Technologically Induced Precarity in Art Direction

The website for the Art Director’s Guild (ADG) describes the guild as a local chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE). There are more than 104,000 members of the ADG spanning the US and Canada. The Union includes not only art directors but graphic artists, illustrators, matte artists, model makers, production designers, scenic artists, set designers, and title artists. Benefits for joining the guild include:

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Listed on ADG website 

Since the first iteration of the Art Director’s Guild in 1924, they have considerably expanded both their mission and membership. What began as Cinemagundi, essentially a “social club” exclusively for Art Directors (complete with a clubhouse and excessive alcohol consumption), has morphed into an important institution in defending the rights of workers- especially with regards to the rapid technological developments that have exacerbated the precarity of creative labor.

In 2003, the ADG voted to merge with the local IATSE chapter for Scenic, Title, and Graphic Artists- expanding their membership to scenic artists, graphic artists, courtroom artists, computer artists, and graphic  designers. This decision is interesting to note, as it reflects the Union’s recognition and acceptance of technology/digital platforms as important artistic considerations.

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Taken from ADG website

However, despite the inclusion of digital mediums/artists in the ADG, the evolving landscape of technology still presents a myriad of problems to art direction on the whole. In many ways, the digital age has been substantially disruptive to what has traditionally been an exclusively “pen and ink” trade. To ensure that ADG affiliates remain marketable, relevant, and employed, the Union is emphasizing the importance of continued education. By ensuring members have the right skills, the ADG can help to deter jobs from being outsourced and keep their members working.

On the Union’s website, Michael Baugh (veteran art director, former editor and founder of PERSPECTIVE Magazine) made the following statement about education (specifically, regarding set designers and model makers):

“One of the greatest things we can do as a Union is to educate our members. Educate them with the experience of all those who have gone before us as well as to educate them in all the new technologies that are rapidly taking over our entire industry.”

He continues:

“We need to be able to communicate with Special Effects and Post Production who have leaped into the electronic age, and if there is going to be virtual scenery it would be much better that it be created by Set Designers using computers, rather than computer technicians attempting to design.”

This education initiative is one way the ADG is visibly helping to combat the precarity of creative labor in terms of artistic direction. They have even created a position within the Guild solely focused on education and training (Casey Bernay, Director of Education & Training). However, despite the support from the ADG, the need for digital and technological proficiency can still be problematic for workers.

This is for multiple reasons, the first of which being that learning (and inevitably re-learning) new technologies presents a considerable workload for artists. Not only are the hours they spend learning new programs likely unpaid, but artists are ultimately mastering technology that will soon be obsolete. Even the most cutting-edge systems will be replaced with better, newer programs in just a few years.

The second, and perhaps more compelling, reason that emphasizing the digitalization of art direction is problematic is summarized by Baugh:

“I find that I am frightened by the possibility that we are losing some of our heritage and our knowledge.”

While the rapid development of technology has had countless positive consequences in the creative industries, it is important that we retain the intrinsic value of our work by reflecting on the knowledge and expertise of our less technologically savvy predecessors. In this way, we can both preserve invaluable traditions, while ultimately remaining relevant in this digital age.


Van Nest Polglase with his Art Directors; RKO 1930s





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