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.