Staying Above Ground

07/25/2013 02:15 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2013

In my last blog I wrote about scientific evidence regarding the health benefits that mature adults derive from participating in creative and performing arts programs. Since this is the case, some may wonder if older professional artists have better health and well being. Are they poor as church mice yet happy as clams? Or is this just another of the many stereotypes about older adults that continue to permeate our culture and perspective on growing older?

Joan Jeffri, formerly Director of Arts Administration at Columbia University and now heading the Research Center on Arts and Culture at the National Center for Creative Aging, has conducted research to answer this question. Her book, Above Ground, reports findings from her study of visual artists in New York City. The title comes from the response of a 97-year-old artist to the question, "How are you doing today?" "Well, I'm above ground."

The study involved interviews with 146 professionals in the visual arts born between 1910 and 1944 that yielded the following profile. The typical artist is age 73, well-educated, has a median income of $30,000, health insurance, and a retirement plan other than Social Security, scores high on the life satisfaction scale, has high self-esteem as a person and an artist, is in frequent contact with other artists, and goes to the studio every day. Some have changed their art medium because of age-related physical or other restrictions but have no thought of ever retiring from art. As one 93-year old artist said, "Art is what makes me live."

These older artists face significant challenges in their efforts to continue creating art and seeing that it is preserved. Local communities in which artists live can help by making better studio space available (e.g., municipal buildings), storage space to house their work, and exhibitions to honor their communal legacy. As a result of Jeffri's work, NYC offers free studios to artists in senior centers, has created new galleries for them, and linked university graduate students with artists to help them document their work. As Jeffri says, "Older artists are tenacious, resilient, and they put the good news and the bad news into their work. They should be the envy of the baby boomers. Their lives are filled with meaning and meaningful work." For more information you can email Joan Jeffri at