The creative careers lie (and why WeTransfer is trying to help)

The headline on the MailOnline was gleeful.

“From learning lines to serving the long line! The Cosby Show star Geoffrey Owens is spotted working as a cashier at Trader Joe’s in New Jersey.”

The whole piece was horrible, from the sneering details — “he wore a t-shirt with stain marks on the front as he weighed a bag of potatoes” — to the photos, snapped on a customer’s phone as Owens tried to get on with his job.

The “story” was that Geoffrey Owens, an actor who rose to fame in The Cosby Show and also starred in Raven, Lucifer and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, was now working in a New Jersey grocery store. The Mail did what the Mail does (it also followed up with breathless chutzpah when Owens gave an interview to American TV, that he had “broken his silence after being job-shamed.”).

Unsurprisingly, and heart-warmingly, the creative community rallied to his defense. Anyone who has ever pursued a creative path knows quite how precarious that life is. Side jobs are common. Day jobs can be essential.

It reminded me of this excellent interview with the writer Jeff Maysh on the Longform podcast. You may have read Maysh’s recent story about the ex-cop who rigged the McDonald’s Monopoly game. You may have also seen that Maysh sold the movie rights to Ben Affleck and Matt Damon for $1million.

But in the podcast, Maysh admits that when asked about the financial side of his life, he hasn’t always been honest. Arguably the hottest non-fiction writer around at this moment in time, he has a day job as a copywriter for a tech company.

Cate Andrews’ illustration for our Stuff They Don’t Tell You series

That this feels like an “admission” or a “revelation” tells us something about how we’ve come to think about creative careers.

Dazzled by success stories, we’ve lost sight of the struggle that so many creatives face. We want to believe in endlessly upward trajectories. The reality for many writers and musicians and artists and photographers is anything but.

This uncertainty is part of the deal. No creative is guaranteed success. But it filters down to a college level. If young people are going to take on the huge levels of debt — which going to university in so many places now entails — then it is reasonable they will look for careers that pay off that debt quickly.

So when choosing what to study or what to major in, of course creative courses are going to seem less attractive, when the future pay-off seems so much riskier.

A recent survey found that of 2million arts graduates in the US, only 200,000 were making their living as working artists. And we haven’t even started talking about what effect this has on diversity. Spoiler alert, it’s not good.

In the US, only 4.4% of arts school graduates are African-American. Only 13% of professional writers are non-white. Only 18% of the top roles (producers, directors etc) on the top 250 films of 2017 were filled by women. This roll-call of shame goes on and on.

Celia Jacob’s illustration for our Mind the Gap piece with Intern magazine

Another study from the UK identified “the flawed equation” in creative education, namely the idea that, “ to count is to be economically productive, but to create is not.” But with the average student debt in the US just under $40,000, it’s no wonder that mainly white, middle-class people — who can afford unpaid internships, or a couple of years’ grace to work on their art — dominate the creative space.

The solutions are multilayered. The Rhode Island School of Design’s STEM to STEAM campaign deserves praise. It’s been fighting to include art and design in the core education priorities alongside science, technology, engineering, and maths.

There are many fantastic non-profit groups fighting to protect and promote young people’s access to arts education from Arts Emergency in the UK to Enrich Chicago in the US, described as, “an arts-led movement to undo racism.”

The universities need to look at their creative courses and rigorously assess whether they are fit for purpose. Where they are not, new models need to be found. At WeTransfer we recently launched the Pioneers, a list of eight creative schools around the world which deserve credit for doing things differently.

We are also a founding sponsor of Nelly Ben Hayoun’s University of the Underground, a free masters course whose unique curriculum challenges students to apply creative thinking to the world’s biggest problems.

We’ve been thinking about where we can add value to young creatives too. Our Time/Place project this summer sent six students on fully-paid trips to spark new ideas outside of their comfort zones. From an Icelandic arts festival to a Costa Rican tree house, we provided six new experiences for six applicants from all over the world.

Jordan Andrew Carter for the Pioneers 2018 on WePresent

Editorially too we are seeing how we can help on a larger scale. Our Stuff They Don’t Tell You series is designed to fill some of the gaps between university studies and working creatives. This practical advice, about copyright law or tax and finance, will hopefully help young people make that difficult transition. Earlier this year we worked with Intern magazine on a series called Rigged System, which explored issues like the gender pay gap and low-paid internships.

And we are looking again at our free WeTransfer Plus for students program, which we hope to relaunch on a global scale next year.

The challenges facing the creative community seem clear. In already unpredictable careers, funding and support are being squeezed like never before, due to government cuts, industry troubles or both.

We hope we can be part of the solution, focusing on younger creatives, whose energy and ideas we need more than ever.

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