Is There a Life for Female Artists Over Fifty? You Betcha!

08/26/2010 06:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What's it like to be a serious, professional, exhibiting female artist over 50, well over 50, and not be an art star--yet?

You've dedicated your life to your practice, perhaps even foregoing certain life choices, like having kids and a home or establishing an adjunct, mainstream profession that includes lots of money-making.

Now you're at the backend of middle-age and perhaps thinking, I still haven't really made it--whatever that means--is it ever going to happen? Will my work ever really be part of a significant dialogue--will it ever have a life after I stop making the stuff?

I imagine many female artists find themselves in this situation. It's sometimes referred to as being midcareer without a career. How's that possible? The answer is, it's very possible and more common than you think.


The current art world looks for younger artists--in fact many not yet out of graduate school--as the artist of choice on which you place your bets. They're young, with a long life ahead of them. That's what counts. Plenty of time to make mistakes, fail, recoup, have a come-back and keep on going--except usually that's not exactly how it happens--come-back isn't a word I often hear in the art world.

In 2005 I was at a dinner, as part of Painting's Edge, a summer residency program in Idyllwild, California, where art stars from Los Angeles and New York came to critique, mentor and give advice to artist participants. Dave Hickey was sitting across the table from me and said something I will never forget. Dave said, and I'm paraphrasing, in the art world you've got to start at the top because there is no such thing as climbing the ladder. I've had this statement pinned to my wall since then for motivation and inspiration.

No climbing the ladder, no come-backs--now that's an interesting world! Is all this a setup for the notion that you've got one shot at it and that's it? Graduate school and the art world would have you think so, but I'm not buying.


What's the advantage to being old--versus young--as an artist, a female artist who hasn't really made it--yet? Part of the answer is that you're pretty good at what you do by now and you know how to survive in spite of a seemingly hostile environment. This amounts to an artist who's in possession of evolved work and good survival skills. That should be attractive to arts professionals, like curators, gallerists and writers. But strangely enough it's really not up to them, it's up to the collectors. I once asked a gallery director why this was the case. His answer was simply that collectors want a brush with youth.

For me however, it's all about the work. Is the older artist part of the current dialogue--using their unique means to explore, comment on and involve themselves with what is happening now--not what happened back when they felt stronger and more robust, but right now? I think this is key.

The learning curve is continuous, it never stops. Our awareness of the world must be one of the world as it is right now--not when we were in graduate school in 1978.

Like any field we must compete in terms that are relevant and expected today. If you think about it, what could be better than a lifetime of evolved skills--and hopefully some worldly wisdom--combined with an awareness of today's world? Bring those two spheres together and you've got some pretty powerful art.


Though the metaphor is that of a horserace, it's not as much about an artist's physical being as it is a continuous, yet contemporary, vision. Unavoidably, an older artist brings the past into the present but it is imperative that the emphasis be on discovering ones place in a current and radically changing world.

I'm not big on nostalgia or recounting how great things used to be, but rather on being present and making work that responds to the current event. For certain, I am not who I was last year nor thirty years prior and why should I make art that responds to a past era?

It's an amazing time to have an art practice and I feel very fortunate to be an artist--and a female one at that--especially one that is well over 50.

Images courtesy of CB1 Gallery and Pedersen Projects.