The rise of the creative underclass
In his book Culture Crash, Scott Timberg attacked Richard Florida’s notion of the ‘Creative Class’ acting as a driver of the economy, arguing that creatives in the United States now find it almost impossible to earn a living. The creative occupations that once underpinned ‘middlebrow culture’, such as journalists, musicians, artists and designers, are increasingly being replaced by new technologies and undercut by workers in emerging economies.
Make it creative and the jobs will come. Manchester's Northern Quarter takes Richard Florida's advice (Photo Greg Richards)
With the current debate about the effects of ChatGPT this undermining of the creative class is only likely to become stronger. Recent evidence from the UK and the Netherlands highlights the very real economic impact of the hollowing out of the creative class. In the UK Art Council England’s Livelihoods of Visual Artists Report showed that in 2015, the mean combined total income for artists was £16,150, with only £6,020 coming from their art practice. Without a second, non-artistic job, in other words, artists were earning 16% below the poverty line in 2015.
Ever hopeful: the creative industries are increasingly driven by the hope of success, which remains elusive for most (Photo Greg Richards)
The declining incomes from creative work mean that artists increasingly need to have more than one job or have independent means to support their creativity. This makes creative jobs less accessible for the working class, for example. Office for National Statistics data showed that the proportion of creatives with a working class background fell from 16.4% of creative workers in the cohort born between 1953 and 1962 to just 7.9% for those born in the 1990s. The narrowing of the creative class is not just a question of access to education, but a whole host of social and cultural opportunities. Those from working class backgrounds are less able to invest money in taking internships or building social networks.
UK public funding cuts for the arts have had a significant impact on artists. A survey by Industria entitled Structurally F*cked found they earned an overall median hourly rate of £2.60 an hour, well below the UK minimum wage of £9.50.
Rates of pay recorded in the data ranged widely, from hourly rates of £0 to £80, but with far more responses falling at the lower end of this spectrum; the median hourly rate worked out to just £2.60. This figure is well under half of the weighted minimum wage, meaning that respondents were subsidising institutions and projects with unpaid labour to an alarming degree – even before taking into account artists’ substantial overheads such as studio space. Shockingly, but sadly unsurprisingly, 15% of respondents were paid nothing at all.
These data were derived from Artist Leaks, an online open access database detailing what artists have been paid by public institutions in the UK. The creation of this database was stimulated by a Freedom of Information Request to the Tate asking for information on their pay structures for artists. The Tate indicated that it was not in their ‘commercial interest’ to divulge this information.
The British research can be compared with a recent Dutch report by Renée Steenbergen, who used official statistics to show that the average visual artist between 12,000 and 15,000 euro a year, or up to 30% below the Dutch poverty level of just over 18,000 euro annually. This is partly attributed to national art budget cuts of over 200 million euros in 2012, which was accompanied by the abolition of a basic income provision for artists. Although a Fair Practice Code was introduced to try and ensure fair levels of payments to artists in 2021, this has not led to artists being paid more in total, because cash-strapped art institutions have simply cut the number of art projects they fund.
Creative clusters seem to be more about consumption than creativity these days, as the Northern Quarter illustrates. (Photo Greg Richards)
Many artists have to deal not just with low wages, but a lack of affordable housing and workspaces. The demand for space has in the past been addressed by the Dutch broodplaats (nursery) programmes, which provided affordable workspaces in many cities. However, these programmes are now under pressure as many former industrial areas near the centre of major cities have been redeveloped for (luxury) housing, forcing out the artists that made these areas attractive for visitors.
Unless some solution is found to the twin problems of low wages and high rents, artistic production is likely to decline in many cities, preventing the creative class from driving cultural or economic growth. What we may be left with in the UK, the Netherlands and other places, is creativity as a form of ‘pacification by cappuccino’, as Sharon Zukin once termed it. Avoiding this will require more investment in creative production spaces, as was successfully achieved in the early years of creative quarters such as the Northern Quarter in Manchester, the Witte de With area in Rotterdam and the Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam.
But cappucino can also be creative.....(Photo Greg Richards)
Today these areas have become relatively sterile and uncreative consumption enclaves, where, as Zukin suggested, it is a lot easier to get an overpriced cappuccino than a work of art.