Recession Wanes, But Artists Still Starving


Friday, April 27, 2012

As the country has battled the Great Recession, we’ve been inundated with reports of corporate layoffs and manufacturing jobs vanishing. But there’s another group of American workers that has been particularly hard hit — the creative class.

In an ongoing series for Salon, reporter Scott Timberg writes that the last few years have seen a huge drop-off in jobs in the creative industries. He cites figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that show declines from 20 to 30 percent in photography, architecture, and graphic design since the recession began. In other fields, Timberg found, the downturn simply aggravated existing trends. “‘Theater, dance and other performing arts companies’ [are] down 21.9 percent over five years,” he writes. “Musical groups and artists plummeted by 45.3 percent between August 2002 and August of 2011.”

But the public — including the media and politicians — doesn’t have much sympathy, Timberg tells Kurt Andersen. Partly, it’s a problem of perception. Celebrity artists seem to be “doing fine … the Frank Gehrys, the Nicole Kidmans, the Drakes and so on.” Kurt suggests that since creative workplaces tend to be small, layoffs don’t generate the publicity of a large factory relocating to China. 

Timberg points to a widespread, subtle distrust of artists. "It has to do with the definition of the cultural elite. The idea that artists, people who like culture, who consume it, are not real Americans, are not one of us," he says. Yet most members of the creative class fly under the radar, without, Timberg jokes, “a tattoo or a beret or an earring that announces them as an artist. They're like Canadians. They're sort of among us secretly, silently, invisibly."

A career in the arts has never promised financial security. But Timberg worries about the decline of the creative sector, where small businesses and entrepreneurs thrive. “It’s become forbidding for a much wider group of people,” he says. "What I'm seeing is some of the very best, the most dedicated, getting knocked out."

→ How serious a problem is the economic hardship of the creative class? Tell us in a comment below.

    Music Playlist
  1. Half Moon
    Artist: Iron and Wine
    Album: Kiss Each Other Clean
    Label: Warner Bros.
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. Compassion
    Artist: John Coltrane Quartet
    Album: First Meditations
    Label: Grp Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  3. Who Are You?
    Artist: The Who
    Album: Who Are You
    Label: Mca
    Purchase: Amazon

Produced by:

Derek John and Thomas Seely

Comments [20]

Claire from NYC

I love what Marc from CT said. It is tragic but true. There is also a strange paradox about money and art. Many people do not believe art is worth anything unless it is expensive; even artistically acclaimed work by an off off Broadway theatre company will be overlooked in favor of a hefty ticket to a Broadway show. This is because our society marginalizes the arts so much that what should be as natural as breathing (hearing a concert, looking at artwork or watching a story unfold onstage) becomes a corporate perk, or an annual splurge to impress family and friends. I feel like my friends in the arts are the main supporters of the arts. We just rotate around the city supporting each other... And it is unsustainable. If the arts are in such jeopardy in NYC, I can only imagine the draught in the rest of the country. The problem begins in the schools... And in the home. But parents actually shield their children from the arts for fear that they will become artists. The whole system is backwards. We need leaders to value the arts to tell people to GO to the theatre.. To take their children to museums and concerts. You never hear politicians say such things. Not even Obama. Apparently that would be un-American and culturally elite... But I know that art has opened my child's mind and imagination and made her a better learner and a kinder more empathic person. I pity the millions of children who are being raised without it, and I fear for our society.

May. 10 2012 10:30 AM
Espressocycle from Philadelphia

Technology has reduced the need for professionals in a variety of fields. Digital cameras allow more people to take acceptable images. Desktop publishing allows more production with fewer people. The internet has replaced book, record and video stores. However, this trend mirrors that of the larger economy - we just don't need as many workers as we used to. The economy is going to have to find another way to distribute wealth and create demand.

May. 02 2012 04:44 PM
Kim Z

Good artists are like good teachers: they enrich the rest of society.

May. 01 2012 01:23 PM
Jenny from Studio 360

Hi Rich -- sorry for the delay.

Indeed it's the John Coltrane Quartet - "Compassion" from the album "First Meditations."

Apr. 30 2012 01:03 PM
Exhibit Design Boston from Massachusetts

One of those unknown design fields is exhibit design - the folks who design what you see from the Smithsonian to Park Service visitor centers to the occasional small local historical society. There were perhaps a half dozen small Boston firms that were history-oriented (as opposed to natural history, another subset). Of those I am familiar with, the largest (20+ people) has closed, another will close shortly, and two are barely surviving with minimum staff.

Apr. 30 2012 10:37 AM
Susan from Prescott,Az.

I have worked full time as a Professional Sand painter since 1977, creating original contemporary works, and marketing them at gallery shows, private shows, and large group shows. One of the issues has been the greedy promoters, who continually raise their participation and jury fees for these events, even though fellow artists do not earn much at these events due to current recession problems. In my network,the artist rule used to be that we should earn 10 X the show fee. Back in time, that was true-not current times. Consequently, many artists I know are in credit card debt, as that is how they pay their fees, with the hope of earning back sales.But,show quality has decreased, despite increased jury fees that promise better shows, because promoters want to fill shows and seem to accept mediocre and commercial products. Promoters have not compromised their rates. Visual and Fine Artists are left with few outlets to market their work-go with galleries who "keystone" or double the price or pay promoters hefty fees(BTW-no refunds for outdoor events in bad weather is also the standard rule)

Apr. 29 2012 07:00 PM
Laurence Pierce from Boston, MA

I have been a working artist for many years, and I have often had to fight the depression that comes with being undervalued and unappreciated. Even more discouraging, however, was when I attended a series of lectures at Mass College of Art called "The Business of Art". One of the lecturers, Nina Nielson, described how closed the gallery system is in the current art scene. She noted how galleries have what they call "stables" of artists which are a fixed number of "known" artists. She explained how difficult it is to break into one of these exclusive groups, and I got from that an understanding of why most ordinary Americans regard the art world as elitist.

Apr. 29 2012 02:28 PM
Janet G from New York

I also was amazed by the simultaneous concern and distain for artists voiced on your program. I have been a working artist for over 3 decades. There was almost no mention of visual artists except for an offhand comment about the "artist alone in her studio" not being an entrepreneur. This shows a real lack of understanding. I suggest a whole program on this since your coverage shows there is a real need.

Apr. 29 2012 01:02 PM

One more on design on a roll:

Apr. 29 2012 12:09 PM

Another article on the unmet demand for designers:

Apr. 29 2012 12:02 PM
Michael Shacham from New Jersey

I totally agree with the general comments in your program. As a professional sculptor for about 50 years, I have been through good times and bad, these are really tough times for a freelance sculptor. An artistic field that is not mentioned much in your programs. However I would not exchange my field of work with any other. As for those who think that Artists are lazy, I would challenge them to try and work even one full day carving wood, stone or making a mold of a sculpture,or work on chasing a bronze. In the end it is not about money although we too need some income to survive, it is about creating art that enlightens and adds substance to our lives.

Apr. 29 2012 11:52 AM
Lauren T from Brooklyn, NY

Thanks for this interview. This reporting reflects my experience as a full-time writer and former book editor, and the experience of my writer / musician / artist / graphic designer friends. In-house design jobs are harder and harder find, and more design is freelanced out. Those freelancers have to live without benefits or consistency. Publishers keep cutting overhead in order to stay viable as the book-buying population shrinks, and those who do still buy (print) books buy fewer. In the children's book world, YA is still lucrative, but picture books are struggling, therefore picture book authors and illustrators are struggling. Musicians I know find themselves taking any job, and ending up overworking and exhausting themselves at times, as the number of gigs and the pay tightens. These are all truly talented people. It's really hard. There's sacrifice, and then there's sacrifice. As an artists, I'm in no position to support other artists, and that makes me sad. Those with the dough have to do it, and they're not. Sad.

Apr. 29 2012 11:43 AM
Jonathan Kruk

My heart breaks seeing hearing and feeling the art made by my fellow artists goes begging for sales or even recognition. Photographers and musicians are the worse off. Few I know are now without a "day job." Trouble come to us when people refuse to pay for the artistry. They fail to recognize the spark, effort and experience required to make art. Further, individual arts, lack the economic clout needed to get paid rightly. We can't support ourselves solely on the crumbs and kindness of the one percenters. And when the "free market" gives a monopoly to a few artists, creativity goes to jail.

Apr. 29 2012 11:30 AM

I am in the area of high end photography, and can share that your reporting is spot-on. Paying jobs have fallen off the map, even for many of the very best photographers. Everyone wants everything for free now.

Apr. 29 2012 07:16 AM

Does anyone know the name the artist and name of the song at the end of the piece?

Sounds like Coletrane.



Apr. 28 2012 10:30 PM
Georgia from Pittsburgh PA

The economy and policies affecting the creative are harsh at best, however, being an artist is never easy. I went the way of money when accepting a full paid scholarship in engineering after fifteen years of unhappiness I went back to Carnegie Mellon to accept a scholarship in fine art previously offered. I have been a professional artist for twenty years and incorporate my science background in my work. I could apply for grants, but restrictions on my work strangle creativity and freedom, (the puritanical and antiscientific community is strong). What I enjoy doing to catch up on my bills is teach privately and through libraries and art centers where my students and I enjpoy the process of innovation and free thought thereby rendering artwork that provokes thought and conversation while being beautiful. I gave up luxury cars, vacations to Europe and the islands plus a great beachfront home to live free snd pursue knowledge while helping the world with my work. For all the times I had to eat the same meal for several nights, walk miles when my aged car breaks down and ration toothpaste, I would never give up being an artist. I am always happy doing the work I love; when chasing the dollar I was only happy when I took a week's vacation and escaped. Too bad if others haven't experienced true joy; they are really missing out!

Apr. 28 2012 05:55 PM
knitweardesigner from new york city

I find it interesting that Fashion design is more often than not passed over in the general "Design" discussion in the media or elsewhere. Fashion Designers consider themselves highly creative, and have suffered the same amount of job crunch in the past few years as the other creative fields.
We are generally not credited, but are the behind-the-scenes people who engineer and determine what fabrics, silhouettes, colors and products will be in the stores next year. There is very little glamour, however, as we are victims of the buyers and the salespeople, not to mention the manufacturers, in a constant push and pull of this: the fight for the integrity of designs in the face of the pressure to cheapen. As there are fewer jobs, there are more abuses of the talent pool.Its an "adjust or be unemployed" kind of thing.
The fashion designer of the past is gone, where he/she had some power: the power to be creative.

Apr. 28 2012 04:40 PM
Meg from NYC

I can't imagine that anyone who listens to this show would contribute a
"dangerous arty nonsense" comment, so it may be you are preaching to the choir here. Sut, as a member of the choir, I totally agree that people in arts and letters are suffering. I know this from my own personal experience and from the personal experience of people I know. Times is hard.

I also know that a lot of the people who are still successful in NYC these days still enjoy expensive brunches and expensive trips to the gym, and expensive trips to the country houses (to "get away"), but rarely attend plays, concerts, dance performance, galleries. They could at least give a quarter to a street musician. But they don't.

Apr. 28 2012 04:25 PM
Marc from Stamford CT

Those not artists simultaneously admire and disdain the creative folks around them. Art, by its very nature, threatens. Art not only raises the bar, it converts the bar to say, a painting, a nocturne, a poem. Art, by its nature, reframes context itself. And it takes a special sole to hold as sacred as art beheld and admired early in one's life, art beheld when one is older. We like things the way they are supposed to be and art, good art, by definition, spits on that idea.

We love and hate our artists, we love and hate that they can create what we cannot conceive, that they were given gifts even as the rest of us were ignored. We love and hate that they create, they reveal and uncover that which others could have seen but failed to.

We pay them for being creative and fire them for threatening if not transforming the status quo.

It's good to be the King.

Apr. 28 2012 04:23 PM

But, not all designers (of which there is an incredible range of professions) are bad off.

It seems like this problem has more to do with fine art and performing arts (as opposed to professional design) jobs. The exception is architecture, which has had it bad in N. America and Europe.

BTW: being a fine artist or actor does mean almost certain poverty. But if you train or study design in college (graphic design - of which there are many variations from print, digital, interactive to “EGD” [signing, way finding, exhibition design]; industrial design; digital media/interactive media design; and the many architectural fields - which will recover in time), you will almost certainly make a middle class living, own a home, save for retirement, etc. Design (as compared to fine art) is essential to an economy and will not degrade. Ever.

Apr. 28 2012 02:33 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.