Creativity at Work: Building the creative economy artist-by-artist

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NORTH ADAMS — Earlier this summer, the New England Foundation for the Arts published a report called The Jobs in New England's Creative Economy and Why They Matter. This document evaluates the size and health of, as well as trends within, New England's creative economy. NEFA and its research partners used data found in national employment reports as well as its Creatives Count survey to study the attributes and needs of workers in creative industries, creative workers in non-creative industries, and freelancers, solo entrepreneurs and other self-employed creatives.

The overall numbers are staggering. "There are nearly 310,000 people employed by the creative economy of New England," the authors explain, "who combined earn nearly $17 billion a year." This makes the creative economy a bigger regional sector than transportation and warehousing, wholesalers, government, and construction.

Many creative economy professionals have a hunch that creative workers are as uniquely prevalent in the region as cultural institutions thanks to the jobs that these employers provide. According to NEFA, creative workers are, in fact, a more prominent part of New England's economy than the national economy. But the report breaks this figure down further to reveal a more interesting fact: Nearly a quarter of all creative workers in New England are self-employed. Additionally, creative workers are two and a half times more likely to be self-employed than workers in other industries in New England.

While it is unclear how many self-employed creatives live and work in the Berkshires, these regional statistics illustrate how reliant our creative economy is — or should be — on the financial stability and success of independent artists, designers, writers and performers.

Of course, artists not only struggle with the stigma of pursuing a creative business, they find little financial support and security when developing a career that's not tethered to creative establishments. Of the $17 billion in total creative earnings cited by NEFA, only $2 billion is earned by non-employers, or self-employed workers. A creative New England-based freelancer earns, on average, less than $29,000 a year.

Clearly, self-employed creatives don't simply want to be paid; they need to be paid. And yet, our culture continues to isolate creatives from the rest of the freelance economy and devalues their skills and services. Artists shouldn't have or be expected to rely on a "day job" to make a living or fund their creative production, yet they do. According to NEFA's Creatives Count survey, only one third of their income comes from "self-employed activities." Equally degrading and unhelpful is the term "starving artist," a tired cliche that dismisses a creative's financial struggles as expected instead of alarming.

Reframing these tropes will go a long way in the development of a new culture that values all of its creative workers. But self-employed creatives also need exposure to new markets, fair wages, production partners, business trainings, incentives and gigs that are leading to new sources of income.

For some independent creative New Englanders, Berkshire County might be an unexpected beacon of light in an increasingly frustrating climate.

Not only do we possess an abundance of creative employers but developers, nonpro fits, and economic development agencies are building new resources for creative entrepreneurs. These resources - which include space, education, collaborations, connections, and investments - provide a foundation for artists and freelancers to build capacity and earn more money.

Ultimately, the underlying message of NEFA's report is that creative workers of all types need financial support, which varies greatly depending on what you do, what you want, and where you live. Berkshire-based creatives face challenges living in a less dense environment but may thrive thanks to its affordability and quality of life. There are many paths to financial sustainability. Helping artists and creative freelancers better understand business is one, and creating a direct pipeline to consumers and support funds is another.

The latter needs to be prioritized while the former needs to continue.

Creatives also have a responsibility to take their job seriously, work hard, and be open to change. But our job, as a community, is to provide encouragement, opportunity, and compensation to these workers - and recognize them as valuable contributors to our economy.

A former creative economy specialist for 1Berkshire, Julia Dixon is chair of the North Adams Public Art Commission, and a creative economy consultant, entrepreneur and visual artist.

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