For those called to creative careers, accessibility challenges loom in every corner
A reposting of an article originally written in April 2019.
Surrounded by the color and chaos of Northeastern University’s LGBTQA+ Resource Center two weeks before finals, Madi Williams explains that she’s always wanted to be a performer.
Williams, a 20-year-old sophomore, is technically working, but her work-study position only requires her to be physically present and enforce the center’s few rules, so she often studies or talks with friends. It’s one of two jobs she’s working right now, along with doing tech for two shows and preparing for a show she’ll be acting in this summer.
“It’s great because I have all these opportunities,” she says. “But last week I had to measure out every single hour of my day from Monday to Thursday. It was like, this hour period, I need to get this, this, and this done.”
Her experience isn’t uncommon among students interested in a creative career, especially those attending a relatively expensive school like Northeastern. By graduation, students are expected to have strong portfolios and experience that model professional workflows, not what’s happening in classes.
For theater students, that’s a requirement to perform or tech shows outside of the ones produced by the theater department. For game design students, it’s the constant reminder that they should be working on games outside of class because the class projects aren’t enough to get hired somewhere unless they’re being significantly reworked after the assignment is graded and returned.
While it’s unsurprising that employers want students to understand how the creative process works in a professional environment, the demands put on students often leave them drained and exhausted, especially for students with limited financial resources, disabilities, or mental health concerns. It seems that there are more possibilities for these students in STEM — from high-paying summer internships to stable classroom accommodation procedures.
As it stands, the students with the most privilege coming into school have the easiest time breaking into creative careers, while those facing financial and health barriers are unsure if they’ll ever get a foothold. Artist collective BFAMFAPhD analyzed data from the 2012 American Community Survey to find that at the time, only 10.1 percent of students with art degrees went on to be artists, while 16.8 percent became educators and 6.6 percent went into other creative fields.
While it’s perfectly fine that not all students with art degrees will become studio artists, the 6.6 percent in creative fields is shocking. Why are so few art students ending up as graphic designers or social media coordinators? These are careers that are more stable among the creative fields, and better paid, yet there are still clear barriers to entry.
If only the privileged can work in creative careers, our fictional and journalistic media will remain hopelessly biased toward American majority culture: white, straight, coastal, and well-off. The stories of entire regions won’t get told by people who understand what it’s like to live there. The accessibility of our communications will be decided by people following along with online guides, rather than people who can speak to their own specific experiences. Our culture will be less inclusive, less informed, and less progressive.
Jamal Thorne, a Boston-based studio artist and professor at Northeastern, is currently working on virtual reality experiences designed to help people understand the experiences of marginalized communities they don’t identify with, such as a black man stopped by police officers on a busy day. This type of work can have a huge cultural impact because it builds understanding without requiring the marginalized to try to prove their experiences to an audience that doesn’t believe them.
“My goal with this thing,” he said, “is to kind of create a sense of empathy in people that maybe we think we have.”
Many entry-level creatives are expected to build a personal brand. Williams stressed the importance of social media marketing for anyone interested in life as a touring musician.
Thorne sees social media as a tool that makes art more accessible, but it also requires aspiring artists to act as marketers and entrepreneurs.
It’s key that artists understand how to make smart decisions about the availability of their products — the art — along with the marketing and distribution of the products.
“Before you needed a gallery to make a sale, you needed to kind of be out there in the art world, rubbing elbows with the right people who could network you into collectors’ circles,” he explained. “That’s not the case anymore.”
Katharine Brooks, director of Vanderbilt’s career center, suggests blogging and podcasting as a way to build your career, writing that it doesn’t have to be time-consuming. While that’s true to a degree, doing these things quickly requires a level of comfort with research and opinion writing that is nowhere near universal. If you really don’t have time for it, she recommends “microblogging,” also known as Twitter.
“Start by tweeting out your areas of interest,” she writes. “Link to interesting articles. Follow other Twitter posts about your field. The tweets from people you follow will inevitably connect you to interesting blog posts and podcasts.”
Twitter can certainly connect you to career prospects, as Megan Sergison found. But managing it can feel like a second job.
By the time Sergison graduated with a bachelor’s in international affairs at Northeastern, she knew she actually wanted to have a career in film. A year later, she’s working in an administrative role at MIT while freelancing in film journalism.
She published her first piece in October after seeing a call for pitches on Twitter. Since then, she’s written a handful of reviews and cultural criticism articles, and she recently covered the Boston Underground Film Festival after an organizer found her online and offered her a press pass.
Her only exposure to opportunities has been on Twitter, or through people she met on Twitter. It can be tricky to navigate the inner circles that still exist on the internet, but it has made things a lot easier for her.
“You don’t need a degree to get into these spaces,” she said.
In many ways, social media is a double-edged sword. It has broken down barriers between aspiring artists and the people who may buy their work or hire them, but carefully curating an online presence takes time and energy.
While many industries ask for a lot from employees, creatives often find the work is just as hard for much less predictable pay.
Williams was once told that she should give up on theater if her parents couldn’t financially support her while she was living in New York City auditioning for her first big role. Her mom won’t be able to do so, and it’s one of the reasons why she doesn’t have her heart set on Broadway though she loves musical theater. Instead, she’s interested in bringing forum theater — a style of interactive theater used for exploring social justice issues in many parts of the world — to American public schools.
Theater education isn’t a challenge-free route, though. Williams will most likely need a master's in teaching to supplement her undergraduate theater degree, and she’d be interested in an MFA in acting as well. This puts her in the same situation as most teachers — someone with academic debt making a minimal salary. It’s part of why she transferred to Northeastern, where she was offered a lot more financial aid.
“I think that’s more like I have to become a teacher first,” she said. “And then take what I learned about forum theater and stuff I already know and just apply it in a theater classroom.”
Sergison, the international affairs graduate freelancing in film reviewing, has been lucky in many ways. While she doesn’t have a journalism education or a ton of connections in the field, she has been very successful in building relationships with editors through social media. Still, she says she wouldn’t be comfortable leaving her job at MIT anytime soon, even though she’s not particularly passionate about it.
“There would probably never be a place where I would be comfortable enough just quitting and freelancing,” she said.
Sergison is also interested in an MFA, but she would need to borrow a significant amount of money, and won’t do that if she isn’t sure that her job prospects would increase enough to pay the money back. This is a real fear — as an undergraduate journalism student, I once worked with an intern colleague who had a journalism master's from Columbia. Going to a top school in a city with a high cost of living just to take a $14 an hour internship with limited benefits is the nightmare that pushes many of us away from grad school.
The challenge of paying your bills as a creator leads many to consider a second job. From cafes to administrative positions, the stereotype of creators working at Starbucks does come from somewhere.
For artists further along in their careers, teaching is a popular choice. Thorne teaches a handful of classes at Northeastern to supplement his art sales and his wife’s salary from Massachusetts General Hospital.
He started out as a graphic designer after falling in love with art and photography as a teenager in Maryland. He felt he was good at it, but he wanted to be making work where he could express himself, not just execute a plan for someone else.
“I never really felt like [the work] was mine,” he said. “I felt like, ‘Yeah, sure, I made the thing — I put it together.’ But I just didn’t feel like I owned it.”
That led him to Boston, where he got a master's degree and began practicing as a studio artist. Then he met his wife, decided he wanted to stay in Boston and realized he needed another job if he was to contribute to the household.
Thorne teaches introductory studio art classes at Northeastern including Observational Drawing, 2D Art Fundamentals, and 2D Tools, and he loves it. Even if he could make a living and have benefits without teaching, he’d do it.
Not everyone is as fortunate. Anna Anthropy, the game designer in residence at DePaul University and an indie creator and author, has come to enjoy teaching, but the stress and schedule undeniably exacerbate her chronic health issues. If she could live on her game design and books, as she did during the Flash game bubble of the early 2000s, she would. At the time, she could make thousands of dollars on a Flash game sponsored by a large company. A game commissioned by Adult Swim at the peak of the bubble is still the most money she’s ever made on one project.
After Flash games stopped being profitable, she had to figure out the freelancing hustle that game designers know today. Between her Patreon, freelance gigs, and book sales she was making rent, but her anxiety was through the roof, and she was doing work outside of games to make ends meet, like designing typefaces.
While freelancing can be difficult for everyone, this system discriminates against traditionally marginalized communities like many others. As a visible trans woman well before trans identities entered the average person (and politician’s) consciousness, she found that it was harder for her to make connections than her “white dude peers.” And when she did make connections, it sometimes felt like they were using her because she had “nothing to lose” as someone more marginalized than them.
At one point, another game developer and teacher gave her a copy of a game by David Cage, a successful developer whose depictions of race and gender in his games have often been criticized, along with the “culture of harassment” at his studio.
“You should play this and tweet it and tear it apart,” Anthropy recalled him telling her. “Because I would love to because I’m friends with David Cage.”
For historically marginalized communities, networking is more difficult, meaning that there are fewer gig offers and fewer conference invites.
Freelancing is also not disability-friendly. Anthropy’s chronic digestive distress, intense stomach pain, anxiety, and depression have all gotten worse since she was working as a freelancer, so she now sees the job as mandatory.
“I think that more than anything the reason I got a day job is because…I just needed health insurance,” she said. “And my medical situation has gotten a lot worse than then, so I feel like I can’t quit or I’ll die.”
This creates a tightrope act of teaching consistently and effectively to maintain her salary and benefits, but not committing to too much and worsening her health problems.
Currently, Anthropy is contracted to teach seven classes a year — between two and three in each of DePaul’s three quarters — along with providing academic advising to 45 students, and “service” which can include organizing events and serving on committees. She’s currently working to negotiate down to six classes each year, as the last time she taught three classes her health problems became unmanageable. It’ll hopefully be successful since she is working through an official ADA accommodations process, but she’ll likely be assigned more students to advise in exchange for that class.
For those with disabilities or mental illnesses, the demands of creative careers can easily become unbearable. Accessibility in the American workplace leaves something to be desired across the board — but in the arts, entertainment, and writing industries it seems like there are impressively little supports.
Between theater production, work, classes, and her band, Williams is quite familiar with late nights and stress-related illness. She’s had pneumonia twice in two years because she was unable to slow down when she first started to feel sick.
“I haven’t figured out the balance yet, but I’m getting better at it because I had to perform with pneumonia in two shows in one weekend last semester,” she said. “That’s the kind of stuff you can’t let happen to yourself.”
You could argue that we need people like Williams and Anthropy in the arts more today than ever. Both identify as LGBTQ, and both enjoy telling stories about gender and sexuality through their media. Today we occupy a space where the representation of LGBTQ identities is rapidly increasing, along with the representation of disabilities and people of color, but most of it is written by people who don’t hold these identities, and a lot of it is bad, and some of it is performed by people who don’t hold these identities either.
Anthropy first gained recognition in the games community for her game Dys4ia, a point-and-click focusing on the experience of gender dysphoria. It was written specifically about her experience as a trans woman, rather than trying to create a definition of the trans experience, and it’s crucial that people like her are able to make games like this.
We have to make sure that people from marginalized communities and less privileged backgrounds can survive in creative careers.
Looking toward the future, there are a lot of different angles to improve accessibility. Williams, Anthropy, and Sergison all agreed on the importance of workplaces that didn’t encourage or expect people to be working ridiculously long days and weeks and months to meet unreasonable deadlines. “Crunch” is often the culture, especially in games and theater, but it ruins the health and wellbeing of all employees and makes it so many people with health conditions can’t get into the industry in the first place.
“For a lot of people with chronic illness, [working in games] just doesn’t seem survivable,” Anthropy said.
Additionally, regional diversity could go a long way in making it less expensive to break into a creative career, allowing more people to do it. Sergison and Williams both expect to have to move to New York or Los Angeles to pursue their dream careers, which makes it difficult for young adults without parental support. Especially for writers, why do so many organizations insist on writers in these two cities other than because that’s the traditional move?
In 2019, we have technology that makes it irrelevant where a writer is based for the most part. While being able to walk up to someone in an office is nice if organizations aren’t willing to pay a living wage in their expensive markets they shouldn’t be requiring that. By doing so, they are choosing to exclude compelling candidates that simply can’t swing paying a ridiculous amount of their salary toward rent or living an hour from the office with four other people.
Additionally, it’s key that we think differently about arts education and the career prospects of creatives. The “working in a Starbucks” joke exists because it’s true, but is the issue really that there are no jobs, or that there aren’t very many jobs paying a living wage with benefits? Wealthy people are often the primary consumers of art and media, even things like video games. What types of people are building $4,000 computers to buy the newest VR rig? Considering that, why can’t we financially support people interested in creative careers?
“The expectation for people in the arts is just that if something awful happens to you you just pick up and you keeping going,” Williams said. “Because you have to. Because the show must go on. Something that isn’t stressed enough is having a support system.”