Guest Blogger Jessica Wilt: Why Continue a Career in the Arts? (Part 1)

Jessica Wilt

Jessica Wilt

With the national focus shifting from the financial crisis to job creation (and now, this week back to the financial crisis once more), I thought I would use my personal story as a midcareer arts administrator to help shed light on the impact the economy is having on jobs in this field.

I’m in my mid-thirties and keep asking the question, “How much longer does work have to consume my entire life before the level of financial security matches my professional accomplishments and experience?”
I’ve made great professional strides in the arts education field living in one of the most ruthless and expensive cities in the world. However, the cost and sacrifices, both financial and personal, have been significant over the past several years leaving very little to show for my efforts.

In his blog post The Twelve Attributes of a Truly Great Place to Work, CEO Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project, recently wrote:

“great employers must shift the focus from trying to get more out of people, to investing more in them by addressing their four core needs – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual – so they’re freed, fueled, and inspired to bring the best of themselves to work every day.” 

Amen Mr. Schwartz — count me in! Now, where in the arts, education, and nonprofit industries can I actually find these attributes in action?

The recommendations posed in his twelve attributes list are very practical incentives many nonprofits, big or small, should seriously consider. It’s unfortunate that most do not, simply because, “Sorry, we can’t. There’s no money.” is an easier answer.

And since we’re on the topic of money, let me address the issue of living wage.

In 2008, I held a great director of education position, with respectable pay, that was eliminated due to a knee jerk reaction to the madness unfolding on Wall Street. For nearly eight months that followed I collected unemployment. Day after day I would beat myself up for not finding work all while being made to feel like a criminal for collecting from “the system” that’s meant to be there for you when you need it.

Eventually I would be faced with accepting an almost identical position that offered a salary at close to $20,000 less. In New York City I was officially living at poverty level. But beggars can’t be choosers right? It is after all a job!

My mindset at the time: this is temporary. While continuing to explore other employment options, I worked harder than ever before, building back my career and coming home to emptier pockets. Temporary became two more years with no greater opportunity for career advancement or financial relief.

Something is very wrong with this picture: work more for far less.

It seems less has become the new normal not just in our field, but across the country. A recent NPR report speaks directly to a similar experience the younger generation of workers is facing.

As quoted from the story, “These people will be scarred, and they will be called the `lost generation’ in that their careers would not be the same way if we had avoided this economic disaster.” For those in their 20s and 30s the statistics for having successful and productive futures is alarming…in the arts, I would say downright frightening.

Kathy Schrier, the Director of the Actors Work Program at the Actors Fund of America works daily with artists who are scrambling to find work while making ends meet. Schrier says, “In today’s market it is not unusual for those building a career in most fields to do so by enhancing their resume through volunteer work or internships; but professional artists are unique as they continue to work for no pay or small stipends during mid-career or advance career stages.”

Mid-career level arts administrators are experiencing similar discomforts.

We obtain multiple college degrees. (And by the way – I don’t believe colleges do a very good job preparing artists for real-life careers. Read college president Ron Jones’ blog post Understanding the Professions to Which Our Students Aspire). We also have established ourselves in the field professionally and currently provide a large portion of “the innovative work.”

Yet when it comes to job expectation and responsibility equaling pay, there seems to be a definite fundamental ethics gap in our field. Quite possibly even more troubling, the human aspect of how this trend affects us as people has deeper and potentially longer-lasting consequences.

In part 2, I’ll identify some of the “solutions” organizations and companies are enacting to keep up with the ever changing financial times.

I’ll also offer a few suggestions that might help those of us who are struggling to keep our heads above water feel more confident in making a change.

This blog post was originally published by Jessica Wilt on Americans for the Arts – ARTblog on September 26, 2011.

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One response to “Guest Blogger Jessica Wilt: Why Continue a Career in the Arts? (Part 1)

  1. Thanks Jessica, for this contribution to a dialogue concerning what must not be a taboo subject: wages for workers in the arts. One of the primary reasons JComm undertook its “Dance Workforce Census: Earnings Among Individuals, Ages 21-35″ in May was to aggregate data that will contribute to this conversation — to address this challenge of sustaining careers in the arts with some degree of financial health. (Stay tuned for the findings; analysis is underway.) One thing’s certain: the loss of one of our field’s greatest assets — up-and-coming human resources — due to perennial job dissatisfaction, will not a stronger field make. There are many in this boat.