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Is There an Age Limit for 'Emerging Artists'?

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When they want to introduce themselves, some artists put out a hand to shake or say 'Hello,' but that only works if they are there in person. In most other circumstances, artists rely on their artwork to make a first impression and often some accompanying written material. Generally, artists feel more confidence in their artwork than in the printed matter, and for good reason. It is not clear what readers want, for instance, in an artist's statement (explain the art, explain the artist's source of inspiration or technique, or something else) or if they want it at all. An ungrammatical sentence or typos or art jargon may lessen a reader's appreciation for the artist (and the art).

The introduction that many art gallery owners have to artists is through information packets, usually containing a letter of introduction, sleeve of slides (hardly an easy way to experience art), clippings of past reviews perhaps and a bio, sometimes called a C.V. (for curriculum vitae). A bio, which describes one's career as an artist (as opposed to a resume, which lists employment history) may inadvertently work to one's disadvantage if the artist reveals too much or too little. (Hint: It is not at all clear what is too much or too little.)

For instance, one's age. Of course, the age of the artist has no bearing on the quality of his or her art but, according to New York City gallery owner Edward Winkleman, "age tends to be an issue for certain kinds of collectors and, as such, is an issue for dealers." He noted that sees "collectors' body language shift when they learn that artist is older." Other art dealers agree, if sometimes grudgingly. "To some clients, age does matter, and we are here at the service of our clients," said Kristen Dodge, a co-owner of Boston's Judi Rotenberg Gallery, adding that "I personally think age is irrelevant." Certainly, one might make the argument that lengthy experience deepens one's technical and conceptual abilities; however, emerging artists over a certain age (30? 40? 50? 60?) are found to be less appealing to dealers, who think in terms of building a career, not just selling things right now. "There aren't many Grandma Moseses around," said Ron Cavalier, owner of Cavalier Galleries in Greenwich, Connecticut, referring to the untrained backwoods artist who had her first solo show at age 80 and still lived another 21 years. "People who have worked in one career for decades and then decide to become artists are less of an interest to me."

Cavalier regularly receives packets from artists that contain images and written materials, and he meets with those in whom he is interested. Subjects that the applicant may have omitted, such as age, are likely to be clarified in a face-to-face meeting. "The fact that they're older isn't necessarily a problem," he said, "but, if their physical health is deteriorating, that could be a serious consideration."

Age isn't usually a category on a bio or resume, but it may be suggested through particular dates, such as the year someone earned a baccalaureate degree of when exhibitions are cited for some distant decade. An artist may think that omitting his or her age is a matter of discretion, but if Winkleman doesn't see the age he wonders, "Is this person trying to hide something?" He recommended including on a bio one's age or the year one was born -- "Just put it out there" -- in order to alleviate the mystery and weed out the gallery owners who "would reject you for reasons of age alone anyway."

However, he doesn't want to know an artist's major in college unless that person studied art or another subject -- say, anthropology -- that is thematically related to the content of the individual's artwork. Omitting an unrelated college major is valid, Winkleman said, because the cumulative effect of an artist being older and having no formal art training "says to me, 'enthusiastic amateur,'" which he is more apt to reject out of hand.

Yet another area of omission may be a range of years in which no exhibitions took place, for instance, listing group or solo shows between 1965 and 1975 and then from 1995 to 2005. Perhaps, the exhibits from 1965 to 1975 could be discarded, which might have the effect of suggesting the artist is younger and began showing work in 1995. However, if the year of a college degree (say, 1963) is listed or if the artist and dealer meet, the question of the missing years will loom large, striking the dealer as deliberate deceit or as a lack of seriousness. Of course, there may be quite understandable reasons that an artist was not pursuing exhibition opportunities for the 1975-1995 period, such as a full-time job or parenting. These may not be "lost" years, simply a span of time in which the art that was created was not put on display.
Artists who have not focused singularly on their art careers are put in an ethical bind when composing a bio, forced to choose between honesty (revealing their age or the fact that art has competed with other activities and interests) and hoping that their elisions don't raise questions. Small wonder that so many artists present themselves badly: They have to select among unpalatable options.

Age, education and exhibition history are not the only areas in which artists may get into trouble. Listing published reviews of group shows they were in but which did not mention their names or artwork looks deceitful, and banking on the possibility that the dealer doesn't actually read the review adds insult to injury. On the other hand, an online review has no less significance than one seen in a hardcopy publication (there is no need to include a link; just put the article title, author, date and main URL of the site and let the reader find it). Listing the names of more prominent artists in a group in which one participated seems "lame," Winkleman said.

In general, a bio includes a some basic areas of information, such as the artist's professional name (individuals may go by favorite nicknames or married names, but pick one name and go by it as an artist), contact information (address telephone number, email), education (as relevant), solo exhibitions (when there is more than just one or two, starting with the most recent year first and working backwards), group exhibitions (three or four per year is enough -- or heading the list "selected group exhibitions" when there aren't many -- and, again, in reverse chronology), publications (articles or reviews written about the artist), collections (only if the collectors are prominent), awards (professional awards, not ones received in high school or college, or financial grants or residencies at an artists community) and related professional activity (such as teaching, commissions, serving as an arts panelist for a foundation granting program, curating exhibitions).