Something artists often gripe about when they’re around fellow artists, is the constant call we always get to donate work to charity. It usually starts off small – when you’re starting out, you create this pile of art work no one really wants, and you’re happy to donate it to a few charities that you think are cool. But then it escalates and escalates; I don’t know if you wind up on a list of people likely to donate work or what, but there have been years where I literally would have to dedicate 100% of my studio time to making work to give away, if I granted every request for free art. And it’s one thing if it’s a charity you care about (maybe an issue you are deeply committed to, or a charity that has assisted you or a friend in a time of need), but most of the time, it isn’t. I just got a request a few weeks ago from a children’s science museum in a state I’ve never been to, from someone I’ve never met…. and they actually expect that I’m going to give them a $2,000 drawing, because, why? How does that make any sense? How is this supposed to strike a chord with me? I don’t have kids, I’m not involved in science, and I don’t live in the community in which the place is located. Do they actually think I’m going to look around my life and see absolutely no one else in need that I’d rather help more?
There’s the whole issue of artists being generally broke, just scraping by in their existence, and how donating a work can adversely affect sales of their work that they so desperately need. I’ll leave that alone for now. Instead, I thought I’d share my new strategy I’ll be using whenever I’m approached by a charity to donate work:
1. Determine if said charity even tangentially fits with my own moral/ethical/social/political/intellectual ideas. (If not, it’s just a flat no.)
2. If so, and if I’m unfamiliar with the charity, ask for a full accounting from that charity as it pertains to their expenses for salaries, benefits, real estate, etc. It should be information that they keep around anyway for tax purposes, and should be freely open to public scrutiny. And I’m not an unreasonable person: I know that Executive Directors have to be paid competitively, that benefits are expensive but should be offered to all employees, and comfortable, decent offices in easy-to-get to locations are important for the long term productivity of the charity. I GET IT. But I also get that if you’re going to hit me up for a donation, I deserve to see exactly where my money is going and what it’s being used for.
I really think all artists should do this. It shouldn’t be weird, or rude, or anything like that – it’s just a simple, non-invasive way of checking out where your donation is going. You’re not showing up at the charity with a clipboard, making notes; the charity is reporting their information to you. They could easily lie if they wanted, but you’re going to trust them enough to take their word for it.
But I think this could be a really good way of making charities not look at artists as this endless bank of free money. When they ask for this benign thing of a “gift of art,” what they’re really asking for is the gift of money – they’re going to turn around and auction or sell off the work anyway, and keep the money. So call it like it is, and be transparent. Because, after all, if I was going to give a major gift like $2,000 (which that is a very major gift for me) to a charity, I’d want to know where the money is going, and it would be understood by the charity that this is a fair question. So why should giving them a work of art be any different?
Some of my favorite charities include the Innocence Project, the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Clinic, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and just about any and all charities that promote low cost medical services (including birth control and abortion) for women. Should any of these charities ever want art from me, EVER, they’ve got it, in a heartbeat. But that’s where my priorities are – not teaching kids about the wonders of electricity in a state-of-the-art museum blah blah blah whatever.)
Elektra KB has two solo shows up now, and they are amazing. In her work, she creates a mythology in which she plays both the theocratic ruler of an imagined land, and the entire insurgent guerrilla army rising against that ruler. Spanning across photography, collage, sculpture, book art, and even performance, her work creates an all-encompassing vision, where life in this place mirrors our own, somehow both absurdly and succinctly.
In conjunction with these shows, there is a free performance that she is staging. The flyer is below:
I’m the kind of person who plans everything, all the time, down to the tiniest detail; running different scenarios in my head over and over, so that going into any given situation, I have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C (and sometimes all the way to the end of the alphabet). It occurred to me recently that the one area of my life that I haven’t obsessively ran a million different versions through in my head, is when it comes to teaching. What do I want my “teaching career” to be? Where will I be in ten years, or twenty?
I fell into teaching very naturally. Well, actually – first I tried and tried to get a teaching job and failed miserably, gave up, moved on, and then years later was offered first one job and then another. And since then, I haven’t overthought it; I’ve just taken what’s come my way, proposed what has been of interest to me and had it accepted, and learned by doing. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience, to the point where I really get shocked by it all when I stop and think about it. Somehow, eight years have zoomed by.
And so, the question naturally comes up: where am I going with all this? I am extremely happy with my position I have now (extremely, extremely, and I’m not going anywhere short term), but if I’m being honest, I don’t think it would shock anyone to say that I don’t want to be in the same exact job in twenty years. Spending much of your life pledged to one company/institution/whatever doesn’t seem realistic anymore. Sure, when I was a kid, I had relatives who would get a job at Company X when they were 22 and stay there til retirement. Now, though? Now it feels like you blink and twenty years are gone, and somehow you wind up without money for retirement or whatever, and hey, it’s your own damn fault, because what? – you thought the company was going to take care of you?
More to the point, I’m increasingly finding NYC to be unliveable. I recently rented and watched the new Morton Downey, Jr. documentary (which was quite good) for the sole reason of seeing footage of the NYC/NJ that I remembered so fondly as a kid… and that’s just sad (I mean, really: When you fondly look back on Roy Innis punching Al Sharpton and get all misty-eyed, you have to wonder what the fuck is going on). NYC today is practically unrecognizable compared to the city I fell in love with and pledged I’d be with forever when I was in my late teens. And NJ? Well, change has come more slowly, but all those shots of the Seacaucus wetlands that aren’t there anymore were a real battle cry to me that the time has come to really start thinking hard about everything.
So, in trying to think of all this reasonably, I came up with a Best Case/Worst Case Scenario for my future self. They break down like this:
Best Case Scenario: I am teaching somewhere beach-y but with access to rural areas (or rural, with access to beachy areas, although the formal is preferred). I ride my bike to work every day, or walk. My students are centered and grounded and love art, but really don’t care about the art world. We make art together, and talk about art and philosophy and critical theory. Some of the students write poetry; the university/college has a commitment to diversity in terms of race/age/etc, and so we wind up learning so much about ourselves through late night jam sessions involving roaring bonfires at the beach and tearful conversations. Everything is beautiful. I have tenure (or something similar), and can afford a one-bedroom house/apartment.
Worst Case Scenario: I am teaching somewhere landlocked and sun-bleached, and religious (Mormon, Catholic, Evangelical – whatever, it’s all the same). Every day, I get hauled into the Department Chair’s office to explain why I’ve shown “obscene art” to my classes, and at least once a week I have a football-y student ask me if it’s true that “Jackson Pollock was a homo.” It’s hot all the time unless you’re indoors in the freezing cold air conditioning, and I have to drive everywhere, and all the radio stations I can get on my car radio are Top 40. I start drinking heavily, and ducking into the women’s room to cry on frequent occasions. Everybody hates me and thinks I’m weird and stuck up. I’m an adjunct, and earn less than a McDonalds fry cook.
What I’ve learned from this exercise is that the two things important to me in a teaching job are: 1. quality of students and 2. location. (What’s a given is that I want to earn enough money to support myself, but I’m not especially salary-driven.)
Students: I have amazing students now. They would be super hard to ever leave. I feel like I understand them and they understand me, and we work well together.
Location: My location currently sucks. But it could be far worse.
But getting back to students: I’ve been thinking lately that art students require a certain… finesse? skill?… in communicating with. And it’s one that I’ve come to really love and enjoy, and really deeply get. And it’s a connection I won’t be quick to get rid of.
Say for instance, I say to a class full of art students, “I want you to fold a piece of 8 1/2 x 11 paper in such a way that the 8 1/2 sides meet, and you wind up with a piece of paper that is folded at exactly 8 1/2 x 5 1/2.” It’s a pretty reasonable request, but I’ve tried this experiment with my classes before, and I know what always happens: about 1/2 of the class gets it right; another 1/4 get it totally opposite (folding the paper horizontally instead of vertically), and the remaining quarter will do some variation of the following: make a paper crown, eat the paper, fold it in triangles, cut themselves with the paper, start crying (possible a combination of all of these).
This is because I have made a crucial error in my directions (this, I have learned from years of working with art students). I used something that resembled math (aka, numbers) in my directions, and math stirs up in art students a kind of primal fear that can’t be abated or calmed in any rational, normal way. You’d think that numbers under 20 shouldn’t really wig them out so bad, but they do – and they sort of panic and freak out unnecessarily. They detest math, and are actually deeply afraid of it.
You cannot use math to communicate to art students. If I do the following:
“Fold your paper like this,” (hold up paper correctly folded)
“Fold your paper hamburger, NOT hot dog” (ok, I needed someone to tell me this one, but I swear it works. NO REALLY. Every time. They laugh and think I’m nuts, but they fold their paper right.)
…everybody gets it. That’s because I’ve just explained things visually. Art school kids are incredibly visually literate. They’re also culturally literate, literature literate, critical theory literate… and so forth. They’re just not math literate. In fact, they’re deeply math-phobic. Math makes them terrified and afraid, like some sort of cornered, feral animal. And each one is horribly ashamed of being this way and thinks they’re the only one, until they realize that everyone else in their class is and then they become sort of weirdly proud of it. (There are other things, too – other little tricks you learn along the way that helps you to relate to them, and explain things thoroughly so that they really get it. It’s not just math, it’s a whole communication style that’s different. You can’t just port the pedagogical approach used by a successful biology teacher into a studio classroom. It doesn’t work that way. And it makes sense – it really shouldn’t work that way, if you think about it.)
It also helps that I will forever be, in my heart and soul, The Kid Who Made The Paper Crown:
And so the problem becomes, now that I have a firm grasp on how to speak to art students, where does that leave me in my “teaching career”? Will I ever be able to shift gears and go talk to jocks taking Art 101 because it’s required? Or older folks going back to school “because it’s fun”? Or have I somehow screwed myself, by becoming so enamored with art kids, that I’ve severely limited my career options for the next 30 years?
This is what I’m trying to figure out.