Recession Wanes, But Artists Still Starving

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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.

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