Contradictions of the Creative Economy


Lucy Sexton, the executive director of the [Bessie] awards, was not the only participant to remark on the difficulties that New York dance artists face, but she also noted that the number of dance companies in the city was higher than it was a decade ago.

Brian Seibert, New York Times, Oct. 20, 2015

Lucy Sexton, in a screenshot from YouTube.
Lucy Sexton, in a screenshot from YouTube.

We often hear that despite a growing, thriving arts industry, the life of artists and other creative workers have grown increasingly difficult. While some focus on good news and others on bad news, it is common to see these distinctions tied together. I wonder, though, about the paradox of such statements. If the industry is growing, it should be thriving, and shouldn’t people be more successful? Why is there so much focus on difficulties? As is so often true, the picture is complex and nuanced, and cannot be captured in a sound-bite.

Despite a lack of consistent definitions and key frames of reference, there is strong evidence that culture and the value of cultural products are growing worldwide. The United Nations, the World Intellectual Property Organization, and such stateside organizations as Americans for the Arts and the Center for an Urban Future have all documented this growth, and it is substantial. Studies and reports agree that today, culture contributes a larger piece to the total economic pie and there are now more people employed by this sector globally — and in the United States. But it is hard to draw a complete picture of how artists are doing because most reports do not include information about actual earnings.

Story continues below.

Still, aggregated information and averages are available. For example, the Department of Labor and the National Endowment for the Arts do publish statistics on the average wages of workers in certain industries we would consider creative. Both sources indicate that these workers continue, on average, to earn more than the average American. Other data indicates that while average wages have increased in the past decade, when adjusted for inflation, they have been stagnant or declined slightly. But, as Steven Johnson noted in his controversial New York Times article “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t,” such high-level aggregate data-points are only of limited use and may not accurately portray the individual’s story.

Story continues below.

Considering the data we do have, these are among the reasons to understand what is happening:

  • The increase in people working in this sector is greater than the increased activity in the sector, resulting in lower individual earnings;
  • A reallocation of earnings in which more economic gain flows to the “one percent” of artists, leaving the other 99 percent worse off;
  • The cost of creating art has increased more than artists’ gains in earnings, leaving them worse off;
  • Lower barriers to entry from digital tools in production and distribution create an over-supply of labor, reducing the earnings labor can demand for its efforts;
  • Funding patterns are evolving away from direct support of artists leaving a gap for artists who often rely on such funding;
  • Some/all of the above.

Recently, a report by two U.N. agencies concluded that the creative economy is one of the most rapidly growing sectors of the world economy — that it is highly transformative in terms of income-generation, job creation and export earnings. Notwithstanding this growth, real changes in local creative ecologies are forcing artists to adjust to some very burdensome challenges.

Urban SceneFor example, rising real estate costs in many urban centers is often blamed for seriously threatening artists’ way of life. But it is not only the financial burden that artists face. Robin Frohardt, a New York playwright and puppeteer, comments in the Center for an Urban Future’s “Creative New York (2015)” that artists “want to live in a hub with a community of artists.” The high cost of New York real estate, therefore, diminishes artists’ proximity to their colleagues, tearing at the cultural fabric that feeds artists’ creative juices. In addition to developments in their physical environment, artists are being confronted with fundamental changes in the way they generate income. Evolving institutional funding priorities and diminished revenue streams in areas such as music and publishing are forcing artists to rethink how they sustain themselves and their practice. And, of course, the digital revolution has affected both artistic practice and the opportunities for artists to make a living.

Story continues below.

Artists are resilient, and will always find ways to get their work done. According to “Creative New York,” which considers the current state of the arts in the nation’s largest creative center, artists are adapting by:

  • migrating their living and workspaces as real estate prices continue their unabated steep ascent;
  • working cooperatively and collectively to offset the cost of space and its limited availability;
  • utilizing newly opened incubator spaces that have sprung up;
  • reorganizing their practice into project-based and more entrepreneurial structures as the organizational structure and institutional jobs have changed and in many cases disappeared; and
  • creating or utilizing new funding mechanisms, such as crowdfunding, to replace decreased government funding and the changing motivation of individuals supporting the arts.
The startlingly real puppetry of playwright Robin Frohardt. In the 20th century, were artists merely puppet grantees?
The startling, beautiful work of puppeteer-playwright Robin Frohardt. During the 20th century, were artists anomalies? See more of Frohardt’s work here.

In response to changes in their environment, artists adeptly shift their practice. In his blog post “How They Made Their Money,” Greg Sandow recounted some of the history of how classical musicians have adapted, tracing the shift from a patronage model, where artists earned support with no claims on their work, to journeymen musicians being hired as employees by rich men or institutions to perform particular jobs. Referring to a book by F.M. Scherer, he notes that once the shift was made, composers needed to be entrepreneurial, and some were better at it than others. More recently, Matt McDonald’s blog post “How Losing My Record Deal Helped Me Feed My Family” describes his shift from dependent musician with a record deal to a successful musician-entrepreneur who is generating more income and artistic success due to a change in his environment.

Looking back, despite what we often hear about threats to artists and their way of life, artists have persistently evolved in order to produce exciting work within their environment. It appears that economic and cultural evolution is the norm, and that artists have always responded to this evolution with resilience, both in terms of how they sustain themselves financially and how they sustain their practice.

Story continues below.

Cul de Sac RevSo perhaps, then, it is chimerical to try holding onto the 20th century model in which artists expect to create art for art’s sake and thus be delivered of a career. When we have enough distance to evaluate the changes before us now, we may see that it was a golden age for artists and an anomaly.

Story continues below.

In the face of changes that bring difficulties for some and opportunities for others, it is only natural to try to support and preserve those things we find valuable. While we should be concerned at the contrasts of our shifting environment, our strongest path forward is to go beyond noting these contrasts and look for ways to bolster our creative and cultural foundations. With its concrete recommendations, the Center for an Urban Future’s “Creative New York” offers much for us to consider and adopt in our public comments and debate. Its holistic analytical approach that culminates in almost two dozen specific recommendations is a model for how we can offer strong advocacy in response to the sometimes contradictory forces at work today.

Story continues below.