New report gives snapshot of region’s creative economy

In March, Sean Cooper (left) and Bob Farrell hung works for a Matisse exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts.
In March, Sean Cooper (left) and Bob Farrell hung works for a Matisse exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts.(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file)

The creative sector plays a larger role in New England’s economy than in other parts of the country, employing more than 300,000 people who earn roughly $17 billion each year.

But the sector has also seen dramatic shifts since the Great Recession. The creative industries lost more than 55,000 payroll jobs over the past decade, as many workers have migrated to join the so-called “gig economy.”

The findings come as part of “Jobs in New England’s Creative Economy and Why They Matter,” a new report for the New England Foundation for the Arts that provides a detailed portrait of how the region’s creative sector has changed over the past 10 years.


“It’s a nuanced story, but what’s really important is that we pay attention to it and invest in it,” said NEFA executive director Cathy Edwards. She added that the so-called creative economy “is an asset for New England, but we can see that it is not immune from being buffeted by broader trends.”

Overall, the report found that the region’s creative sector — defined broadly as salaried and freelance workers employed across a variety of fields, from dancers to booksellers to graphic designers and copywriters — supported about the same number of jobs as government or construction.

Unlike other sectors, however, a quarter of all creative workers and a third of all artists in the region are self-employed. Meanwhile, just 10 percent of the region’s broader workforce is self-employed.

The report was produced for NEFA by the Economic and Public Policy Research Group of the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute as part of NEFA’s ongoing effort to describe the region’s creative landscape.

Edwards attributed the creative sector’s higher self-employment rate to a variety of factors, including technological innovations, changing consumer habits, and the nature of the work itself.

“A lot of those jobs and work disappeared because all of a sudden everyone’s working for Amazon or Google, and you’re buying things online,” she said, noting that the study considered publishing and certain retail positions as part of the creative sector. “If you’re a writer, or a designer, or an architect, you can also set yourself up as a business. You might not need to employ other people, whereas if your business is manufacturing you can’t just pivot and have your own LLC where you’re the only person drawing a paycheck.”


Edwards added that she was surprised at how “quickly and thoroughly changes in habits of technology and distribution are reflected in the data.”

But while payroll jobs in the sector have declined, some areas have seen modest growth, including film, visual and performing arts, and preservation. The report also found that people working in creative enterprises tend to cluster in areas with strong tourist economies and higher population and income levels.

With so many in the sector now working for themselves, Edwards said there’s a big need for small-business type services, such as legal help and access to loans.

She added that although the report is not tied to any planned lobbying effort, she hoped its findings would be used for workforce development and to help create a set of tools to support an area of the economy that is increasingly made up of individual entrepreneurs.

“It’s data and information they can use to engage their legislators, or to consider strategic partnerships with cultural tourism boards,” said Edwards, who added that cultural offerings remain a big part of the region’s appeal. “If we want to keep it as an asset and a core part of New England’s reputation and one of the reasons people come here, then we have to be intentional about supporting it.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay