Capitalism is routinely castigated as an enemy of the arts, with much of the criticism pointed toward monsters of profit and efficiency. Others fret over more systemic features, worried that commercialization and consumerism will inevitably detach artists from healthy creative contexts.
Among progressives, such arguments are quickly paired with vague denunciations of “corporate greed” and advocacy for “corrective” or “protective” policies, from cultural subsidies to wage controls to “artist lofts” and beyond. The irony, of course, is that such solutions have their own set of deleterious effects, exposing artists and creative institutions to a shortsighted safetyism that’s far more unsettling and disruptive than mere “market forces.”
California’s recently passed Assembly Bill 5 serves as a prime example. The policy, known as AB5 or the “gig work” bill, seeks to reclassify independent contractors as “employees,” allowing them greater access to benefits and protections from their employers (e.g., health insurance, paid leave, etc.). The downside: many businesses may be unable to meet the financial requirements, leaving many of the currently employed looking for work.
While much of the media attention has focused on big corporations, particularly contractor-dependent employers like Uber and Lyft, the law is bound to inhibit opportunities for a wide range of freelancers—including California’s vibrant communities of artists, actors, and musicians.
According to the San Fransisco Chronicle, many independent theaters and creative collectives are already feeling the pressure, fearing that they’ll be unable to afford the transition. Opinions appear to be somewhat split among related parties. While national unions like Actors’ Equity favor the bill, for actual theater owners and fundraisers, the law poses significant challenges that could shut their doors or inhibit creative opportunities. While some are eager for more stability in their industry, “others fear that small companies with limited resources could be driven out of business, removing a vital source of entertainment and training,” write Joshua Kosman and Carolyn Said.
From an artist’s perspective, regulators are prioritizing a particular view of financial stability and security over increased institutional/individual freedom and creative expression. The question is whether creative professionals will accept the fruits of the trade-off:
“My concern is that we’ll see a massive creative drain out of the state,” said Susie Medak, managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theater. “What will happen to the small dance, theater or opera companies where there is so little income? That’s why they pay stipends. Nobody’s getting rich.”
Many smaller performing arts companies in the Bay Area say that while they support a fair wage for artists and theater makers, they fear AB5 would destabilize them. They hope for an exemption for nonprofit arts companies or for artists who work minimal hours.
The bill is also likely to also remove many unpaid opportunities, through which new artists are typically able to find their first opportunities or better develop their craft:
What’s particularly at risk, many observers say, is the traditional apprenticeship program that allows performers to work their way up gradually.
“There’s a lot about this law that doesn’t fit the employment model of our industry,” said Julie Baker, executive director of nonprofit organizations Californians for the Arts and California Arts Advocates. “We’ve developed a model in our industry where people expect to (apprentice) for a few hundred dollars while they work as a waitress or a Lyft driver. That’s very different from most industries.”
Much like the typical victims of minimum wage laws, those affected by AB5 are not likely to include the state’s more entrenched and privileged institutions. “Multimillion-dollar organizations such as the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Ballet already operate with a workforce of full-time employees, and won’t feel much of an effect from the new law,” Kosman and Said explain.
Contrary to the underdog narrative touted by legislators, the policy will disproportionately disrupt the very “struggling artists” it claims to protect:
Smaller organizations — theater companies that pay stipends to actors, directors, designers and production workers who support themselves with day jobs — could face an existential crisis.
“This is really a problem for us,” said Mark Streshinsky, general director of West Edge Opera. “Our company has just three full-time employees, and everyone else has a contract. We’ve tried to budget a bit for this, but it’s scary. I can raise more money, but I can’t raise that much more money.”
Of course, “market forces” aren’t perfect organizers of human behavior either. As channels of culture, they mostly funnel what they funnel, whether it be local high-art theater productions or squalid mass-market appeals to the lowest common denominator.
Yet economic freedom at least puts the control in the hands of the actual owners and creators. If we truly care about artistic freedom and creative expression, we should be wary of contractual cookie cutters. If given a choice, one would think that the true artist would prefer “messy but beautiful” over “safe with benefits.”
There isn’t a perfect model or easy solution. It will always be difficult to find a healthy balance between economic stability and the pursuit of beauty. But if we approach such a struggle with the type of knee-jerk skepticism and blind pessimism that accompanies policies like AB5, the struggling artist will face more obstacles, not fewer.
Artists ought to be valued for their contributions, but we can express and affirm that value in ways that retain a wider imagination about the past, the present, and the future — one that appreciates the value of bottom-up creativity and the economic freedom that got us this far in the first place.