Mythology and reality in New York's creative sector

Mythology and reality in New York's creative sector

New York’s creative economy is growing, but many artists haven’t felt the benefits. This was one of the key takeaways of “Creative New York,” a report published in 2015 by Manhattan-based think tank Center for an Urban Future. I spoke with lead researcher Adam Forman.

Give me an overview of the study’s findings.

We found that there’s been tremendous employment growth in the so-called creative fields in the last decade—not only in the commercial disciplines of film and architecture, but also in performing and visual arts. These industries are essential to the New York economy—maybe more than ever. And whereas ten years ago 7.1% of the creative jobs in the US were in New York, today it’s 8.6%.

The question is, why and how? Because obviously there are huge challenges in terms of affordability. Affording not just living space, but also studio and rehearsal and exhibition and performance space. And tuition costs are soaring at MFA and BFA programs. And paying off that debt while earning zero dollars from unpaid internships is nearly impossible.

Given these significant challenges, how are we still experiencing employment growth in the creative sector? The answer is New York’s amazing arts ecosystem. The huge pool of audiences and buyers, of foundations and philanthropists. The universities that draw talent from around the world and the dense community of artists essential for collaboration, inspiration, feedback, employment, referrals, and career advice. There’s also the media presence—both the international newspapers and the discipline-specific publications—that help artists gain attention and renown.

Whereas ten years ago 7.1% of the creative jobs in the US were in New York, today it’s 8.6%.

That being said, the challenges are real, and a big part of what sustains New York is the mythology and mystique that struggling in this city will make your art better. I think if that mythology is punctured and people begin to think that they can make great work in Portland or Austin or Nashville, then that will very quickly undo New York City’s centrality.

Were there a lot of surprises in the study?

I was surprised to see that there’s still so much growth and innovation in these disciplines. We’ve heard so much from David Byrne and Patti Smith and Moby that the New York City arts are dead and we’re turning into Venice, a museum city. Clearly that’s not the case.

However, growing and thriving aren’t the same thing, and a lot of artists are really struggling.

I understand that finding accurate statistics around these issues is really hard.

Definitely. We relied on the Department of Labor for data about employment, and the Census keeps track of where people live and their occupations, and there’s something called the Cultural Data Project [now DataArts] where arts institutions report their financials.

So the data is there, but does that mean it’s accurate? Not necessarily. For the Cultural Data Project, for instance, organizations have to fill out a really, really long form about their programming and financials in order to qualify for grants. A lot of small nonprofits don’t have the capacity to do that, so they just make it up, essentially. Or certain artists may not report to the Census that they’re living in an area zoned for industrial businesses in Bushwick. Or a world-class kora player with a day job on a construction site may not list his occupation as a musician.

So there’s definitely some slippage, but you can kind of triangulate and get this information from a lot of different sources.

Are there any promising initiatives that you think can help the situation in New York?

Absolutely. The de Blasio administration is focusing on some of the really important issues, like diversity. New York’s creative sector is not representative of the population at large. Only 29% of people working in the cultural sector are non-white, whereas 67% of New York’s population is people of color.

This lack of diversity is due to the formidable barriers to entry. If you’re not from a privileged background, it’s difficult to pay New York rents while working multiple unpaid internships and covering your MFA tuition.

The de Blasio administration is really focused on these issues. It’s conducted surveys of cultural institutions, looking at the demographics of their staff and boards. It’s also subsidizing paid internships in film and fashion and providing professional development training to small arts institutions in communities of color.

They’ve also promised to build affordable artist housing and workspace as part of their housing initiative. Of the 200,000 units of affordable housing that Mayor de Blasio aims to preserve or build in the next decade, 1,500 units will be for artists.

There’s also the cultural plan the city council passed last year. The city is now obligated to draft a cultural plan every ten years addressing issues of diversity, affordability, education, and community development.

How does what New York’s doing in the cultural sector compare to other cities?

Across the world, cities are trying to attract the so-called “creative class.” They believe it creates a positive feedback loop, drawing in more talent and new businesses.

In terms of specific policies, Austin provides health insurance to musicians and San Francisco and Houston devote a share of their hotel tax for arts funding.

New York needs to be extra attentive to the competition from other communities. A lot of cities are trying to lure artists who are being priced out of New York.

Any final thoughts?

I’m a bit disturbed by the nostalgia for 1970s New York. There’s no question that the ‘70s were a period of extraordinary artistic innovation—the birth of hip hop, punk, new wave, alternative art spaces. But there’s something malignant in that nostalgia. There’s a suggestion that the arts can only thrive in a city of high crime and arson and white flight and manufacturing decline.

But that assumption is flawed. The 1940s and 1950s, for instance, were equally innovative. The abstract expressionists; the Beat Generation and the folk revival; Balanchine and modern ballet; cool jazz and bebop; off-off-Broadway; Arbus and Frank; O’Hara and Ashbery; Rauschenberg and Johns anticipating Pop Art; Merce Cunningham anticipating postmodern dance. All that came in a period where manufacturing was booming, where crime was low, and where the population was increasing.

So I don’t think the city has to be burning to cinders for the arts to thrive. It doesn’t have to be an either/or.

Image: Sebastian Ilari CC by 2.0

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