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Ask GYST: Aging as an Artist

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As the graying of America progresses and the baby boomers begin to enter their twilight years, the US government and other agencies are deep in discussion over issues of physical and mental health care; social security, retirement and pension benefits, and attitudes and policies on aging. Traditional solutions to the challenges listed above are not sufficient. A plethora of programs from "lifelong education" to more user-friendly assisted-living facilities have been created to help Americans cope with aging. It is important to understand how issues pertaining to aging affect artists and shape opinions about artistic production.

As artists age, they face a variety of issues that may affect their personal lives as well as their artistic practice. Matisse worked from his wheelchair with a severe illness until the age of 81. Monet painted into his 80's despite the fact that he was losing his eyesight and becoming blind. Louise Bourgeois continued to make art well into her 90s and had a very successful traveling retrospective in 2008 at the youthful age of 97.

These examples and many more, underline the fact that as artists age they don't stop making work or lose creative impulses. On the contrary, the wisdom, and maturity that comes with age might in fact produce the best work of an artist's career. The key is to develop ways to circumvent some of the negative aspects of aging and the stereotypes that come with it.

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Image: Kevin T. Allen is a filmmaker, sound artist and independent radio producer. A wise artist and curator whose career had spanned decades once quipped that "In the early 21st century being an older artist (and by this I mean being over 50) seems to generate the kind of repulsive response from curators and galleries that being a woman, a homosexual, and a person of color has generated in the past. Ageism, it seems, is the new bigoted response to what's not selling, right up there with the racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia that have marked art world snobbery and greed for so many decades." It should be the goal of any concerned artist to rid the world of prejudiced responses to individual artists, and especially to carve out a space where older artists have a voice and a space to exhibit work. If you are an older artist, and if you have found yourself emerging for longer than you'd like, there are some steps you can take to build a supportive community and get your work out there:
  • Be visible. Get together with friends, colleagues and other artists and attend gallery openings, lectures and events together. Being a presence and a force, will change people's ideas about what it means to be an aging artist.
  • Familiarize yourself with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and laws prohibiting age discrimination in the workplace. It is the responsibility of all artists, young and old, to ensure that our cultural institutions are open and welcoming to everyone.
  • Find and join local arts organizations and non-profits where you can develop contacts and share your work with like-minded people in your community. If you have any extra time, consider volunteering for one of these organizations. Not only will this give you access to the people running the space, it will also help you to network with other artists in your community.
  • Start your own network of late-career artists. Meet up at museums, galleries, or each other's houses to talk about work. Invite some of your colleagues over for a potluck, or go out to dinner if cooking is too much trouble. Start a group that meets once a month and share your work and ideas, your road blocks and your highlights with others. This can be any kind of group you want, a reading group, a networking group or a gathering for a meal. Keep active.
  • Consider having an exhibition in your own studio and invite everyone you know. You might even sell some work. Do not wait to be validated by the art world, get out there and do it yourself.
Your Estate It is important to know how you want others to handle your estate and the artwork that you will leave behind. Organizing the work and the information about the work will ensure that it is not lost or destroyed. Some organizations work with older artists specifically, and provide important information. There are software programs for artists to use that makes keeping track of your work easier. Consider hiring a young artist or student to help you enter art data into a computer, and scan older slides and photos. Contact local service organizations to see if they have a service near you.Resources