Silicon Valley Artists Face Unique Struggles to Maintain Careers

In 2008, the city of San Jose launched a project that sought to alter the very language by which we think of art and creativity. No longer would the city bestow its creatives with that hallowed term of “artists,” used for centuries to describe everyone from sculptors and painters, musicians and writers.

“For us, artists are essentially small business owners,” says Kerry Hapner-Adams, director of San Jose’s Office of Cultural Affairs.

The “Creative Entrepreneur Project” (or CEP) was launched as a joint effort between the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI) and the Office of Cultural Affairs. It also involved “key individuals from…high tech enterprises” as part of its steering committee.

“[The report] is framed in a way that it’s really aimed to empower artists, to be the stewards of their own future,” Hapner-Adams says. “It’s a way of really looking at them and recognizing that they are an important part of this economy.”

“The term is deliberate,” says CCI’s current CEO, Angie Kim. “That department very deliberately decided that they wanted to respond to the kinds of artists who were already living and working in San Jose, and to say [to the tech industry] that they mattered economically as well as culturally.”

But looking at the figures presented in the report, the economic hardship local artists—er, creative entrepreneurs—face is striking.

The study found that 85 percent of San Jose artists do not earn a living on their work. It also found “a startling” two-thirds pay “more than 30 percent of their income in total mortgage or rental costs.”

Nearly half of the 642 artists surveyed in 2008 said that housing in San Jose was unaffordable. Average rent has increased by 85 percent since then, so it’s almost impossible to say San Jose’s artists are better off today than they were eight years ago.

Part of the 2008 project involved a 10-week seminar on marketing artistic skills in an increasingly competitive market, largely driven by million- and billion-dollar interests. Four artists who attended the city’s Business of Art seminar are profiled in the report: digital artist Howard Partridge, writer Tess Crescini, filmmaker Tricia Creason-Valencia and dancer Lidia Doniz.

After taking the seminar, Partridge says, the digital artist's creative work “never really materialized into a career.” He chalks this up in part to the timing of the seminar within the global financial crisis, but he also points to a simple dilemma that many artists struggle with:

“It was costly to change careers,” says Partridge, whose name shows up another place in the report—as part of a group noted as success stories.

“Empowered by the course teachings, a number of artists from the CEP Business of Art continued to meet and have formed an ongoing coalition of Silicon Valley artists,” the report states. “The group developed a website, www.svartists.org, which features each of their work and posts upcoming events developed by the group.”

Today, the site is no longer operational. Partridge says that the founder moved to New York state to pursue her art in a more affordable climate.

“If you want to start a business, you have to have capital,” says Doniz, a dancer. “I can have a business plan, but if I don’t have capital, if I don’t have the space…”

In an area like San Jose, where capital and space are largely invested in exactly one industry, it can be extremely difficult for artists to generate enough to ever become a viable business in the first place. Doniz says she works two jobs just to be able to continue dancing. Her most successful work as a dancer has forced her to leave the state entirely, including one job she had in New York. Doniz plans to return to that job as soon as her son goes to college, which is actually covered in her living expenses.

“That gig worked,” she says. “But it’s sad, because I love San Jose. I love the Bay Area. But it’s not doable for artists.”

Tess Crescini, the lone writer profiled, has since gone on to make virtually no income from her art, despite an impressive and growing list of publications to her name.

“I hate to say it, but not really,” Crescini says, when asked if the seminar was helpful to her career. “I think I got paid $50 when I read my poetry for Filipino Heritage Month in San Francisco.”

Half of that went to gas, the other half to parking.

Crescini has done readings with the Vagina Monologues and numerous Filipina cultural groups, and she even had a TV show in San Jose about surviving abuse. Even with all these accomplishments, she no longer believes that she can “make it” as a writer here.

“I pretty much gave up on my writing as a means to make a living,” Crescini says. “It’s sad, but I teach, and I really, really push for them to write.”

Creason-Valencia—a filmmaker and the only artist profiled in the report able to support herself on her art—has observed a serious disconnect between the economically dominant tech industry and the area’s artists.

“I have zero relations to tech companies,” she says. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. You would think that would be a naturally fruitful collaboration.”

Indeed, that was part of the gambit that was made by the city—that changing the language of the city from “artist” to “entrepreneur” would help entice the free-market obsessed, multi-billion dollar tech industry to take greater interest in their local artists. But the results speak for themselves.

“Either as a professional artist, or as a board member of a non-profit that is in the arts community, I really haven’t seen that happening with the tech companies at all,” says Creason-Valencia. “I find that very frustrating. I don’t understand why there’s not more integration and support from multimillion dollar tech companies and the arts community. I don’t get it. I don’t understand the lack of involvement.”

This lack of involvement is certainly not due to a corresponding lack of funds. As of 2016, Apple, which is preparing to build a new campus in North San Jose, has more than $214 billion stashed away offshore, according to Business Insider. The city may have seen the change in language as a form of empowering artists to compete creatively, but if the businesses the city tries to attract aren’t buying, it leaves San Jose’s artists holding an empty bag.

“There’s this expectation that somehow I’m magically supposed to be able to monetize my work when there’s a fundamental problem, which is that I cannot get people to value the work enough to think that they should pay for it,” says Creason-Valencia. “Always, always, always for me the work is woefully undervalued financially.”

According to Entrepreneur.com, in 2008—the same year that San Jose decided to regard its artists as fledgling businesses—more small businesses closed than were opened. “The U.S. Small Business Administration reported that an estimated 552,600 new companies opened for business in 2009, while 660,900 businesses closed up shop,” the report states.

“There is so much money being made off the new developments,” says Lidia Doniz, before asking the question on the tip of the tongue of every one of San Jose’s artists. “If we’re pushing all the artists out, what kind of city are you going to have?”

To learn more about how the arts, tech and design in Silicon Valley, check out the C2SV Tech + Music Festival taking place Oct. 6-8.

29 Comments

  1. I would imagine that few artists are good enough to make a living at art. Maybe those that can’t should get actual jobs

    • Too many mediocre “artists” believe the world owes them a living, and increasingly is this state, “the world” is government subsidies, which in reality is taxpayer subsidies so they can create their “art” without the bourgeois existence of a job holder. Much of what they produce is crap that only they and their close associates believe is art. They may think they are the next unappreciated-in-his-lifetime Van Gogh, but they really aren’t. But ya know Pete, most are terribly unsuited for jobs; ya know, like real work. So they keep scrounging for patrons.

      • Thank you two for proving the article’s point: that there is a real problem with how people value art in San Jose.

        • How much do you beliege the city owes to anyone who would rather pursue their art than a job that would pay their bills? An estimate would be fine.

  2. After operating a club of artists and hobbyist for 25+ years we decided to go legit 5 years ago only to have the city bureaucrats run us out of town with fees, permits and regulations. We now drive 2 and a half hours to Yolo County, or San Diego, San Mateo and San Fransisco to have our events.

    Obviously as a small nonprofit we couldn’t pump the city coffers with hundreds of thousands of golden goose eggs thereby becoming an unwanted liability.

    Any wonder I have such a cynical opinion of Government?

  3. Is this really news? Have artists ever, anywhere, had it easy or easier than here in San Jose? Many people have had to make a choice. Eat or do one’s art. Sometimes art needs to take a back seat to first obligations. That’s life. I hope the implication here is not to crate a “nanny state” environment where artists are city/state subsidized.

    • Art has never flourished where there is no community value of its contribution to its culture. This is marked by the absence of community sponsors. There will always be art and artists. But cultures rise and fall, and one of the key indicators of both is the presence or absence of community sponsored art.

      • Those sponsors have historically been private entities, though. Culture exists regardless of the prevalence or nature of artists/artistic community. And a ‘culture’ does not appreciate art; individuals do, regardless of how they may choose to associate with one another in relation to their mutual/collective appreciation of art.

        And, because there is no universal collective appreciation of art, individuals should not be compelled to support art universally or collectively. In fact, I would say that it is unconstitutional to compel individuals to contribute resources of any kind to a person providing a good or service for which the individuals in question have no use or in which they have no interest.

        • So if I apply OA;s argument, I shouldn’t have to pay for the fire department, because my house has yet to burn down. Let people who need a paramedic do the paying for what I have neither use nor interest.
          Further, the times I was a victim of crime, I was directed to fill out a report on their website.

          • CHIEXPAT,

            Did you even read OA’s comment? He commented…

            …providing a good or service for which the individuals in question have no use or in which they have no interest.

            We have a good use for firemen, police, and paramedics. Sorry, that fact destroys your argument. But there it is.

            Taxpayers should fund what is necessary. But artists are not necessary. Furthermore, who will be the anointed potentates who get to decree which ‘artists’ get taxpayer loot?

            If I’m that potentate, I have no problem with it. But if it’s you or anyone else, it’s a big problem. Because I have no need for ‘artists’. If I see something artistic that I like I’ll pay for it, rather than demanding that the taxpaying public should pay for what I like.

            So as usual, this complaint is all about our money — and how another special interest is conniving to take it out of our pockets, in order to put it into theirs.

            “Starving artists”? I like that! We need more of them!

          • I will reiterate: I haven’t needed the fire department ever, in my life. And unless there is a serious crime, the police won’t even bother to take a police report.
            At least art is something available for everyone to enjoy.

          • I’m sure you’re bright enough to realize that some people do need the the fire and police departments. Sometimes, people’s lives depend on them. Who needs government funded art?

          • Chiexpat,
            If you’ll get me a government grant for $50,000 I’ll send you a bottle of urine with your favorite idol and an accompanying 2″x4″ portrait made of cow dung to go with it. I’ll donate the funds back to the PD and FD
            widows and orphans fund.

          • So I should pay for a fire department, because other people might need it.
            Then I should pay for other people’s food and medical care as well, right? They need those things a lot more frequently than they need a fire department, right?

  4. > Four artists who attended the city’s Business of Art seminar are profiled in the report:

    Oh great. Want to learn how to run a business? Ask the city.

    No wonder all the art businesses are flops and the artists are starving.

    Maybe all of the starving, failed, out of work artists could reciprocate by putting on seminars for the city on how to fix pot holes.

  5. Well, Tapestry and Talent, a weekend event had some excellent artists, but San Jose canned that so no, San Jose doesn’t care about artists. San Jose is a sanctuary city and does care an awful lot about Illegal Aliens though. And yes, some artists are really great and some others can be pretty crappy. I guess they could try Etsy.

  6. I know two artists.The one has co-owned a house for years, and thanks to his mortgage and Prop 13, his housing costs are contained. Art was never his day job. The other one is divorced and scuffles to pay the rent.
    During the dotcom boom, the first artist profited by leasing unsold works to dotcom companies, who usually stuck it in their lobby to show they were cool. When the boom became a bust, the art went back to him.
    Silicon Valley has three economic tiers: More money than God, the average Joe, and people not making it. The way for artists to eke out a living is to have their work appeal to the MMTG set. This enables the second one to, in part, make a living.

  7. San Jose is chock full of artists of the highest caliber: tens of thousands of underserved citizens who practice the art of restraint by paying their taxes, being good neighbors, tolerating governmental misfeasance, and not storming city hall. If that doesn’t qualify as performance art then nothing does.

    And for that the city gives them squat.

  8. The comments here really do highlight the issues raised in the article itself.

  9. One of my memorable brushes with the art community occurred a number of years back in Oakland. I was driving on an arterial street past a closed gas station where I noted that a resourceful art entrepreneur (undoubtedly a candidate for the Creative Art Project) had parked his van in the gas station The perimeter of the gas station was festooned with framed pictures of Elvis on velvet and faux paintings of pouting children with space alien eyes.

    The Creative Art Project entrepreneur had prominently displayed the following sign: “Art Factory Outlet Sale”.

    Hmmmm. I thought about stopping to see if I could get a deal on a six-pack of Vermeers of Monets.

  10. Art critics seem to be destroying the works of SJ most promising artists by painting over the railroad bridges on 101 between 13th and 880, also the bridge on 280 between Bird and Lincoln. Not only are they talented but daring too.
    Perhaps the could put some decorative art on the upper floors San Jose’s downtown skyscrapers to keep the birds from colliding with the glass. There I fixed another problem!

  11. Want to know why artists matter to us all? This: http://www.orlandosentinel.com/entertainment/arts-and-theater/os-after-orlando-pulse-plays-20161013-story.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+entertainment%2Fstage%2Ftheaterblog+%28Orlando+Theater%2C+Arts+and+Culture+Blog%29

    The work of artists, of writers, of photographers, of choroegraphers is all around you. Artists ARE workers. Art is work. Work that is necessary to civilization as history has shown us over and over again. Art is a public good and worthy of private and public support. Art helps us understand and illuminate human experience. And it is not only about the product, but the creative process. Of all the places in the world, the people and businesses of Silicon Valley should understand this.

    • Margot,
      Food, Home, Security come first. Art is a very nice luxury item created by a thriving society.
      We are the greatest debtor society in the history of the world at this point ,and while we have some successful corporation in the area doesn’t mean taxpayers have to spend a dime when we can afford cops on the street.

      I have several artist in the family, all made it on their own selling their art to the public and to a few governments that had a blank wall and some cash to burn. As an artist you need to be producing something people want, just simple supply and demand.