Cultural Entrepreneurship: Good or Bad Work?

In her chapter entitled Good Work? Rethinking Cultural Entrepreneurship (in Creativity and Cultural Policy edited by Bilton), Kate Oakley rethinks entrepreneurship and the notion of good work. The thrust of her argument is that the policy rhetoric encouraging entrepreneurship in the cultural sector needs to take note of the challenges of cultural work and self-employment. A better understanding of different practices and individual experiences needs to inform the ‘rethinking of cultural entrepreneurship’. As Oakley states, there is a ‘disconnect between the discourse of cultural entrepreneurship and the reality of it.’

I’d like to pick up a few ideas from Oakley’s chapter and add my own research and comments to the debate.

As Oakley discusses, the push into entrepreneurship experienced by some sectors, such as those working in television, has resulted in many former employees becoming reluctant entrepreneurs or self-employed freelancers. However, this is only true of some sub-sectors of the cultural industries. In many other sectors including authors, artists, craftspeople, musicians, self-employment is not new. Indeed, new disciplines such as social media consultants, bloggers and individuals carving out careers in new areas such as data visualisation there is no precedent or former employer. As Oakley rightly points out, there is an over supply of labour but I also find innovative new possibilities being created. Cultural entrepreneur are often leading the way before larger companies have the time to catch up with digital and technological developments.

Academic critiques of cultural entrepreneurship, often refers to the idea that the fulfilment derived from autonomy and individual creativity are exagerated and are part of the ‘professed pleasures’ motivating individuals to become self-employed. Oakley refers to McRobbie’s research when stating that ‘this independent work becomes a source for self-realisation’ as well as an association with romantic notions of a bohemian lifestyle. But I find this critique problematic for two reasons. Firstly, there is a patronising tone in the researcher who is unwilling to accept an individuals version of their experience. Is ‘professed’ pleasure not reliable evidence of a person enjoying autonomy and the possibilities for creative expression? Or are cultural entrepreneurs deluding themselves and others?

Secondly, many of the cultural entrepreneurs I have interviewed do not see themselves as ‘creatives’ or as ‘artists’ seeking to express themselves. Many work in positions described by Bourdieu as cultural intermediaries or a messy combination of creative, cultural production and distribution without necessarily seeing the boundaries between these activities. Autonomy is often linked to self-expression in discussions with art and design students but this is not always the case for cultural entrepreneurs who come from a wider range of disciplines.

My final point refers to the idea of ‘doing good work’ and to issues raised by Banks in his paper the Moral Economy and Cultural Work in which he draws on a sense of place as important to cultural entrepreneurs in Manchester. My own empirical research in Birmingham suggests similar findings. A real commitment to the local cultural industry community and to the city is demonstrated through both individual moral principles as well as through action and engagement with local cultural policies and city developments. In this context, I too have found evidence of what Ross (2003) calls the ‘hidden costs’ of cultural work in the long hours and commitment expected of oneself and others, but I  reveal personal agency as playing an important role. We may not like it but self-management is increasingly an aspect of career development regardless of whether we are employed or self-employed.

Yes, there are many issues with policies which wholeheartedly endorse entrepreneurship and there are many under researched challenging aspects of cultural work, but a closer inspection may expose that some of the solutions Oakley seeks already exist. In my opinion,  an exploration of the lived experience of cultural work reveals a more nuanced and more complex impression of cultural entrepreneurship.


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