Are the creative industries good for artists?

Ever since the early days of New Labour in 1997, it’s been government and arts policy to integrate and progress development of the visual arts through the creative industry umbrella and to embrace its economic imperatives. As this situation is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, through my new research I’m addressing some key questions.  Do these industries provide a conducive environment in which visual artists can make a living and develop their careers? Are the conditions and employment practices more favourable to ways of working by some artists while others lose out? Updated 16/01/17.

What are the creative industries? 

The creative industries comprise: “Those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skills and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property”.(DCMS 2001 (1)  New Labour policy (DCMS, 2008) saw development of the creative industries as way to ‘make Britain the world’s creative capital’. (2) And Arts Council England Visual Arts Policy 2007-11 followed suit, positioning artists’ practices within the creative industries [because this environment] “acknowledges the fluid nature of visual arts practice and the portfolio working lives of many artists”. (3) 

Thus, this linkage between the arts and the creative industries has been around for nearly two decades, and it’s likely to continue to be government and arts policy to integrate development of the visual arts under this industry umbrella.  Florida (2002) identified that creative people actively choose to be in stimulating environments rather than in more traditional and predicable ones because they value the intrinsic rewards related to the content of creative work over monetary compensation.  However, this reliance on people’s intrinsic motivations which “hooks them in emotionally” serves to undermines their economic status.  

Banks & Hesmondhalgh (2009) confirm that UK creative industries work is characterised by insecurity, inequality and exploitation and fosters self-exploitation by creative workers themselves, this due to differing expectations of the balance between monetary reward and creative opportunity. Given this underlying structural issue of poor remuneration, should public policy be complicit in presenting as conventional career choices the ‘bohemian’ (4) and irregular occupations including artist, writer and musician? 

Rather than the open recruitment of the past which supported equality of opportunity, creative work opportunities are handed on within what McRobbie (2002) assesses to be a ‘club culture’. Thus for individuals to ‘get on’ in the creative industries relies both on their access to networks and their ‘network sociality’: “… getting an interview for contract creative work depends on informal knowledge and contacts, often friendships.” 

Thirty years ago artists were found to either have a main occupation or a dual career but in the creative industries of nowadays, workers tend to hold down three, or even four usually short-term projects at once, these alongside other jobs also taken on to cover gaps in work.  Although some artists have an active preference for portfolio working (Summerton 1999), research by Galloway et al (2003) found that the inherent unpredictability artists have to deal with when working in the creative industries face can undermine their ability to be creative. Gunnell & Bright (2010) concluded that the nature of creative industries work doesn’t suit everyone’s characteristics and behaviours. A longitudinal study of a sample of new creative graduate businesses by Hanage et al (2016) revealed that despite promising beginnings and start-up support these individuals were “at a disadvantage from the outset” and that the enterprises of each of those studied had failed within five years.

Disadvantages and inequalities

McRobbie (2002) questions the compatibility of the creative industries environment to the motivations and artistic aspirations of its workforce. She identifies constraints due to the individualism which is necessary, as people are responsible for creating and maintaining their own micro-structures and being reflexive is the norm. She asserts that “Being a specialist rather than a multi-skilled ‘creative’ is becoming a thing of the past and a mark of being over 35” and suggests it is (young) unencumbered women who dominate the creative industries, who have sacrificed motherhood for the mobility necessary to build status and CVs.

Morgan & Nelligan (2015) identify the particular disadvantages for working class men.  Because they are steeped in communities of practice (that is in the modes and traditions of making work) they are found to be the least able to manage the rigors of a creative career or to thrive within the creative industries. This is a social group which is less comfortable with the incessant job seeking, is less competitive, has less inclination to improvise and ‘rebrand’ in response to change, is less likely to excited by serendipitous opportunities wherever and whenever they arise, and to also be less prepared to endure scrutiny and arbitrary judgement by gatekeepers.

In short, the requirements of the creative industries seem not to be conducive to an art practice which is honed and built through a continuous, craft-and skills-based practice such as painting, ceramics. Morgan & Nelligan (2015) conclude that: “to survive in turbulent labour markets most creative aspirants must become ‘labile labour’ mobile, spontaneous, malleable and capable of being aroused by new vocational possibilities”.

Other sections of society found to be disadvantaged by the creative industries.  Hesmondhalgh & Baker (2009) show that people from ethnic groups or with low socio-economic status are underrepresented due to the poor pay and uncertain employment prospects. However, new evidence is need to find out what other underlying factors may cause barriers. It’s possible that artists based outwith the urban conurbations where the creative industries are and who can’t, or don’t want to be, around and about, having a drink after work, socialising and networking are also excluded, to the detriment of their artistic career development and livelihoods.  

There is no current evidence as to whether an artist's age, religion, disability, mental health or neurodiversity(5) - a term which encompasses genetic conditions such as autism, Asperger’s syndrome and bipolarity -  impact adversely on their ability to engage with the ‘club culture’ and inbuilt ‘sociality’ of the creative industries and to sustain a livelihood in the visual arts ‘over a life-cycle’ (Wright et al 2011). However, research by Gross & Musgrave (2016) has concluded that music industry workers may be up to three times more likely to suffer from depression than the public as a whole, with uncertainty about income and career prospects contributory factors.


The evidence reviewed suggests that positioning the visual arts under the creative industries umbrella may not be good for visual artists. Practitioners are shown to be poorly valued and rewarded, with sections of them excluded from participation for various reasons. Furthermore, Hanage et al conclude that those supporting creative graduates “ought to think of start-up support as the first exploratory step in a longer personal development journey” and that policy makers have a tendency to disregard the underlying challenges, paradoxes and insecurity which individuals have to face. It could be argued that it is time for arts policy to reassess its interrelationship with the creative industries in which economic imperatives supersede the quality of work experience, artists’ ability to be creative and realise artistic ambitions is undermined and social inequality and lack of diversity are commonplace.    


Unless stated otherwise, cited texts and reviews of research are only freely available to those with access to an academic library.

Banks, M, Hesmondhalgh, D, (2009). Looking for work in creative industries policy, International Journal of Cultural Policy 15 (4) pp. 415-430

Florida, R, (2002). The Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Basic Books.

Galloway, S, Lindley, R, Davies, R, Scheibl, F, (2002). Balancing Act: artists’ labour markets and the tax and benefits system. London: Arts Council of England.

Gross, S, Musgrave, G, (2016). Can Music Make You Sick? Music and Depression: A study into the incidence of musicians’ mental health Part 1: Pilot Survey Report. London: University of Westminster/ MusicTank

Gunnell, B. and Bright, M, (2010). Creative Survival in Hard Times. London: Arts Council England.

Hanage, R, Scott, M, J, Davies, A, P, (2016). From “great expectations” to “hard times”. International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behavior & Research.  22:1 pp 4-16

Hesmondhalgh, D. and Baker, S. (2009). ‘A very complicated version of freedom’: Conditions and experiences of creative labour in three cultural industries. Poetics 38 pp. 4-20

McRobbie, A, (2002). Clubs to Companies: Notes on the decline of political culture in speeded up worlds. Cultural Studies, 16 (4) pp. 516-147

McRobbie, A, (2016). Be creative: making a living in the new culture industries. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Morgan, G, Nelligan P, (2015). Labile labour – gender, flexibility and creative work, The Sociological Review, 63:S1 pp. 66-83

Summerton, J. (1999). Artists at Work 1999: study of the patterns and conditions of work in the Southern Arts Region, Winchester: Southern Arts Board. 

Wright, S. Robinson, M. Querol, N. Colston, S. (2011). The Art of Living Dangerously. London/Newcastle: Mission Models Money and Exchange.


(1) DCMS (2001). Creative Industries Mapping Document

(2) Creative Britain: new talents for the new economy. London: DCMS, 2008

(3) Arts Council England Visual Arts Policy 2007-11

(4) Although traditionally viewed as people who favoured more libertine lifestyles and made lifestyle rather than purely economic choices, this term has been in usage more widely since Florida (2002) as a descriptor for the more ‘artistic’ part of the ‘creative class’ ie authors, designers, musicians and composers, actors and directors, craft-artists, painters, sculptors, artist printmakers, photographers, dancers, artists, performers. In addition Comunian (2009) defines bohemians as those people capable of holding high human capital in the creative disciplines. 

(5) Wikipedia states that "neurodiversity is an approach to learning and disability that suggests that diverse neurological conditions appear as a result of normal variations in the human genome. There is a neurodiversity movement, which is an international civil rights movement that has the autism rights movement as its most influential submovement. This movement frames autism, bipolarity and other neurotypes as a natural human variation rather than a pathology or disorder, and its advocates reject the idea that neurological differences need to be (or can be) cured, as they believe them to be authentic forms of human diversity, self-expression, and being". Relevant to the points I am making in this piece is the assertion that: "Neurodiversity advocates promote support systems (such as inclusion-focused services, accommodations, communication and assistive technologies, occupational training, and independent living support) that allow those who are neurodivergent to live their lives as they are, rather than being coerced or forced to adopt uncritically accepted ideas of normality, or to conform to a clinical ideal".

This text is an extended version of a Soapbox provocation delivered to delegates at 'Whose Art? Our Art! Access and Activism in Gallery Education', engage conference 13/14 October 2016.