Social Class & Wealth And The Pursuit Of Creative Careers

It appears that concerns about how social class and wealth limit access to creative careers may be a hot topic of discussion in England these days. Via is a The Stage piece by Lyn Gardner addressing how the issue impacts theater professionals and via a Twitter post by Arts Emergency was an article about the same situation with journalism in England.

The latter article talks about a mentoring program called PressPad which provides people pursuing journalism careers two important assets- a place to live and a mentor from the industry. It appears these things are rolled together, with the young person living with their host mentor in London which is definitely not a cheap place to live. One person interviewed for the story decided to pursue journalism in South America because the cost of living was so high in London. PressPad also provides other networking and support services.

As has been mentioned numerous times before in regard to creative careers, the article cites one of the most important factors contributing to whether people are able to pursue a journalism career as coming from a social/financial background where family resources and connections allow you to pursue a career while receiving little to no pay and working unpredictable schedules.

Additionally, one of PressPad underlying goals is

“…trying to change the culture of the journalism community: “We have some really high-profile hosts – some topic editors and senior journalists in our industry. Where else would they meet a 19 year old, working-class white girl who has been on free school meals? They wouldn’t! The real thing is- it’s a two way street.”

On the theatre side, Lyn Gardner opens her article noting,

Just before Christmas, Arts Council England announced that from next year regularly funded organisations will be required to report not just on the gender, ethnicity, age and disability representation of workforces but also on the socio-economic backgrounds of employees.

Part of the motivation for this was the recognition that only 10% of theatre directors were from working class backgrounds. I recall seeing similar statistics about actors. There is push to reduce auditioning fees for training programs as well.

I had seen some implications that there might be penalties if organizations could not demonstrate representation among these categories, but it was never clear what this might be. It also wasn’t clear if there would be a standard set to ensure representation in jobs of higher authority and responsibility and not just custodial, secretarial and food services employees.

Presumably, there would be if the goal is to provide more opportunities to working class individuals, but I haven’t received a clear picture of what those standards might be.  I get the sense from Lyn Gardner’s writing that despite welcoming the new focus on improving the environment for working class individuals, as with the journalism program, she feels a larger cultural shift is required.

If we don’t reinvent drama training to reflect the different needs of students from much more diverse backgrounds – and that includes those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds – it’s like holding the door open so that they can get in the room, then blaming them when they leave quickly because they feel uncomfortable or can’t afford to stay.

When you change the intake of an institution – whether a training school or a theatre – if you don’t also change the culture, then it is not real change. Just as more diverse casting on our theatres’ stages is only virtue-signalling if it doesn’t extend beyond the wings into the entire building.

There are strong imperatives to hold the doors wide open, not least because if you widen the creative pool you immediately boost the creative possibilities. A huge advantage of bringing people from diverse backgrounds into theatre and training establishments is that they bring a new perspective, questioning rather than accepting the way things are done.

My perception is that in the U.S. we are having similar conversations about how large a factor family wealth and social expectations contribute to the success of people pursuing creative careers, but there is a lack of institutional mandate from governmental entities on the state or federal level. At this time I can’t recall any major, influential funders embracing something along these lines as a central policy initiative.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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4 thoughts on “Social Class & Wealth And The Pursuit Of Creative Careers”

  1. “Family wealth” is a factor in pursuing creative careers? Surely you jest. I’ve been in the music business since age 16 — I’m 66 now — and don’t recall ever working with someone from a millionaire’s background. Yes, of course it costs money to buy an instrument, take lessons, etc., but, for centuries, many of the greatest creative geniuses, be they in music, theatre, dance, visual arts, film, etc., etc., etc., have come from decidedly modest backgrounds. (Think George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Alvin Ailey, Martin Scorcese, Morgan Freeman, Leontyne Price, etc.)

    By the way, what exactly is your definition of “working class?’ Is it, say, earning $35,000 per year. If I work my you-know-what off and earn $200,000 per year, am I not “working” class?

    • The factor of family wealth has been more been a matter of middle class wealth rather than millionaire. It is the difference between a family background that allows you to participate in unpaid internships and those where that is not an option either financially or socially. This isn’t to say that the intern isn’t just scraping by and living in an apartment where rats and roaches scurry when the lights go on, but they often come from a family that can slip them a little extra money now and again, provide new clothing at Christmas and support with health issues. These families accept that the starving intern situation is a step toward a career.

      Contrast this with coming from a family that can’t provide even this minimal support and for whom higher education and internships are not a normal career path. If you grew up in a situation where you had subsidized lunches from K-12, you don’t likely come from a family that can provide a bit of a safety net when you get into trouble. As the articles allude, many experience a sense of imposter syndrome where they don’t feel they belong working or studying alongside people whose families and friends assume eventual success as a matter of course.

  2. I mean no disrespect but despite your excellent feeling for the subject, I wonder if you’re not making an ever-so-slight generalization of things? (As the lawyers say: “Calls for facts not yet in evidence.”) Once again, I ask..what is “middle class wealth?” And why would/should there be an “institutional mandate from governmental entities on the state or federal level?” A mandate for what, a guaranteed minimum annual wage so people can work in the arts? Paid internships? A guaranteed gig in the arts for all? (I wouldn’t mind that myself!)

    • Actually, there is data about family support and participation in internships (as well as the benefits of paid vs. unpaid internships). I think there is more recent data that I am not finding on a quick search, but the 2015 Strategic National Arts Alumni Project found-

      ” Sixty-seven percent of recent alumni who did not intern while enrolled in school indicated that parents or family helped pay for their education; the figure is 8% higher (75%) among alumni who did intern.

      The gap in family support is similar between recent alumni who had unpaid internships and those who did not; 75% of former unpaid interns indicated they received such support, compared to only 67% for alumni who did not undertake an unpaid internship.”


      “Black and Hispanic/Latino alumni were less likely to have done internships than their White and Asian counterparts. Black and Hispanic/Latino graduates were also slightly less likely to have done paid internships and more likely than White alumni to have done unpaid internships.

      First-generation college graduates were less likely than non-first-generation college graduates to have been interns while enrolled in school (51% compared to 56%) as well as before or after graduation (paid or unpaid)…”

      As for the mandate, I wasn’t talking so much about guaranteed wages as the requirement in England that hired staff be from the working class.

      Interestingly, when I was looking for the above info, I found another post I had done about Harvard closing admissions to their graduate theater program because the Dept of Education dinged them on their student debt ratio to career earnings potential. Not exactly the same thing as an institutionalized dictate about hiring people from the working class in England and doesn’t do anything to address pay for creatives, but it is government involving itself in the dynamics of creative career training and opportunities.


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