,000. Art museum directors are highly compensation (from $200,000 to over $1,000,000 per annum) and the larger dance and opera companies too pay their CEOs top dollar. The laws of supply and demand – there are fewer talented CEOs then there are positions to fill-have caused the compensation of these cohort groups to rise much more quickly than most indices. I am not jumping into the ex(in)trinsic discussion, merely pointing out that perhaps the premise upon which the dialogue began (data about compensation) doesn’t give a clear picture of reality.

    • says

      I noticed similar problems and commented on his blog. The sample sizes in Clayton’s survey are often very small. 2199 “Local Arts Organizations” were contacted. The category with the best response rate was for CEOs, but that was still only 12%. For the important category of “Development/Fund Raising,” the response rate was only slightly over 1% — 24 responses out of 2199 organizations surveyed. (See page 5 of the chapter “Executive Summary” in his survey.) Surely a lot more than 1% of the organizations contacted have such a position.

      Especially in the category of CEOs, I think there might be a tendency for those with the largest salaries not to respond, since there has been notable criticism of their high compensation packages. The omission of their compensation could significantly skew the results (especially for the mid Atlantic and L.A. regions,) as could a preponderance of responses from smaller organizations. More information about which organizations responded and which didn’t could be helpful in evaluating the reliability of the numbers.

      On the other hand, I appreciate how difficult it is to collect such data. I would hate to be in Clayton’s shoes trying to conduct such a massive survey.

    • says

      If these high sums for arts administrators are obligatory, why do Europeans find it unnecessary to pay them? Europe has far more cultural institutions per capita and thus an even higher demand.

      Or are these high sums paid because wealthy board members in the USA project their plutocratic ideals on to cultural institutions? Or is it because arts administrators in the USA have to wheedle money out of the rich which requires rare connections in a system of cultural plutocracy?

      Whatever, when arts administrators are paid $7000 for every week day of the year, it is an insult to most everything for which arts institutions should stand.

      • says

        Agreed, William. I do believe that unlike Europe, the US has never understood the intrinsic value of art and culture. In fact, it has a historic distrust of the arts and anything else that doesn’t fit within the market economy. Add the growing systemic inequality upon which large corporations seem to thrive contributes to the near impossibility of all but a happy few to make a decent living in any art-related work. Just take a look at the percentage of the members of Actors Equity who actually make a living wage from acting. It’s tiny. I imagine its the same in the Musicians Union, Dramatists Guild and other artists’ associations. But these days, the entire American middle class is having an increasingly hard time making a living wage. I used to feel that as someone trying to make theatre-making my livelihood, I had an especially hard time of it in the US. Not so anymore. No wonder the trope of the 99% vs the 1% has taken such a strong hold on the popular imagination. For some glimmer of hope, I look back to the depression years and the brief flowering of so much art (much publicly funded) during the few years of common cause across several class lines.

        • says

          J.F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson did understand the intrinsic value of the arts. Kennedy believed that the US was suffering from a lack of promoting it’s unique intrinsic cultural ideals and first proposed what would become the NEA. America embraced it’s version of modernism over their european counterparts. In the 1940’s the modernist painter John Marin was voted the most popular artist in America.

          The distrust you speak of is a relatively new political attack by the right begun in the 1980’s. It began as a religious fervor against art but grew to a conservative right agenda to control artists by defunding the structure which supported them.
          It’s not the 1% that are the enemy of the arts. Artists and art institutions are now almost completely dependent on the support and patronage of the top percentage of wealth in this country. No, the real enemy is the conservative majority and neo-liberal politicians that make up a far large percentage. There is no real need for austerity in this country. There is no real reason why a CEO of a corporation needs to make 100 times more than the director of a non-profit art center. The reason that happens is because we let that happen.

        • says

          Until a few years ago, the Met used to perform operas in Central Park. The crowds reached 60,000 people. (The program was discontinued as a cost cutting measure.) When the San Francisco Opera broadcasts its performances in one of the city’s baseball fields, the audiences average 20,000 people.

          Americans are not inherently anti-intellectual or opposed to art. It’s just that most don’t have access — i.e. quality local arts organizations with tickets they can afford. In contrast to all European countries, we haven’t created a publically funded cultural infrastructure that allows a wide range of people to participate in the arts.

          A circular argument is then created. Through low funding, we destroy participation in the arts, then use that low participation as a reason to further reduce funding.

          • says

            Well said, William. I sure did not mean to suggest that all Americans have any antipathy towards art. Americans respond to art as deeply and fully as all humans. (And maybe not just humans). Nevertheless, I think there is an historical absence of widespread public or government-based support for art/culture. Exceptions have always occurred — like the great public arts initiatives of the New Deal and the welcome support during the 60s (founding of NEA, regional theatre movement w/ support from Ford Fdn et al, TCG and more). Then again, perhaps I’m projecting the current climate of dwindling support onto the past.

  14. says

    Fascinating discussion. I think you’re on to something, Diane, and let the haters hate. In fact, I wonder if all of this is actually a lot less complicated than we’re making it out to be. Think about it this way: if you love your work but are not paid much for it, work is very likely to be the best thing about your life, because everything else is a struggle. By contrast, if you love your work but are paid a lot for it, it’s more likely that the focus of your life will turn to not-work, because money helps not-work not suck anymore. And in fact, not-work may over time become more interesting than work, even if you love work, because you don’t have the burden of expectations (and thus have more freedom and less stress) in your not-work. So, it’s not about the nature of work changing much if at all, it’s about the balance between work and not-work shifting once not-work becomes more attractive.

    • says

      There are indeed times in life when work is so enjoyable that we can peacefully live in poverty. I have noticed many young musicians live like this during their 20s, but usually sometime in the early 30s a life of poverty begins to take its toll, especially if the have a family or want to begin one. At that point, most quit. For these musicians, law school is a surprisingly common alternative.

      There are, of course, inherent dangers in romanticizing poverty and stark divisions of wealth. As one example, 47 million Americans currently use food stamps – one in every six people, or 14.6% of the population. In the last 13 years, 30 million additional people have gone on food stamps. The program now costs 78 billion per year. One of the principle causes for the increase in food stamps has been the loss of manufacturing jobs. People might not work in a factory for the fun of it, but they need at least modestly decent lives, just as artists do once they are past their bohemian youth.

  15. Carter Gillies says

    Something Diane wrote in that McKnight Foundation essay from March 2012 has been nagging me in thinking about the money-motivation sweet spot. Here’s what Diane observed:

    “Despite the fact that a majority of nonprofit arts organizations sustain nothing close to a living wage for anyone working at them, we hold onto the idea of being a ‘professionalized sector’ (with all the jargon, behaviors, goals, practices, and processes that come with that idea) because we perceive that it is meaningful and beneficial (for art, for artists, for the communities we serve) to do so.

    But is it? Once you get beyond that relatively small number of institutions that have a sufficient base of support to sustain a full time staff and pay living wages to artists? And if it’s an ideal that has been realized by so few, why is it still held up as an ideal for the entire sector? Especially if, by privileging the idea of professionalism we (perhaps inadvertently) not only discount the vibrant amateur sector, but in a sense, perceive the arts and culture sector to be ‘lacking’ rather than ‘self-actualized’, so to speak? Among the consequences of our fetishism of professional status, it strikes me that we have relegated ourselves to being a sector with huge numbers of unsuccessful and underemployed professional artists rather than a sector with huge numbers of successful, part-time or occasional, pro-am ones.

    Perhaps it’s time for the arts and culture sector in the US to embrace its true nature and the possibilities of this new era and rethink what constitutes a ‘satisfying’, ‘successful’, or ‘legitimate’ life/career in the arts in 21st century America?” (- See more at:

    If we look at it from the perspective of successful pro-ams rather than beleaguered full-time professionals is there a sense that the money-motivation sweet spot is even scaled on the same set of priorities? This seems like an important distinction. If we only look at the part-timers and hobbyists as failed professionals we get the picture that these dilettantes should be the worse for their not measuring up. For full-time professionals the money-motivation sweet spot is both difficult to attain and inherently precarious and, by definition almost, part-timers are failures in these terms.

    And yet, the money-motivation sweet spot for these amateur arts workers is almost always a source of passion rather than a source of anxiety. Why is that, if in a professional sense they don’t measure up? Is it that perversely they seem to enjoy their failure? That seems absurd, doesn’t it? Clearly there must be other motivations at work that justify their efforts in the arts as something valuable, purposeful, and challenging. What makes what these people are doing a ‘success’ in their minds? How is it that these ‘failures’ actually embody their own money-motivation sweet spot more thoroughly than full-timers seem to do? And is there something we can learn from this?

    I think Diane was onto something. The model of the professional may simply be too narrow to calibrate a true understanding of the money-motivation sweet spot. Especially if, as she notes, there are so many of these pro-ams out there contributing creatively to our culture. (And this is not to diminish the inequities and extrinsic motivations facing full-time professionals. It makes sense to work at bettering the world for their professional priorities and practices. The question is, does looking at the issue only through their lens make sense for all creative workers? What lessons can we learn from these part-timers? Isn’t the money-motivation sweet spot a psychological issue as well as an economic one? And have professionals potentially traded away something vital that they were not even aware of losing?) As Diane wonders, are we too comfortable and satisfied in privileging the idea of professionalism?

    • says

      I think you missing an important fact here. Diana,Clay Lord, Doug Borwick aren’t really talking about artists. Diana only uses the word ‘artist’ once at the very end of her post. You on the other are interchanging the terms artist, art worker, art professional, art organizations like they mean and are concerned with the same thing. They are not.
      In Michigan only 1/5 of all the money that is funneled through arts organizations ends up as programing. IN other words 4/5 of all federal, state and private money that is raised to support “the arts” goes to art organizations buildings, salaries and benefits, advertising, maintenance, office supplies, anything related to running an organization.
      Art organizations are more interested in, or at least have more of a need to pay there own bills than they do in paying artists to do what they do.
      I don’t think this blog or many of the the others you and I read, are about seeing that artists are taken care of.

    • says

      Terms like amateurs and pro-ams need to be carefully defined in this context. There are many artists with full professional training who are being paid little or nothing for their work. Does that make them amateurs?

      Amateurs or pro-ams contribute considerably to our society, especially in the urban areas where they congregate. But what about the regional areas where most Americans live but that artists eschew for the big cities unless they are paid to live in those areas?

      We should also remember that for organizations like orchestras and opera companies, professionalism not only makes a difference in quality, it also allows for essential activities that amateur groups cannot do. The New Mexico Philharmonic, for example, serves the Albuquerque area well, but it cannot tour to about one million people in the state because almost all of the musicians have to have a day jobs. In many cases, professionalism means the freedom to reach a wider demographic of people, to say nothing of the higher quality work. If anything, our cultural landscape shows that Americans might be too comfortable privileging the idea of “amateurism” — which is in reality often a euphemism for the exploitation of artistic labor.

  16. Thor Steingraber says

    We would be remiss to confound the issues of motivation and output performance. When one’s motivation changes, from intrinsic to extrinsic or let’s say from passion to hard cold cash, one’s output may or may not change, and if it does change it isn’t necessarily for the worse. I think we can find endless examples of artists who’s work continues to develop positively as their compensation increases. And though less obvious, arts executives probably provide plenty of parallel examples. I recognize that Clay, Diane, and Bruno are responsibly offering theories about the relationship, and perhaps even causality, between motivation and performance. But nonetheless, the two factors remain distinct, at least until such day as a statistically significant correlation can be asserted.

    Secondly, I think the dual question “how much is enough and how much is too much?” is embedded in all conversations about compensation. This is Dan Pallotta territory, and I highly recommend his recent Ted talk. Controversial? Yes. after you watch him speak, search him online and feast upon the reams of vitriol directed at his assertions about executive compensation in the nonprofit arena. But Dan makes an important point: the job market is just that, a free market. If arts salaries can’t compete, some the best practitioners will abandon the field, and worse, promising young talent won’t even consider it.

    Finally, vis a vis motivation: I always marvel that talk about compensation inspires such extensive and passionate debate. This exchange seems consistent with that observation — perhaps longer than any response section I’ve previously seen on Diane’s site? Worth pondering why extrinsic motivations motivate such passionate debate?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *