A recent white paper from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization shines a necessary but depressing light on working conditions within the arts industry throughout the world. There's the positives…
It shows that the industry sectors making up the creative economy generate annual revenues of US$2.250 billion, global exports of over US$250 billion, often generate up to 10% of national GDP, provide nearly 30 million jobs worldwide and employ more people aged 15-29 than any other sector. Nearly half of the people working in the cultural and creative industries are women and the majority have attained a tertiary level of education higher than the number of people in non-cultural occupations. Influencing income generation, job creation and export earnings, the cultural and creative industry sectors making up the creative economy have become a major driver of economies and trade strategies in developed and developing countries.
…and there's the negatives:
One fifth of those employed in cultural occupations (20%) work part time and the gender difference is substantial with around 28% females compared to 18% men in part time culture sector jobs. They work primarily on a contractual, freelance and intermittent basis and their income continues to decline, fluctuate and remain uncertain. The result is lower tax contributions, leading to lower access to social security, pensions and other welfare provisions. Indeed, the largest subsidy for the arts comes not from governments, patrons or the private sector, but from artists themselves in the form of unpaid or underpaid labour. This requires new thinking to revise labour and social protection frameworks that take into account the unique and atypical manner in which artists work, especially female artists.
And that's before we even get into the looming threats of censorship and a lack of government support, which reinforces an idea that the arts and culture industries are somehow less "legitimate" than industries.
I've spent of my professional life working in the arts and culture industries; it's the only industry my wife has ever known, and it's how we met. We've both witnessed firsthand the successes, and the struggles. Perhaps the most frustrating part is how we brainwash ourselves into learning to accept the wage theft and other lacks of support, even as we work for multi-million dollar organizations. When you're young, and just entering the industry, you come to accept that "you're doing it for love" and that everyone overexerts themselves for not enough pay, because that's just how it is. When you're older, you expect the younger generation to participate in the same toxic behavior that made your life hell, because "you're doing it for love." That's not healthy.
COVID-19 has been particularly difficult for the arts and culture industry, which is literally built on the gathering of people. (My wife just started rehearsal for an equity/union play over Zoom yesterday, and let me tell you, it is weird.) Theatres, museums, music venues, even restaurants—it's hard to put up plexiglass and act like everything's OK.
But there is hope. As Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein illustrates in this New Republic review of Shannan Clark's new book The Making of the American Creative Class: New York's Culture Workers and Twentieth-Century Consumer Capitalism, the culture sector can save itself the same way that it did before: by embracing the lessons of the labor movement.
When the Works Progress Administrationconfronted mass unemployment with a huge program of job creation, jobs in the cultural industries were included. The Federal Art Project ran programs like the incredible Index of American Design, in which hundreds of artists were paid to produce watercolor illustrations for an archival catalog of thousands of uniquely American objects. The FAP also funded pathbreaking schools like the Design Laboratory, which helped define American Modernism, and financed revered institutions like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The Farm Security Administration, another New Deal program, hired a host of now-famous photographers, including Russell Lee, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans, to roam the country and document rural life and poverty in America, creating an unmatched body of work that would not have existed without public funding.
Reasserting the radical history of this country's culture industries, The Making of the American Creative Class shows the far-reaching influence of labor law and politics on culture: Artists in the middle of the twentieth century flourished not because the economy was inherently favorable to them, but as a result of powerful economic winds and the groups that joined in an attempt to harness them. Together, creative class groups wielded the crowbar of politics in an attempt to pry some autonomy out of consumer capitalism.[…]
In school, we never talked about who works in the museums, who paints the walls after an exhibition, who sells the art, or who owns the gallery and why. We saw culture through the keyhole of individualism, which made it almost impossible to connect the conditions for working people in general with our bleak economic prospects as painters. No wonder the solutions we came up with were always unsatisfying and self-helpy: Wake up early! Apply for those grants! Sell yourself! For me, these tactics dissolved after probably the tenth time installing a show by a living artist, and the artist didn't even show up to hang. It became impossible to think of an art show, or even an artist's career for that matter, as solely attributable to the artist. But rather than being some kind of saddening encounter with dismal Oz behind the curtain, it clarified the art world: a tenuous group project I was a part of, embedded in the political problems of the day, swaying with the larger forces of history.
There's definitely a weird tension between individualism and collectivism here. An individual creates the art, ostensibly for public consumption or to bring people together in some way. But that individual usually needs some people of collective support, either from an institution, or just from the other individuals who have helped out their career. And then the culture turns around and collectively celebrates the individual for creating a community. There's got to be a better way to make this work.
The Artist Isn't Dead [Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein / New Republic]
Image: Kenneth C. Zirkel / Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 4.0)