In the City of Ideas, the people with ideas are the ones with day jobs
Jill Bedgood cracked one day, in a bathroom down the hall from her office. It was 1983. After two years of graduate work in studio art — the first time in her life she’d focused on her own art — the sculptor found herself working clerical jobs, again, to pay the bills, and scraping up time at night and on weekends, again, to make art. She had to have a Day Job.
For Bedgood a better job as an art instructor didn’t exist; no one in her class had one. “That life I’d lived as a grad student, that life of doing my art every day, was gone,” she remembers. “I thought I was going to go crazy.” She left her desk, locked herself in the bathroom, beat the wall, and screamed.
The Day Job is a hidden fact of economic and psychosocial life here in Austin, the City of Ideas. Many of the people with Day Jobs are the ones with the ideas — the people who helped create the thriving cultural scene that’s attracted so many people who can make a living from “creative” pursuits while having their nights free. Looking at who has a day job and who doesn’t is a good way of making sense of today’s Austin economy and exploring the civic commitment to building tomorrow’s economy on creativity.
In the city’s vision of its future, all idea workers fuel the economy, and in the city’s version of its past, everyone’s been doing their creative thing for years and spurring Austin’s phenomenal growth. The truth, which lies closer to the ground, is a different thing altogether. The infrastructure upon which the City of Ideas was built was not supplied by City Hall or by the best and brightest minds of urban studies. It was supplied by the Day Job.
The Great Big Creative Class
Jill Bedgood, for instance, now keeps it together as an adjunct art instructor at local colleges and universities, an admittedly unstable job. She also chairs the Austin Art in Public Places Panel, which advises the city’s AIPP program, one of the major ways in which City Hall spends public money on creative enterprise. It took public funding for her art — a residency from the Texas Commission on the Arts — for Bedgood to “catapult” away from clerical work in the late 1980s. Along the way, grants and art shows, many in places other than Austin, buoyed her spirits and forced her to keep working. She took another artist’s residency in New Hampshire, even though she knew she’d have no job at the end of it. But by 1989, she was back in an office, again.
This time, however, her attitude was different. Bedgood picked up accounting and grant-writing experience, which she used in her slow creep toward becoming a small-businessperson, as successful artists must become. And in this office, she was encouraged to integrate more of her artist self into her workplace self. She worked for Barrie Kitto, a biochemist who, luckily for Bedgood, liked to talk ideas and swap perspectives. Himself a jewelry designer and knife maker on the side, Kitto treated Bedford like a fellow creative, not like a secretary. It was an extraordinary piece of good luck. The two often discussed creativity in science and art; the scientific work fascinated her. Kitto gave her old lab equipment, petri dishes, and glass beakers, and came to her art shows.
Artists and scientists have much in common, and it’s tempting to subsume them all into one big happy creative group. That’s what Carnegie-Mellon economist Richard Florida does in The Rise of the Creative Class, his bestselling book of pop urban studies, in which he anoints Austin the nation’s second-most creative city (after San Francisco). For Florida, the creative class is big enough for Kitto and Bedgood — plus architects, engineers, teachers, librarians, writers, actors, and musicians, as well as bureaucrats, financiers, and sports stars. Kitto and Bedgood get along well enough, but Lance Armstrong, too? Sure, Florida says. These are the people “whose economic function is to create new ideas — new technology, and/or creative content,” he writes. They wield “creative capital,” the crucial raw material of the New Economy.
However, the traditional capital that fuels both new and old economies doesn’t treat all idea workers the same way; while an artist’s and a computer scientist’s economic functions may be the same, their economic interests aren’t. It’s like saying that because cotton and chocolate chips are both inputs to a manufacturing process, chocolate chips, like cotton, can be left out in the sun. A strategy to promote a “knowledge economy” has to acknowledge that artists, wannabe rock stars, intellectuals, and tech geeks — all of which Austin has in abundance — want and need different things, and that those things may be in conflict.
One of those things is a good supply of Day Jobs.
We’re told that 39% of Austin’s population is part of Florida’s “creative class,” but that statistic tells us little about their income range; Florida’s work only gestures at the artist or the rock musician. He extols the lifestyle of the creative class, but he presumes the finances of a techie entrepreneur. Florida does not need to sell the romance of creativity; it’s already deeply embedded in our culture. He is selling a different kind of romance — that creativity inevitably leads to wealth and prosperity.
You can think up dozens of counterexamples fairly rapidly (Michael Dell, a creative man?), but accepting Florida’s arguments at face value still poses serious problems for what Austin should be like. Since The Rise of the Creative Class came out, a series of follow-up reports in the Austin American-Statesman by Bill Bishop, a friend of Florida’s, has mentioned only once the income disparity between, say, programmers and teachers. But the disparity is an important one. Rational economic analysis, holding that people will always act in their best financial interest, is beggared by the example of real-life creatives in Austin and elsewhere, who have chosen lower standards of living — who work Day Jobs precisely so they can devote their best creative impulses to their own work. And as Austin has become a big-business tech town, the rising cost of living and the cyclical job market has made it harder, not easier, for creatives to strike this balance. This is a fundamental contradiction in the vision of creative utopia that Richard Florida and his fans — including those at City Hall — would have us adopt.
Like Father, Like Son
It was not always this way. Barrie Kitto came to Austin in the mid-1960s, always intending to return to his native New Zealand. In those days, the University of Texas was flush with research money, and scientists enjoyed the freedom to explore whatever they wanted. Kitto met people. He and his wife raised three children. His New Zealand plans evaporated. Thirty-five years later, he runs a lab with an annual research budget between $400,000 and $500,000, three-fourths of which comes from public sources. The trend, he says, is for money from industry to increase.
From the comfort of a tenure-track job, Kitto specialized in harnessing serendipity. In the 1970s, at a jewelry class, he met Guy Bush, an entomologist who was studying a new species of fruit fly in Wisconsin and needed a biochemist to explain how it differed from its nearest relative. After Kitto presented his research at a scientific meeting, officials from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture asked if he could develop a cheap, efficient chemical assay for measuring the amount of insect material in stored grain. “Give me money,” Kitto said, “and I’ll think about it.”
It was relatively easy, since he’d done graduate research on the biochemistry of insect muscles. Eventually Kitto spun off a company to develop and market the assay, at a time when UT actively frowned on such entrepreneurial activity. (It now encourages it.) In the meantime, he’s started two other companies as well, one doing software and the other graphic design. “Revenue from these companies has typically been a small percentage of my UT salary because most of my share of the money has been put back into the companies to fund expansion,” he says. At its highest, revenue from his companies supplied 20% of his income.
Meanwhile, Kitto’s eldest son, David, worked 24 to 40 hours a week at Whole Foods during the day for $9 an hour, and played out at night through several generations of the Austin music scene. Now 38, David began playing trombone in elementary school, continued in marching band, and in the early Eighties played in a punk band, the Big Boys, and in a New Sincerity band, the Dharma Bums. Until four years ago he played with a reggae band, the Killer Bees — his first regular-paying musical gig, earning him an average of about $250 a week.
Juggling his supermarket hours with long weekend road trips wore David out, and he lost two relationships because he either wasn’t home or was too tired. “It was rough,” he says, “but it was really good. I had always wanted to realize some minor success in music. The enjoyment I got out of playing live with this band on good nights, yeah, it was worth it.”
For a while, Kitto says, the day job and the music existed in neat psychological equilibrium. “Say I’m tired of stocking groceries or whatever, I’d think that we’re going to play in Temple tonight, that’s cool,” Kitto says. “Then I go, ‘God, I’m sick of dealing with these knuckleheads in the band, I just want to get out of here and go to work.'” He lived to play solos at a Killer Bees show, but he “became tired of playing basically the same set night after night.” For a while he played on some recordings, then for his own enjoyment, then stopped altogether. Now he works full-time as an assistant grocery manager at Whole Foods and plays a lot of disc golf.
The Day-Job Infrastructure
Whole Foods Market is not what Richard Florida would call a creative enterprise, but it’s one of the many employers that have helped Austin’s creative class. Perhaps Florida’s most maverick theoretical contribution to his field is the argument that individual employees, not the firms they work for, drive the growth of cities. Thus his gospel — that you have to attract the individuals, not the firms — which has become so popular that Florida himself now makes $10,000 a pop speaking to civic groups around the country.
Since he holds up Austin as an example of what a creative city can be, it’s a safe bet that Florida tells the South Indianapolis Optimist Club and the Fresno Committee for Urban Development how to reproduce Austin’s phenomenal growth of the 1990s. Hopefully he is also telling them that their equivalents in Austin — the boosters, the chamber of commerce, and most notably City Hall — have done little to foster Austin’s cultural scene. Little, that is, as compared to specific individual employers — the entities Florida suggests are obsolete as planks in an economic strategy — who provide the people who want to be in Austin with the means to be here. That is, the employers who offer Day Jobs.
Ask musicians or artists what the city has done for their art, and they’ll likely shake their heads. Ask them what an employer or workplace has offered them, and they can go on and on. In the last 30 years, several places in Austin have emerged as traditional employers of the creative set: the School for the Blind, the Legislative Council, Thundercloud Subs, Whole Foods, Wheatsville Co-op, and of course, UT. Occasionally, one hears about a painter who works as a stripper, or a graduate student who designs porn sites. But the majority of day jobs are more utilitarian, the “low-skill” jobs modern cities are supposed to ignore.
They pay little and offer few benefits and few opportunities to advance, and leave employees’ creative skills untouched. Yet the creatives apply for them in droves. According to David Kitto, his workplace, the Whole Foods store at Gateway Shopping Center, has 10 licensed massage therapists on the floor at any time. John Hunt, rhythm guitarist for Fivehead and manager of the Star Seeds Cafe on I-35, reports he gets five applications a day.
Such jobs attract artists because they offer flexible shifts, generous comp time, and sometimes both. These are laid-back workplaces where you won’t be drug-tested, can wear what you want, listen to your CDs, and enlist your workmates to come to your shows. Managers understand — maybe because they once were, or still are, creative types themselves. (A number of people suggest that now that Whole Foods Market is a publicly traded corporation, it’s cracked down on workplace appearances and, as a result, isn’t as much a haven for creatives.)
And not everything about the day job is an ordeal to be endured for the privilege of making art. A day job can take pressure off the artist to make commercially appealing works, says Patti Lou Ryland, a floor manager at the Wheatsville. And sometimes day jobs lead to creative synergies that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. In 1998, a bunch of musicians, including members of Pong, Sixteen Deluxe, and Ed Hall, all of whom worked at Wheatsville, put out an album, The Wheat Album. “No other grocery store has its own rock album,” said Pong’s Shane Shelton, who had to dig behind a row of salt shakers on a shelf under a bin of potatoes to find the CD. “But it didn’t sell very well,” he admitted.
A visit to Wheatsville on any given day will turn up painters in the deli, a rock keyboardist wheeling boxes of beer, a jazz drummer picking up a paycheck, and a visual artist in charge — Dan Gillotte, the general manager. Though Wheatsville has no official policy for managing creative types, the store typically tries to be flexible in its scheduling, is open to shift-switching, and allows people to return to their old jobs after two months of touring or recording. “We don’t lay people off,” Gillotte says, “We lay people on.”
Such practices make employees loyal, though Gillotte admits they also increase the competitive pressures on the store. Still, he says, “we don’t want Wheatsville to be more formal and strict than we need it to be.” Gillotte himself is a painter who helped animate Waking Life, working from 9 to 6 at the grocery store, then from 6 to 10 at the studio. Exhausted, Gillotte decided to scale back his art-making when the movie was finished. Now he sells paintings and animation cels on eBay, a side outlet for his art (“because I don’t like the gallery thing”) that requires tending only a few hours a week.
‘No Starving Artists!’
For those who study the economics of labor, none of these are unusual profiles. According to Greg Wassall, an economist at Northeastern University in Boston who studies artists’ employment, a national survey he conducted shows that at least 12-15% of artists hold second jobs, as compared to 7% of the population as a whole.
Even so, Wassall says he found unexpected results. According to his study, an artist’s second job is most likely to be as an artist — and it’s not artists but rather firefighters, athletes, and bartenders who are most likely to hold second jobs. Wassall and his colleague, Neal Alper, interpret this to mean that people take second jobs for many reasons. “It’s not always about financial distress,” Wasall says, “and it would be hard to limit [moonlighting] to artists.”
One question that Wassall and Alper are now pursuing is how the economics of the artist’s life play out over the course of an individual’s career. When they are young, artists pursue creative activities for a range of incentives, from social status to money to a desire for self-expression. For some artists, like David Kitto and Dan Gillotte, those attractions eventually take a back seat to other responsibilities; when one is no longer young and hungry, the Day Job becomes larger and the art career smaller. Do these incentives stop working, and if so, when?
And, if so, how, if at all, does the public sector need to step in to help artists continue to be artists? Should taxpayers fund only the infrastructure — the theater space, the rehearsal rooms — for creative endeavor? Or should it also give money to individual artists to work on specific projects? In Austin, people are interested in art, but they appear less interested in artists; many arts reformers prefer high-profile investments in theaters and museums, not housing or studio space. And the city’s cultural contracts program — which does give money directly to artists and arts groups for specific works — is inherently politicized and controversial. As for the much-vaunted “tolerance” that Richard Florida says characterizes successful creative cities, it may only apply to certain kinds of creative endeavors. Barrie Kitto says he’s had very few conversations about science with other Austinites outside the university, and the daily newspaper doesn’t even report on science any more.
Once you begin thinking along Florida’s lines — about artists, not the arts, or about idea workers, not ideas — then other questions come up. Should public funding try to help as many artists as possible, or should funders strive to remove only a few artists from the market economy so that they can focus solely on their art? Right now, the city’s arts programs are in some flux, and it’s not clear how the existing cultural contracts program will be reinvented. But the City Council has already approved moving arts activities into the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services office — following Florida’s advice, after the fact.
Artists differ among themselves on answers to these questions. In 2002, Salvage Vanguard Theatre’s motto, a mini-manifesto, was “No starving artists!” Says the theatre’s director, Jason Neulander, “It’s ridiculous that in Austin people can’t make a living doing art. The city has used the arts community to further its own agenda, but it hasn’t put its money where its mouth is.”
But artists can pay their own way, can’t they? “I find the idea of a day job to be ridiculous,” Neulander says. Good art requires time, he argues. “The pianist who’s sitting at a desk job for eight hours isn’t going to have eight hours to spend on their art.” He described a recent period of his life when he read the biz magazine Fast Company and thought you could apply a business model to nonprofits — an idea he discarded because it’s impossible, he says, to put a monetary value on art, particularly ephemeral arts like performances.
So Salvage Vanguard began a fund-raising campaign to release as many artists as possible from the day job. The rationale was self-evident. “If the people making the art could be paid enough not to have to work elsewhere for 40 hours per week for the duration of rehearsals and performances, the work will be better,” says SVT’s fundraising letter. “If the work is better, more people will come to see it. If more people come to see it, there will be more money available to pay more artists. And then, instead of the very best Austin talent leaving the city because they can’t make a living here (which happens all too frequently), artists from around the country will be coming to Austin because of the professional opportunities the community has to offer.”
With its motto, the theatre raised $16,000 — an increase of $2,000 over the previous year — and one of the artists it supported, Dan Dietz, went on to win places in new play venues. “Now he’s one of the hot and up-and-coming artists,” Neulander says with obvious pride. “All it took was a little bit of support.”
Life Outside the Market
But other artists say that a creative life without a day job seems like a needless luxury. “That would be great to have that kind of well of creativity to be able to sit there and create all day,” says John Hunt, Fivehead guitarist by night, cafe manager by day. “With a job, you’re forced to deal with other people. If you don’t, you can cut yourself off.” Not everyone shares Neulander’s insistence on public funding. “What are they gonna do, restring your guitar for you?” Hunt asks. “It’s your responsibility. The moment you have to rely on other people, the more you’ll be disappointed.” For him it boils down to one simple maxim: “If you’re getting paid to do your art, that’s great. If you’re not, then don’t complain about it.”
Hunt began washing dishes three nights a week at Star Seeds back in 1996, after putting in a full day as an intern at Richard Linklater’s studio. He worked his way up to waiter, then was promoted to manager a year ago. “I don’t hate the managing, but I do hate the waitering. Sometimes I just really hate people,” he admits. He writes no songs about his day job, he says, though he could. He’s a rock & roll guitarist who hires and fires, who turns away dozens of unemployed people every week — and who, in the strangest twist of all, employs the owner of the record label that’s putting out the next Fivehead CD. “When he doesn’t do his sidework, I can’t say anything because he’s putting out my record,” Hunt says, “so I just do it myself.” He’s also accumulated a cache of good Day Job tales, such as the time a patient from St. David’s Hospital, across I-35, walked into the restaurant, dressed in his hospital gown and carrying his IV stand, and asked if anyone had a cigarette.
Maybe it’s easier for an Austin rock musician, in touch with the working-class roots of that artistic tradition, to strike a self-reliant pose, or maybe it’s simply easier for someone with a working-class background to accept the Day Job from the outset. Yet there are those who believe that the Day Job doesn’t exist — that it’s a state of mind, not of the wallet. One artist who appears to never have resented doing someone else’s work is actor and playwright Steve Tomlinson, who argues there is no such thing as a day job, not in his life, anyway. “The notion of a day job implies a fundamental disintegrity that as an artist, I reject,” he says. “I think that if you’re doing something for money that you hate, you should either quit the job or you should find the thing in that that you love, and use that as the lever to bring more of yourself into it.”
Tomlinson may have a unique perspective as an unusually lucky performer: A professor of finance at UT’s School of Business, he writes and performs one-man shows about the spirituality of money. On one hand, he’s worked to integrate his interests in theology, his expertise in economics, and his skills as a playwright, so that “from my perspective, there is no such thing as a day job. I don’t know what that is.” On the other hand, he’s been gifted with a secure, prestigious job and the financial capital that allows him the space with which to integrate. Tomlinson recognizes the gift: “I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have people pay me to do things that I always enjoy doing. I guess a day job is the thing you do for money that you don’t like.”
Tomlinson also holds a frank, social Darwinist attitude about how artists succeed. “Art has to find its market,” he says. “That’s what art does.” And yet, artists in Austin find a variety of ways to thrive outside “the market,” turning survival itself into a creative pursuit — which in Austin may still be sweeter than it is anywhere else. April Mathis, an actress with Salvage Vanguard, worked stints with a dot-com and a publishing company, then in 2001 moved to New York City, where she finds people desperate to survive. No one there indulges in worrying that they won’t be able to make the art, she says, unlike Austin, where people get too involved in trivial things.
At the same time, she says, Austin’s a place “where you’re free to explore and play and be uncompromising. I’ve seen a lot of great stuff in Austin, and I’ve paid a lot of money to see shitty stuff in New York.” In both places, she says, there are many ways to be creative. “Thinking of yourself as a creative person means being creative with money, and having a creative business head. And collaborating with people. And seeing how we can make money doing what we like to do.”