What If…businesses set aside part time positions for artists?

by Gwydion Suilebhan

in What If

Learn more about the What If…? Project

What if large businesses set aside part time positions for artists (with health care) in the same way that large buildings set aside room for mixed-income/cultural space?

In 1817, Welsh social reformer Robert Owen coined the slogan “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” in advocating for the 40-hour work week. The slogan was catchy, of course, but ineffective; it wasn’t for another hundred years that the eight-hour work day became commonplace.

The slogan was also, as it happens, utterly unrealistic. Even if your job doesn’t take more than eight hours—yeah, right—there’s still not a full eight hours of “recreation” to be had, what with grocery shopping, backing up all the files on your laptop, calling your mother back so she doesn’t worry, making Halloween costumes for the kids, etc. If you’re really lucky, you can maybe squeeze in those last two episodes of Glee on the DVR and a bowl of ice cream before it’s time for your eight hours of rest to get started. And that’s if you don’t have a long commute.

In fact, the well-known American Time Use Survey has shown that we actually only average about five hours a day of what is euphemistically called “leisure time.” Given that human beings do actually NEED time to relax, it’s hard to imagine how artists working full-time jobs actually manage to make any art at all when they get home from their full-time gigs. Miraculously, however, some even manage to sustain ongoing careers: probably by making huge sacrifices from Owen’s “eight hours rest.”

Others, of course, never do the “eight hours labor” in the first place, at least not in the traditional sense. Rather than holding down a full-time job, they take odd gigs and part-time positions, devoting the lion’s share of their days to their artwork… and often sacrificing everything from stability to health care, save for the lucky few who through talent or luck find enough regular work to keep themselves afloat.

Why are these two the only models for a life working in the arts? Why are we forced to choose between economic stability, with time constraints on our artistic development, or economic fragility, with plenty of time to pursue artistic endeavors? We are creative people: we owe it to ourselves to think flexibly and inventively about something so important. We need a middle path. But how do we get there?

We need to start by re-examining one flimsy assumption on which these two meager alternatives rest: the 40-hour work week. Born during the industrial revolution, the notion that any one job is similar enough to any other that they can all be completed in the same amount of time is a relic of an era in which mass-production made the country loopy for standardization. Manufacturing jobs now represent less than 10% of the American workforce; most of us spend time doing any number of varied tasks. Why must all of those tasks require 40 hours of time in a given week?

The answer is clear: they mustn’t. And, in fact, they don’t. Businesses do have part-time jobs to fill… but very few of them offer the kind of genuine stability—health insurance, vacation time, 401K plans, a high enough salary to live on—that would allow an artist the freedom to make art without worry the rest of the week. So how can we incent businesses to think more flexibly about employment?

The first place to start is the bottom—by which I mean, of course, the bottom line. What if we offered businesses tax incentives for setting aside part-time positions for artists? Not a huge amount, mind you: enough to (partially) offset the extra costs associated with offering benefits to a part-time employee. Don’t want to offer corporations any new tax loopholes? Fine. What if we set up agreements by which the business in question gets credit of some kind for anything the artist creates while holding the position? Credit in the publication of a play, for example, or acknowledgement in a theater program.

For businesses, though, the real benefit would accrue not to the fiscal bottom line but to the organization’s track record with regard to corporate social responsibility. Imagine a company putting out press releases to announce every new show directed by its part-time accountant or tweeting about every new exhibition of its administrative assistant’s sculpture. The good will earned by gestures like that? The positive associations made with the company’s brand? Well worth the extra expense.

Of course, we artists shouldn’t expect something for nothing. If businesses were to begin offering us opportunities like that, we’d really have to return the generosity in kind. The four or five hours a day we’d spend working our day jobs would have to be for real: a genuine commitment to perform at a high level and deliver value to the company in whatever way we can. Punching the clock and hoping to hit it big just wouldn’t cut it.

How do I know that an arrangement like this would work? I know because it’s been working for me for more than nine years now. I have a job—one I genuinely value and enjoy—that demands 25 hours a week of my time, attention, and creativity. I write from home all morning, head to the office for the afternoon, and get back home in time for dinner with the family every evening. I have health insurance, generous vacation time, a retirement plan, paternity leave, and a salary that isn’t huge, but that (along with whatever I earn from theater) helps keep my family sheltered, fed, and happy. I live the dream.

So let me propose a new slogan: five hours labor, five hours of art, five hours of leisure, eight hours rest, and one extra hour to plan the next revolution. It’s not catchy, I know… but it just might be effective. Heck, it’s been about a hundred years since 40 hours a week became the norm; we’re due for a change!

Gwydion Suilebhan is the author of REALS, THE CONSTELLATION, ABSTRACT NUDE, LET X, THE FAITHKILLER, CRACKED, THE GREAT DISMAL, and BUGGY & TYLER. His plays have been commissioned, produced, workshopped, and read by theaters in New York, DC, Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere around the country. Resident playwright of the Taffety Punk Theatre Company, Gwydion received two Artist Fellowships from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and was a finalist for Outstanding Emerging Artist at the DC Mayor’s Arts Awards. He lectures on theater and the arts, most recently at the Center for Inquiry and the Ethical Society of St. Louis, and his writing about theater appears on HowlRound, 2am Theatre, TheatreFace, and www.suilebhan.com.


  • http://www.tcgcircle.org/ August Schulenburg

    One of the reasons I’m so excited about this first What If…? is the scalability of it. For a large business, creating these kinds of positions would have an almost negligible financial cost, but scaled nationally, this would have a huge impact on the sustainability of artists’ lives.

  • http://www.monicabyrne.org Monica Byrne

    Terrific idea. The pharmaceutical company I work for posted an article about the debut of my play, and the response was overwhelming. Unfortunately, I’m leaving them now for a number of reasons, one of them being that they regularly expect workers to work 9-10 hour days. And most people do, even though they hate it. It’s so sad to see life reduced to that!

  • http://www.suilebhan.com Gwydion Suilebhan

    Gus — it’s true what you say: the costs would be negligible for a large business, especially if they only offered one or two slots, and some of those costs might be offset by tax incentives. If we even added, say, 30,000 jobs like this nationwide, which is an eminently attainable goal? We’d make a significant difference for the arts.