Photos by Derek Kouyoumjian
Crisis in the Creative Professions Roundup: A call for action and a collective sigh of relief
Last fall, BINJ gathered over 40 writers, photographers, musicians, performance artists, community activists and freelancers of every stripe at the Community Church of Boston with a very specific goal in mind: tap the collected creative minds to hash out the struggles of trying to build financially sustainable creative careers in Boston and work towards forming an alliance to solve shared political and economic problems.
BINJ’s Jason Pramas moderated the event, and led off the proceedings, “Tonight we’re going to hear from some people working in various creative professions about their struggle to make a living in Boston, then we’re going to hear from people working for advocacy organizations that represent people in at least some of those creative professions, then we’re going to open the discussion up to the audience, then I hope we’re going to keep networking and organizing collectively going forward from tonight until we improve our situation — and make Boston a city that’s truly supportive of all of its creative workers.”
The creative worker group included local hip-hop legend and BINJ board member Akrobatik, performance artist duo Loreto Paz Ansaldo and Pampi D. of In Divine Company, freelance dancer Gabriela Silva, Chrislene DeJean, a local cultural worker, and BINJ’s Emily Hopkins on the financial, personal and emotional trials of trying to piece together a fulfilling creative profession in today’s economy and Boston’s brutal housing market.
The advocate group included Kathleen Bitetti, cofounder of the Massachusetts Artists Leaders Coalition, Patrick Hollenbeck, president of the Boston Musicians’ Association and orchestrator for Boston Pops, Malia Lazu, executive director of Future Boston Alliance and Danielle McLean, president of the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists to the mic to discuss the ways activist groups and cultural and legal organizations in Boston are fighting to help — and feeling our pain.
Matt Kaliner, a Harvard sociology professor, rounded out the evening by confirming with stats and figures what we felt we already knew — Boston is a wonderful but horrifically expensive city; and those of us working in creative fields fulltime or on a freelancer’s schedule are getting the short end of a very sharp stick.
For all stress, agony, and potential for collective despair, however, what came out of our meeting in November wasn’t a pity party, no meeting of the Lonely in Debt club, but a call for action and also a collective sigh of relief.
Here’s what we learned.
The struggle is real.
“The struggle with this process is that it’s not sustainable,” said Pampi D. Pampi and Loreto Paz Ansaldo comprise In Divine Company, a local independent dance and performance art company, but both started in full time jobs that had nothing to do with their artistic passions.
“I paid off my debt with those years of full time work and saved my money so I could quit my other job and pursue this work full time,” Ansaldo said.
“That was 3 years ago. Since then money has run out. So we try to keep part time jobs to be able to pay the bills. It’s exhausting…we have no money and we’re always stressed.”
Yes, rent rates in Boston are completely absurd.
According to the annual Boston Housing Report, as presented by Prof. Kaliner, by the second quarter of 2015 the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment hit $2,600 a month, up from $1,800 in 2009.
Average rent has increased over 40 percent in six years.
“Your wages are a mystery,” Professor Kaliner said. “Nobody really knows how to calculate the artistic wage, but we know they’re not sufficient given the price of rent.”
According to The Arts Factor2014, ArtsBoston’s annual report on the state of artistic endeavors in Boston, $1 billion was pumped into the local economy by arts and culture organizations and $450 million (not including the cost of admission) was spent by audiences.
Given the tremendous contributions the artistic community makes to Boston, “we expect your wages to be generous,” Kaliner said.
But we know differently.
“I pay 50 percent of my income, sometimes more since I don’t always know how much I’ll be making a month, for rent and I feel lucky — I have a great apartment, I love it,” BINJ’s Emily Hopkins said.
“But I feel lucky to pay more than 50 percent of my income for rent.”
It’s not just you
“One thing I’ll say about making a living is that the work we do as creative workers is fundamentally incompatible with our capitalist system,” Ansaldo said.
And she’s right. One of the things we heard most often from our panel of creative professionals was that finding support from peers and family to ditch the full time, if soul sucking, job to try to make your passion pay the bills was difficult and fed the cycle of self doubt that struggling financially spins so many into.
“Before working in journalism full time I was an events coordinator and I made SO much money,” said Hopkins.
But Hopkins also said she was severely depressed at the time because her work and her passion weren’t aligned. When Hopkins entered journalism full time about a year ago she took a huge cut in pay — and another hit to her self-esteem.
“When we have these struggles to make ends meet and do the work that we want to do there’s the effect of making it feel like it was all my fault; that I wasn’t talented, that I wasn’t good enough to do the work and that I didn’t deserve what I wanted,” she said.
“And I think a lot of people have experienced that — because if you’re not getting paid to do what you want to do then you’re not good enough to be doing it, right?”
Part of it is Boston
“Boston is not supporting artists the way we’d like to see them supported,” Malia Lazu of Future Boston Alliance said.
Yes, the rent is too damn high, but more than that Boston’s population of college students and young professionals, a demographic we readily boast about on other levels, makes building stable creative communities difficult.
“We have so many people here who are transient,” Akrobatik said. “College kids don’t know what’s going on here, and the people who live here don’t know because nobody cares enough to tell them.”
According to Akrobatik, it’s the lack of communication between what is truly happening in Boston’s creative circles and a majority of Boston residents that results in a lack of support for our local artists.
“If this gets addressed we’ll be taking a step further towards having some of our young artists have careers as national artists,” he said.
“There’s definitely enough talent here. Some of the talent here is the best I’ve seen…But if we don’t support that no one else is gonna care.”
There is a broad network of local organizations on your side — you just probably don’t know about them
“I refuse to accept that we have to do this as something painful and do it alone,” Gabriela Silva said.
And she’s right.
We were joined by representatives of the Massachusetts Artists Leaders Coalition, the Boston Musicians’ Alliance, and the New England chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists — three local organizations with creative professionals’ best interests at heart.
The Massachusetts Artists Leaders Coalition (MALC) has been in action since 2008 to ensure that local artists of all disciplines are represented in public policy initiatives, public dialogues and legislative decisions that have an impact on Massachusetts’ artistic communities and the creative economy.
“If you can’t demonstrate that there’s a care and need then you can’t change things. We have no money, but we’re at the table,” co-founder Kathleen Bitetti said.
Local politicians “have to sit down and talk to us,” she said.
The Boston Musicians’ Alliance (BMA), a union organization supporting musicians, is also here to help.
“I feel the loneliness that you feel,” said BMA president Patrick Hollenbeck. “But there’s a lot of knowledge out there if you look for it.”
“You’re only alone if you think you are,” he said.
There are things we can do to make it better
“We need to create a different way of looking at and valuing ourselves, together,” said Pampi D.
There are, as noted earlier, real challenges that every creative professional living in Boston, no matter how well established, faces.
But there are things we can do as a community to fight for fair wages and the collective respect we deserve.
“We have to keep recording the hours (spent on a project),” Pampi continued. “I think we’ve stopped doing that. And that’s really not stable. We have to push back and come together…and establish a baseline. So we get (paid) what we’re worth.”
If we log the hours spent in rehearsal, on set, in front of our laptops, or behind the camera we can begin to establish a baseline pay per hour or per project and avoid some of the major financial pitfalls of the industry.
“There is such a lack of paid rehearsals,” said Silva. “I give a lot of time rehearsing and bringing other people’s creative visions into fruition for free.”
Other issues that freelancers like Silva frequently face that could be avoided with a more well established (and collectively established) understanding of hourly pay include the frequent lack of written contracts, uncertainty of pay and misclassified employee status.
“I’ve been misclassified as an independent contractor when they’re dictating my hours and conditions of my work very explicitly,” Silva said.
It sounds bleak. And parts of it certainly are. But the major takeaway from our panel discussion is that we have the power to make it better if we start working together.
“We all know these numbers”, Silva said. “But I think the most tragic thing of all is when I can’t find solidarity among other artists….I refuse to accept that we have to do this as something painful and do it alone.”
Making it as a creative professional, full time or freelance, in a city as diverse and financially draining as Boston is tough. But if we’ve been smart and resourceful enough to land gigs and squeak by on rent on our own, imagine what we can do together.