What does it mean to sustain a career in the gig economy?

By Steven J. Tepper


We live in a gig economy defined by short-term, project based work. While career success might once have looked like a connected set of dots on a straight line rising over time, today it looks more like a desk drawer filled with electronic device chargers and wires that are endlessly entangled, with no clear sense of where one wire ends and the next begins. 

The data supports the idea that we live in an increasingly intermittent, entangled and chaotic world of work: Today, people will work in a greater number of different jobs (around 15 in their lifetime) and will change jobs more often (1/3 of American workers expect to be in a different job within 3 years), hold more jobs at any one time, work across sectors, be self employed and start more enterprises (and probably see more enterprises fail). About 50 percent of all college graduates — including those studying accounting, engineering and biology — will not be working in fields closely relevant to their majors within 5 years. Even Hilary Clinton has highlighted the gig economy on the campaign trail: “This on-demand, or so-called gig economy, is creating exciting economies and unleashing innovation. But it is also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.”

Adding to this disruption in how we work, economists and futurists predict that we will, collectively, work less, as machines and robots achieve productivity gains while displacing workers. As Mary Gray, senior researcher at Microsoft Research, has written, “Supporting the many people who may never enjoy the security of a 40-hour workweek will be one of the most important conversations we have about the on-demand sharing economy.” 

Artists are an extreme example of this overall workforce trend, as evidenced by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) — which has surveyed more than 140,000 graduates of arts and design schools. Findings include:

  • Between 15 to 20 percent of all arts grads start their own enterprises
  • 75 percent have been self employed
  • More than half work in multiple jobs
  • Only one-half of those who self-identify as professional artists make over 60 percent of their income from their artistic practice alone
  • 90 percent will have worked outside the arts at some point in their careers

Having worked for decades, if not centuries, as itinerant workers who move from project to project, commission to commission, artists must be central to conversations about this “new” world of employment. Artists have much to gain from broader policies supporting part-time and “gig economy workers,” and the experience of artists may be instructive to those other sectors just starting to be influenced by these trends. What does it mean to sustain a career or a life of purposeful work in this context? How would we think differently about what a “sustainable career” looks like for artists if we accepted that it is not possible for most artists to make a living from the studio or the stage alone? 

1. Train artists in business and entrepreneurship

Design and arts schools need to do a better job of preparing the more than 120,000 arts graduates who enter the workforce every year, by making entrepreneurship and other business skills a requirement of study, not just an option, an elective, or a special program. Recent data from SNAAP shows that there is a significant “skills gap” in the area of business and entrepreneurship — only about one quarter of graduates feel like they acquired these skills in school, while almost three-quarters say they depend on these skills in their work lives, a skills gap of nearly 50 percent.  For the past decade, forward-thinking faculty in design and arts schools have taught classes on entrepreneurship, enterprise, marketing and finance. Arizona State University was the first to create a center to incubate new business ideas from arts students and graduates when it launched the Pave Arts Venture Incubator in 2006, and now others have followed.

2. Help arts students better see and utilize the skills they already have

Schools must also help students recognize that they graduate with a broad toolkit of skills — what I refer to as creative competencies — not just expertise in their chosen discipline. These competencies include the ability to:

  • Deal with ambiguity
  • Collaborate on emergent creative projects
  • Improvise
  • Give and receive critical feedback
  • Reason with analogy and metaphor
  • Tell compelling stories using multiple platforms and media
  • Radically revise work
  • Generate and audition many ideas

Given that many graduates will work in non-arts jobs, it is important for artists to see how these competencies can be deployed across multiple contexts. Unfortunately, based on SNAAP data, in many non-arts professions, a minority of arts graduates report that their arts training is highly relevant to what they are doing. As faculty, we are failing to help students see that they have something creative to contribute not only on the stage, in the concert hall, or in the studio, but also in every area of life and work they might find themselves.

3. Connect artists with jobs and resources that can use their skills

Arts educators and advocates must also help to match artists with existing needs, jobs, and resources. Creative placemaking through Art Place and others is one such move — connecting artists to the billions of dollars invested annually by banks, governments and philanthropy for community development — ranging from housing to transportation, workforce development, new businesses, health, and revitalized public spaces. Social impact investing, which some estimate will grow to $3 trillion in the next few decades, is another opportunity. The Arts Impact Fund in the UK – a joint initiative of the Arts Council England, Nesta, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and several foundations — is one of the first social venture funds (€7M) to focus on the arts. If arts-led enterprises could capture just 1/2 of 1 percent of potential future impact capital, artists could have access to $15 billion to advance creative work that has a social purpose — an amount that would double the current amount of private giving to the arts. If the arts could capture the same share of social impact investing as they do of private philanthropy (almost 5 percent), then we could see as much as $100 billion flowing to artists.

On a smaller scale, the conference and meeting industry in the U.S. spends close to $258 billion a year, with probably $50 billion spent on speakers and presentations. If artists represented 1 percent of all speakers and presenters at national conferences and convenings this would be an additional $500 million flowing to artists, more than 3 times the current budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. Or, could artists be some of the 25.8 million new school teachers we will need to provide every child with a primary education by 2030? Or part of creating new schools, content and platforms to reach these new learners?  

4. Reconsider and reinvent our existing arts infrastructure

Our existing cultural infrastructure — nonprofit institutions, intermediaries and funding institutions — does not adequately serve the way artists work today. Musician Aaron Gervais argues that traditional organizational forms like the nonprofit ensemble fail to support how musicians actually work — collaborating on many different projects with different artists, swapping roles, and “gigging” to flexibly find work and opportunity. In visual arts and design, 3D printing and additive manufacturing is leading to new markets and new ways of delivering cultural products. For example, many predict that in the near future, individual fashion designers — using technology to scan individual bodies — will be able to self-produce, in their own homes or local workshops, perfectly fitted “ready to wear” clothing. Existing nonprofits, intermediaries and funders have not yet figured out how to support these new ways of working.


We need a new arts infrastructure that is flexible, entrepreneurial and organized around networks and nodes, rather than institutions. These forms are already beginning to emerge, but have not yet been widely invested in. Could the Creative Capital model that builds a full set of services and relationships around individual artists be scaled to enable artists to sustain their work without incorporating as an institution? Could a micro-patronage platform like Patreon be coupled with something more durable like a social purpose corporation (B-corps) so that a few hundred individuals might invest in a single artist over a longer period of time? Could maker spaces (for both digital and physical production) become even more widespread and provide mentorship and apprenticeship, not unlike the thousands of artist workshops throughout Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries?  Could new platforms — like Sonicbids, GigMasters, Gigwish, Gigfinder — help artists make sustainable careers by providing them with tools and resources to connect to each other and with markets? Could our existing nonprofit institutional infrastructure be “open sourced,” so that independent artists can access it to show their work?

To support artists and creative workers in the future, we must reinvent and repurpose our arts infrastructure, tap into new revenue streams and train and prepare artists to be enterprising, deploying their creative talents across multiple roles and sectors. But challenging old assumptions and bold innovation will not be enough to create sustainable careers and lives. To quote Laura Zabel, who says in an earlier post for this site, “Because, our systems aren’t just broken for artists, they are broken for everyone… we can’t really improve life for artists in any broad or lasting way without improving life for everyone.”

Artists have long been critical to social and political movements from the civil rights to AIDS awareness, the environmental movement, LBGT rights, and workers movements. Today, artists must lend their creativity to advance the cause of workers throughout the economy – who increasingly bear more risk, experience greater insecurity, and suffer reduced wages and higher costs from education to housing and healthcare. We need a cultural change around the whole concept of work and, more importantly, what a sustainable career looks like. Artists must lead this cultural change, both because they understand this new economy and because their stories, images, songs, and symbols can fundamentally change how we think about equity, justice and the “good life” in a rapidly shifting world of work.

Steven J. Tepper is the dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, the nation’s largest, comprehensive design and arts school at a research university. He’s also on Twitter @sjtepper.

Photos (top) by Alex Holyoake via Unsplash / Creative Commons (bottom) by Maarten van den Heuvel via Unsplash / Creative Commons

Published March 31, 2016

  • Michael Jones

    If everyone would learn Esperanto, it would be an immense economic stimulus and permanent boost for the world economy, when companies can be formed with total liquidity, no longer stopped by the language barrier, or bigoted viewpoints. Esperanto is the original rising tide that lifts all boats. As successful investors will tell you, diversification is king. But nothing supports diversity / diversification like Esperanto does. Esperanto’s star is on the rise.

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  • Anne Focke

    I love seeing this, Steven! It aligns so closely with many things on my mind these days…actually, many pieces on creativz resonate. What follows is something more than a “comment,” but it’s prompted by your piece and others here.

    An additional statistic to add to your data about the rise of the gig economy comes from Carl Camden, CEO of Kelly Services, which I knew decades ago as “Kelly Girl.” In 2014 he reported, “Some 43% of working Americans don’t have ‘a job’ – they have work and they’re employed, but they don’t work as traditional ‘employees’.” He went on to predict that within the next year or two – that is, now? – this figure would be closer to 50%. As your comments suggest, he could have been referring to artists, and the gig economy is certainly a life that I, and many close friends, know intimately.

    I’m especially drawn to your statement near the end “Challenging old assumptions and bold innovation will not be enough to create sustainable careers and lives,” and also to the reference to Laura Zabel’s post and her advice that we won’t be able to improve life for artists until everyone’s life improves.

    Late last year I was invited to write a short essay that covered some of the same territory. It was for a column, “The Future of Work and Workers,” in Pacific Standard. The context was decidedly not the art world. Other contributors included business and union leaders, social scientists, technology thinkers, activists, and journalists from around the world. We were invited to respond to this question:

    “What worries you most, and/or excites you most, about the future of work and workers? Put another way: What will be the most consequential changes in the world of work and workers, and what anxieties and possibilities will they produce?”

    The daily column continued for three months, and, though I didn’t read them all, it seems mine may be the only one that referred to artists. Here’s the first third of my essay. It goes on to refer to the gig economy, finding common cause with others who work with purpose, and the value of artists adding to the needed set of new ideas.

    November 9, 2015

    “I sit as artists have sat for centuries, laboring unpaid. Yet I am sure this is work. I am sure it is productive, and I hope it will be of value.” Marilyn Waring wrote this in the first paragraph of her 1989 book, If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics. The contributors to this column could have written it now, in 2015.

    I am sure it is work for all of us, and I am certain the columns are of value. As a whole they raise questions that matter in a big way, offer a wide range of perspectives, identify problems, and suggest directions we might take to pursue answers, maybe even inspiring us to action. Yet payment was not part of the bargain.

    The work of writers and journalists and poets is an essential public good and a fundamental part of civil society. In most cases we work for something more than a financial return. You might say it is a “calling,” a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action, one we probably consider morally good.

    When Marilyn Waring wrote her book, I was an artist and moved primarily in artists’ worlds. Observing us as a group, I wondered why artists didn’t seem to fit into the economy, despite hard and persistent work and the value the art gave to others. The artists around me made a distinction between the “jobs” that paid them and the work they felt they had to do, their “calling” – the paintings or poems or songs. The distinction serves me still. Although some artists find a niche that pays well, the percentage of income that most artists earn from their art work – that is, not from their teaching, waitressing, or office jobs – is nominal.

    Although I first saw this scenario among artists, many people do work of value to others that goes unpaid or is paid poorly. It is valuable work but not a good job. Work that strengthens the common good – caring for the young and the old, teaching and sharing knowledge, efforts to improve the environment or to engage civically in other ways – seems to fall low on the pay scale or outside it altogether.…

    The whole essay is here: .

    Unfortunately, “The Future of Work and Workers” seems to have been taken off Pacific Standard’s website. Perhaps this is because a book is in the works. When we were invited to contribute, we were told the columns might be used this way. If they are, I’ll spread the word. My website contains a few other pieces on the nature of work here: .

    • Steven Tepper


      • Steven Tepper

        Anne: Thanks for this. I did read your essay in Pacific Standard and many of the other posts. Very important ideas and I was delighted to see PS host the forum. Yes, we really do need to reconsider worth and value and what counts as real work.

  • Julie Chapman

    The single biggest and scariest expense / hurdle I face as a self-employed professional artist is healthcare. Yes, I use Obamacare and receive a tax credit, but even with that I still pay approx. $300/month AND have a gigantic deductible…which means I don’t go to the doctor, because it’s all out of my own pocket. Until we make healthcare universally available and affordable – not silo’ed by state, or by company employment – all of us who are entrepreneurial, giggers, self-employed, etc. will face this huge problem.

  • kevinefclark

    This is a great post outlining important problems. What you wrote about open sourcing the non-profit framework, and about building support systems for artists build on nodes and connections instead of institutional hubs aligns very, very closely with my work at New Music USA over the past 5 years. We’ve built a grantmaking platform based entirely on promoting and connecting the artists we support. As a result, we’ve not only made applying for grants simpler for artists (and expanded the diversity of our applicant pool), but we’ve also built a powerful advocacy tool an the core of a social network to connect composers, performers, and audiences for this music.

    I’m not sure it’s exactly what you had in mind, but when I read your post, I definitely got the feeling that you’re describing the larger ecosystem we’re trying to build. I hope that there’s more to come!

  • Excellent piece Professor Tepper, and I agree that a) thriving in a gig economy is a challenge for many artists, b) it isn’t going away(!), and c) full-time artists can really benefit from learning entrepreneurial habits and skills. Regarding your third point (3. Connect artists with jobs and resources that can use their skills), there is a sweet spot between philanthropy and arts education that I think a lot of performing (and other) artists would be very comfortable in, and that is the work of the teaching artist, bringing your artform into schools to help students learn about math, science, world cultures, literature, history, languages, and yes, the arts too.

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What is this?

CREATIVZ is a conversation about how artists in the United States live and work and what they need to sustain and strengthen their careers. It's part of a research project from the Center for Cultural Innovation and the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Surdna Foundation. Overall research and online strategy by Helicon. Online strategy and production by We Media.

Read more about the project.

Cover photo by Bill Dickinson via Flickr / Creative Commons