By now, we artsy types are aware that anecdotal evidence suggests a long-term visual art practice can cause a variety of problems for the practitioner, and we know that artists suffer in various ways from their choice of calling. Though some time ago I traded in the pressures of the artist’s life for those of the writer, I have continued through the years to study and address, in words and actions, the struggles of visual artists. I have studied and written about the issue to the point of becoming cloying, and I have also helped organize, or been involved in, discussions and other initiatives on topics such as “What is a Minnesota Artist?,” “What Do Artists Need?,” and “What Are the Needs of Aging Artists?”
Unfortunately, though perhaps understandably, public discussions about the welfare of artists often turn into long bellyache festivals, in which the assembled artists spill so much personal frustration that little constructive information is shared. For example, at a recent focus group on the needs of aging artists I met Lyn Foulkes, a long-brilliant seventy-odd-year-old L.A. painter. I was hopeful, since he has exhibited work throughout his career in New York, Paris, and in many major institutions, that he would have insights to offer about how to build a successful artist’s life; instead, Foulkes dashed my hopes by opening the discussion with loud gusts of frustration, blaming his current professional woes on gallery owners, artistic peers, the media, and the public, who, he claimed, prefer hot young artists and fresh new trends over more established artists. “If I were given the choice now to become an artist,” he said, “I’d probably choose not to become one.”
My interest in finding ways to help artists like Foulkes led to my escape from Minnesota last year to attend the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Here, among other activities, I established and led a four-month group research project called “Essential Services for Aging Artists” (ESAA). The ESAA project made use of focus-group discussions of artists in New York, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh, a survey of more than 1,300 artists currently working nation-wide, a study of existing information about the state of artists and research into what services currently exist for artists, and a group analysis of the data we collected. The project’s goals were to gain a clearer understanding of the problems and needs that visual artists face as they age, to research services that currently exist to address these needs, to pinpoint needs still unaddressed, and to make recommendations for addressing these needs. Our final report on aging artists, completed this past May, is comprised of chapters on our findings regarding details about the overall current “state of the artist” and on the needs of artists in eight essential service categories: housing, estate planning, business skills, archiving, legal services, retirement, insurance, and health care.
The Essential Services for Aging Artists Project uncovered a few general themes. The most important of these was the need for ALL artists, both young and old, to become educated in the wide range of services available currently to address their needs. ESAA’s survey repeatedly revealed that most artists have limited knowledge about what services are available to assist them with such challenges as finding affordable housing, obtaining business skills, providing for their own retirement, or protecting themselves in the event of a health crisis. In the report, therefore, we suggest that artists of all ages take more initiative in obtaining information about critical needs they will face throughout their careers and about the services to address these needs. We also recommend to providers of services for artists that they implement more effective marketing of their services to what is a rather eccentric interest group.
This suggests another important theme revealed through our research. The practice of visual art typically demands that artists spend long hours alone in a studio in front of their art works and away from other people. This isolation has important ramifications. For instance, ESAA’s survey revealed that 24.3 percent of respondents felt somewhat set apart from other people, and 7.4 percent felt very set apart. A 75-year-old female painter who participated in our New York focus group concurred: “In not being joiners, we are holed up in our own studios.” In Pittsburgh, a male painter agreed, responding: “I think [being alone] is a professional hazard.”
While the practice of visual art may create strong, independent, and individualistic thinkers, it also seems to create a broad aversion toward working or cooperating with others. This aversion is particularly troublesome, because, as independent contractors, visual artists typically are forced to take control of such critical career aspects as planning for their retirement, drafting contracts and running a business, obtaining health coverage, and so on. ESAA’s report recommended therefore that individual artists do everything they can to establish a strong support network—become part of a greater community—as early as possible in their careers.
Becoming part of a network of artists, of an artists’ membership organization, or of the larger community can have important practical benefits for visual artists. Joining a network not only helps artists find necessary services to address their needs, but it also builds confidence, provides support, and leads to opportunities for networking. Strength in numbers may even allow a group of visual artists to have influence over arts organizations, communities, or local politics and decisions regarding issues important to artists. Artist membership organizations, meanwhile, offer other practical benefits. By joining an organization, visual artists can take advantage of group rates for health insurance, educational workshops, or workspace. Although many membership organizations charge yearly dues, the cost of the dues can be offset by group discounts on art supplies or on other services. In addition, these dues are tax deductible.
Community involvement for artists also need not be limited to artistic organizations. In fact, one male New York metalsmith noted in one of ESAA’s focus groups that when he needed support it was more forthcoming from the community at large than from his artist friends or from institutions or service organizations. “Essentially,” he said, “through the support of the people in my apartment building, I put together a show, and I sold a bunch of works… [and solved my problem]. I was pleasantly surprised that there were so many individuals that were sensitive.”
Alyson Stanfield, an artist consultant, recommends specifically that visual artists get out of the studio and join up with others not only because of the benefits mentioned above, but because this “builds your confidence, provides emotional and professional support, and opens your eyes to opportunities you never knew existed.” Stanfield suggests that 85-95 percent of artists get gallery shows because of a recommendation from “another artist, dealer, curator, collector, or other art world type.” Even if no appropriate organization exists, Stanfield suggests that by doing something as simple as holding an “artists’ salon,” or an informal gathering where artists can share work and ideas and can discuss challenges they are facing, everyone can receive significant benefits.
Even if you, as an artist, believe it’s a wast of time to do anything other than focusing on creating and exhibiting work, community involvement does not have to interfere with your artistic practice, and the benefits far outweigh any disadvantages. Indeed, these benefits are likely why most other artistic disciplines have strong centralized member organizations that benefit practitioners. For instance, Actors Equity, a labor union, guarantees minimum salaries for performers, additional pay for certain duties, fair working rules and conditions, insurance, and retirement planning. Musicians, all types of writers (think of VACUM here), and theater professionals all have actual unions specific to their disciplines. Why shouldn’t this be true for visual artists as well?
The basic fact is while it is difficult to sustain a career as a visual artist over the long haul, and while it often seems that no one cares about the artist’s struggles and no one is willing to listen to the artist’s complaints, in actuality there are plenty of places in the community that artists can turn to for help. Artists need only be willing to look outside their studios for that help.