Artists don't get paid. That is, generally speaking, artists don't get paid. Everyone else might make a buck, but not the artist. The gallery owner, the gallery director, the receptionist, the guy who paints the walls, the intern who hangs the stuff, the framer, the glazier, and so on. They all get paid. Maybe not the intern. The artist gets paid last, if at all.
This seems wildly unfair, and it surely is, but maybe not in the most obvious of ways. There's an annual report on the Art Market put out by Art Basel and UBS, and I spent some time with it. Interestingly, it breaks things down in ways that make detailed analysis of who's getting paid what pretty much impossible, although they clearly have the data. It's a report about trends and percentages and whatnot, mainly of interest to the people who already know who's getting paid (them) and who isn't (as few other people as possible). But, you can make some guesses.
The global art market is about $68 billion a year, which sounds like a great deal of money, right?
Well, it is, and it isn't. As nearly as I can tell roughly half of that money goes back to collectors who are selling pieces of art, at auction or in the secondary market through art dealers of various stripes. The other half goes to "the art industry" broadly construed, and includes commissions to auction houses, dealers, galleries, and it includes money paid to artists for their work. Call it $30 billion dollars, plus or minus $10 billion.
$30 billion also sounds like a lot, but it is and it isn't. You can afford 1,000,000 people an annual expense of $30,000 which includes their pay packets, benefits if any, the cost of keeping the lights on in the buildings, the cost of shipping art all over tarnation, the wine and cheese at the openings, at the art fairs, and all that stuff. Figure in the expenses, and imagine that you're paying people a living wage instead of whatever is left over of $30,000 after expenses, and you're employing maybe half a million people.
Which seems like a lot, right? But there's a hell of a lot of galleries out there. The Art Market report contains an estimate of 2.7 million people employed in the gallery and dealer industry, in almost 300,000 businesses. This means that there is something like $10,000 per employee on the table. If we're generous, maybe $15,000, pessimistic, maybe $5000.
Now, a certain amount of the money gets laundered through the system in a couple of passes. Someone might take home a little pay from one gallery, and pass that money on to pay a fee at another gallery, who in turn pays that money onwards to the receptionist. Economically, that dollar might count as 3-4 dollars, but would only show up as $1 in the Art Basel report (since I am considering only money coming in from the outside, not money moving around inside).
Another feature of the Art Basel report makes it clear that the money coming in is wildly tilted. The top ten percent of everything (galleries, auction houses, artists) take a lot more than 10 percent of the money. Now, again, we should wave our hands at the idea that money flows around inside the system -- a major artist taking in millions, in general, will spend a lot of those millions "inside" the industry. The artist probably has a factory with a bunch of assistants, each of whom are likely to be aspiring artists themselves, and so on.
No matter how you slice it, though, there simply isn't a lot of money on the table for an industry of this size.
At the end of the day, the receptionist is not going to answer the phone if he is unpaid, but the painter will paint whether you pay her or not. The stick has a very prominent short end, and it's obvious who's going to get it. And they do.