Thursday, November 5, 2015

Contradictions of the Creative Economy

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz, at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post here.

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

We often hear that despite a growing arts industry, the lives of artists have grown increasingly difficult. 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?

Despite a lack of consistent definitions and key frames of reference, there is strong evidence that culture and its value are growing worldwide. Studies agree that today, culture contributes a larger piece to the economic pie and there are now more people employed by this sector globally — and in the United States. However, it is hard to draw a complete picture because most reports do not include information about earnings. Still, aggregated information and averages are available, though, as Steven Johnson noted in his recent controversial New York Times article, such high-level aggregate data-points are only of limited use and may not accurately portray the individual’s story.

Recently, two U.N. agencies concluded that the creative economy is one of the most rapidly growing sectors of the world economy. Notwithstanding this growth, real changes in local creative ecologies are forcing artists to adjust to some very burdensome challenges. For example, rising real estate costs in many urban centers is seriously threatening artists’ way of life. The high cost of real estate may also diminish artists’ proximity to their colleagues, tearing at the fabric that feeds artists’ practice. In addition, artists face fundamental changes in the ways they generate income. Evolving institutional funding priorities and diminished revenue streams in certain areas are forcing artists to rethink how they sustain themselves and their practice. And, of course, the digital revolution has affected both practice and sustenance for artists.

In response to changes in their environment, artists adeptly shift their practice. Greg Sandow recently 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 entrepreneurial musicians hired as employees to perform particular jobs. More recently, Matt McDonald described his shift from dependent musician with a record deal to a successful musician-entrepreneur generating more income and artistic success with the change.

Looking back, despite what we often hear, artists have persistently evolved with their environment in order to produce exciting work, responding to this evolution with resilience. So perhaps 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. In the future, we may see that we had a golden age for artists and it was an anomaly. For practical steps, we can look to the concrete recommendations of the Center for an Urban Future’s “Creative New York (2015)” report. Its holistic analytical approach culminates in almost two dozen specific recommendations and is a model for how we can offer strong advocacy in response to the sometimes contradictory forces at work today.

Read the entire post in Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report here.

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