What happens to aging artists?

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I’m beginning to edit the interviews that I conducted for my research project about theatre in Minnesota in the 1960s and 70s. It’s been a joy to talk to speak to some of the people that shaped our community’s artistic landscape, and I’m excited to share them along with other research I’ve done here at TC Daily Planet. One thing that strikes me, though, as I listen to these interviews again, is how worried I am, specifically about some of these people that I talked to, but in general about aging artists.

There are many privileges- both real and imagined when you choose to be an artist. You get to spend your life doing something you love, first of all. There’s excitement, allure, interesting creative people, parties, praise and glory and all that makes up the mystique of choosing such a life. There also can be bouts of poverty, financial uncertainty and all the things parents warn you about when they try to convince you than being an artist is not such a great idea.

Some of the people that I talked to were founders, or were there at the beginnings of the institutions that popped up in the last century. Some of those institutions are still around and thriving, and some aren’t. What happens to the artists that don’t have those safety nets?

Also, many of the artistic careers can’t be sustained over a whole lifetime. What does a dancer do when their body can’t dance anymore? Or a lighting designer who can no longer physically maneuver up on the grid?

One woman whom I talked to has had a long and fruitful career as a director, a performer, and an educator with various theater companies. But like many artists, she’s always worked from gig to gig, and now, at over 60 years old, she can’t find work and most likely has to move to back to another state where her family is.

Health insurance is a whole other issue. We’ve all heard horror stories of people who get sick when they don’t have health insurance. If Obama is re-elected, and Obamacare is fully implemented, hopefully that number will reduce. But I can’t tell you how many fundraisers I get invited to for artists who have emergency health issues, and though they have health insurance, still can’t afford their bills.

Certainly these problems aren’t exclusive to artists. Indeed, the reason Social Security and Medicare were invented were to offer a safety net for seniors. Listening to the debates, it seems even those benefits are at risk. But I would like to see our arts community more specifically get together and figure out ideas for taking care of our own.