In 1974, a reporter attempted to complement Gloria Steinem by saying, “You don’t look 40,” right after her 40th birthday brunch. Steinem responded with an off the cuff remark that has become world famous: “This is what 40 looks like — we’ve been lying for so long, who would know?”
In the art world, forty is nearly invisible as a goal or a reality, although the alternative, death, is not exactly appealing. I was born in 1974, so you do the math. As an artist and journalist, I am surrounded by highly accomplished peers who are significantly younger than me, and by many others who choose to keep their age a secret. I guess my question, forty years after Gloria Steinem took an honest plunge towards empowerment, is why age is seen as a detriment to an art career rather than an accomplishment? Why is it more desirable to be an artist in your twenties or early thirties than to be a middle-aged artist?
If you think I’m being overdramatic, that’s fine, but look around at the cultural landscape: besides the few who have landed tenure track positions in academia and are keeping those positions until they take their last dying breath, how many artists over the age of forty can you identify? Where are all the artists forty and older showing? Besides a handful at Grimaldis Gallery and Goya Contemporary’s national stable of mid-career artists whose median age appears to fall well above forty, where are these folks? And don’t we have something to learn from them?
If you are reading this and feeling young and self-satisfied, telling yourself that by the time you reach forty you’ll be much cooler than me, and way more accomplished, you’re part of the problem. How do I know this? I was you once. In my early twenties, as an artist and teacher, I never even considered turning forty and I bragged, apparently to everyone I knew, that I would never get married and I would never have a kid. My plan was to live on an ‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues’ style artist commune with all my friends, and no one could convince me otherwise.
The idea of forty never even crossed my mind and the artists I met who were even close to this age seemed ancient and out of touch. It’s not like I thought I would die an early death, but forty always seemed a lifetime away, a place where you go after you’ve answered life’s important questions, built up your 401k, gotten into a cushy situation with a gallery, and figured it all out. Or at least paid off your college loans.
As a young artist, in my twenties and early thirties, except for a few professors, I knew very few artists over forty. There didn’t seem to be many around at the art openings and events I frequented and, even fewer who would admit to being this old. I think this is partly due to the changing priorities of age: many artists hit their thirties and want a family, and this can keep you at home and out of the public eye. Any kind of ‘scene’ where you’re out at events several nights a week relies on the energy of the young and we all know that proximity and socializing leads to professional opportunities. But being an artist is much more than hanging out at cool bars and knowing people at opening receptions. Or is it?
The lack of visibility in artists over 40 in the emerging art scene is also due to fear. No one wants to be irrelevant. There’s the sense that, if you haven’t ‘made it’ by 40, you’re not going to. Ever. You’re washed up. Over the hill. It’s time to make way for the younger, smarter, and the hipper. You have missed your chance. Your chance at what, exactly?
I have no idea who made these rules or why those of us who are wise and even a bit wrinkle-challenged are going along with them. Have we just given up? Why do so few exhibits feature artists who are still making art decades after their MFA’s? Is it because older artists are more secure and complacent, and aren’t working as hard to market their work? Or is it because there’s a lack of appropriate exhibition venues for artists who have graduated beyond a certain level?
If you look at the last fifty years of Baltimore’s visual arts culture, you’ll notice most of the art shown and created was not in commercial galleries, but in artist-run, alternative, and collective gallery spaces. Just as today, when artists feel they are not represented in the current cultural landscape, they make a new space with the people they know and respect. Some collectives are flaky and others highly professional. However, Baltimore’s current cooperatives are mostly run by and showing artists in their twenties, which makes sense because they have the most free time to devote to such ventures.
In the 1980’s and 90’s, there were a number of powerful artist collectives in Baltimore, but the most notable one was Resurgam Gallery, an artist co-op which featured monthly exhibits by member artists, guest curators, and juried calls. If you look it up, you can see that Resurgam garnered a regular number of interesting, topical reviews by Baltimore Sun Art Critic John Dorsey, whose critical voice has never been replaced at the paper (but that’s another story for you young whipper-snappers). Resurgam Gallery was a traditional kind of setup – it had an application process for members, collected dues, and each member was guaranteed an exhibit at the space at a determined interval. The work presented was taken seriously and of high quality. I think you can all see where I’m going with this: Baltimore could benefit from not one, but a few artist collectives made up artists who are, as they say, grown.
Ideally, these collectives would be diverse in background, ideology, and age. In a perfect world, they would all be located within walking distance of one another, and other existing spaces, in order to cross pollinate with foot traffic, the way the monthly Alloverstreet art walk does.
If this sounds lamer than lame to you, consider this: older artists have more income and security, so, collectively, they could afford a decent space in an accessible location. Also, artists who have been in this game for decades have accumulated a wide network of friends, admirers, and collectors. Their friends are not young artists and, with a little cultivation, could become a generation of locally minded art collectors.
I want this collective thing to happen because I no longer give a shit about being cool or appearing to be cool, not that I ever was. Goddammit, I am forty! I also want this to happen because, all of a sudden, people my age are starting to die. I lost two friends this year. Life’s too short to sit on the sidelines.
I love making my work. I love the pressure and terror of a deadline for an exhibition. I want to be able to share my work with the community around me. I want a space where I can experience the high quality projects of my peers on a regular basis. I suspect that I am not alone. More and more, I believe it’s essential and empowering to show your work in your own town, and to come together as a community for support, energy, and critical feedback.
After turning forty, I can read the writing on the wall: I’m never going to be twenty-five again and I am happy to say I don’t want to be. But I do want to be able to show my work in a contemporary context that excites and challenges me, without having to make work that looks like a twenty-five year old made it. Who is in? Let’s do this. This is what forty looks like.
Author Cara Ober is a Baltimore-based artist and writer. She is Founding Editor of BmoreArt and, yes, she is fucking forty.