Notes for another generation of cultural workers

In 1996 I left a full time career at the School of the Art institute of Chicago. I was 34. I had started attending classes there when I was 16. At 18 I was working in the department of art education and on my BFA. The rest of the years were spent making my work, administrating and teaching.

The 1980’s and 90’s was the birth of real a community based art education agenda – based in part on Carol Becker’s  Artist and Social Responsibility and Felipe Ehrenberg’s Citizen Artist. We were in the midst of the incredible run that was Gallery 37. All of this while I developed, taught and administrated programs for degree students interested in working in neighborhoods, creating partnerships in communities from 71st and Commonwealth to Pilsen, Back of the Yards, La Villita, Rogers Park –and the list went on. I loved what I did and everyone I worked with – which amounted to an extraordinary group of practicing artists and community activists who were devoted to their work and to every young life they encountered.

In 1996 I left that tremendous place with an immense sadness – knowing that in some ways I had made a huge mistake.  There was only one thing I loved more than what I had been doing for the last 16 years.  It was the Southwest, West, –  all land west of the Mississippi – all of it. I did not want to be a “lifer” at SAIC – I was fully aware of the extraordinary nest I was leaving. I was making work, showing, getting grants, teaching, administrating; all of what I was trained to do by my exquisite and many mentors.

By 2000 I was living in Wyoming – the time between SAIC and reaching my heart’s desire was spent working for the Chicago Park District. At that time there was a particularly inspiring revolution that was being created under the leadership of Superintendent Forest Claypool. I was immensely fortunate at that time to be working under the magnificent direction and creativity that was Helen Doria. One could certainly say that the years I was working in the arts in Chicago was a particularly good period.

I had decided in the 90’s that there were four things that would comprise my single goal of living in the West. I wanted to be living in a small town (check); making my work (check); showing in Santa Fe (check); teaching/administrating at a community college (check).

Fast forward, it is 2013 – this year marked achieving the final part of the goal; administrating at the local community college. Last year I was picked up by a gallery in Santa Fe, and I have been teaching for the last 13 years. My point here – I have just completed goals I set after a 13 year period of time.

It took 13 years to reach this goal – why?

Here are a few thoughts.

If you can make it in the West you can make it anywhere. I live in a very small town – slim pickins in terms of positions for artists in administration and teaching. It is competitive. Folks who are old blood in this system are very strategic and basically will not let you in to save your life.

However, in my thirteen years here, it never – and I mean never crossed my mind to return to work in Chicago.

There was sacrifice – there always is. Minor, to me, but just the same as the years have gone by one thing has begun to grate on me….the dumbing down of my CV to get my first job when I arrived here. As much as folks said they wanted me as part of their team – I was a threat and not a small one.

I had come from a litany of top institutions in a major metropolitan area and I was an ace administrator – I loved what I did and had been trained by the best – I was the kiss of death in a small town. When I did land a bit of an administrative position in addition to my teaching I was kept on a leash so tight my face felt blue and no one heard a word from me for 5 years.

In 13 years – there has been one, and I literally mean one individual who has championed my work and career in this area. I would not have existed in the way that I do in tiny little Masonville, CO if it were not for that one individual. I do not think that what I have experienced in this sense is unusual. In a college town of 150,000 people it is the norm.  There is often a lot of substandard work masquerading as excellence in a small town

It is now that I have come full circle – and am finally in a position that I was so very pained to leave in Chicago. But I am here, making my work, administrating and teaching. As I begin to watch the passing of many of my mentors, I see my role quite clearly and hope I can offer my students at least a percentage of the unceasing wisdom that my mentors granted me.

A few things for my students to consider as they begin their journey into the art worlds

Consider continuing your degree in a major metro area – there is much to learn in the city; so many people to meet and you will be respected for having gone to an institution with a wider vision. You will be able to find work much more quickly in larger cities and in your field.  If you choose to come back to your home turf or somewhere similar, it will be hard – but you will be able to move mountains if you so choose, it is a slow process.

Be ready to dumb down your CV when you are looking for work in smaller locals. It will get your foot in the door long enough to gain a bit of ground and to understand who the “player’s” think they are in the community.

Know that someone will champion what you have done – this will take time too, however. You will be thrust into a tight little market filled with overblown egos that are holding on to their reputation and careers in some cases with great desperation. Whoever is championing you – has their own teams of old blood to jump over – remember that.

Follow the innovator in your respective institution – you will know them by the changing atmosphere that surrounds them on a regular basis and by their willingness to always take a risk and to listen to innovative ideas. They will spend little time asking for forgiveness or permission accompanied by an outspoken and healthy disrespect for authority. Don’t confuse this with a “flash in the pan”. What I am pointing to is an individual who has had a healthy disrespect for authority for at least, ohh, some 20 + years. Do your homework on the personalities that surround you.

Primarily and most importantly, keep an intensive studio practice and show in major art markets – not locally. Sure you will be criticized for this by some – but you will be understood by others.  As you and your work mature you will find that you can be confident, not arrogant, about your life in art. Don’t be afraid of who you are. Keep your commitment to making work which is the reason you have ended up in this very place in this very moment. And finally, under no circumstance accept mediocrity.

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