Aren't We Supposed to Live on the Moon? And Other Unanswered Questions in a Waning Art World

“Aren't We Supposed to Live on the Moon? And Other Unanswered Questions in a Waning Art World”

The changing nature of the art world allows people who can’t make a full living off of their position within it to stake and hold a claim. These people (our people), who are becoming the life-blood of the arts, play a significant part in the way this world defines itself as long-standing definitions are scrutinized and redefined. This calls for a reassessment of what, exactly, we’re trying to achieve. What does “making it” in the field mean?

Our contemporary endeavors as artists, curators, and writers (respectively) are pursued with one eye on our own futures, because these myriad, bifurcated efforts are not sustainable (in terms of time and money) in the long run. Whether organizing, producing, seeing, reading, writing or editing, we are laboring with the idea that the future will be different, that one day the jobs we juggle will coalesce, because how long can we keep up so many full-time jobs in addition to our 9-5s? But throughout this labor, the complicated question of “support” goes largely unanswered.

In this dialogical exchange, we (the editors of The Rib) consider how we’ve felt supported in our experiences of working in the arts. Through this personal (read: candid, no holds barred) lens, we think about our professional and personal futures.


Leah Triplett Harrington: I realized in high school that I wasn't an artist, that I loved art more than making it. Seeing it, yes, but also the smell of it, the feel of it: something about the whiff of oil paint and the texture of paper, the stuff of the studio, just gets me. So I found myself studying art history, writing about art, talking about art, and ultimately understanding that I wanted to be an art curator.

There are a lot of distinctions and definitions within the "curatorial field." Art is "stuff," it's material. But why it exists, how it's understood, by what means it's circulated… that comes down to people and their places in the world.

My place has been outside of major institutions, and mostly outside of my 9-5. Until very recently, my work was outside of my work-work. This means I've always scrambled and I've always juggled: always behind on email, always a bit tired, always going for coffee and drinks, always listening and learning about new projects, always meaning to respond to texts, always apologizing for "being MIA" because "things have been a bit hectic." These apologies are always sincere. I might be harried, but I have a certain freedom. I can spend my time on the project that I want to work on, and I respect that other people’s time is precious. I can be selective with my collaborators. I wouldn't trade this type of practice for all the long timelines and generous budgets in museum land.

Or would I?

Because sometimes, it's 7am and I've been hitting snooze on my phone for 30 minutes, meaning I'm already late. I'm stressed as I get out of bed and start drafting email responses. I'm worried in the shower, practicing a presentation. I'm annoyed on my way to work, rapid-fire texting reminders of meeting times and addresses. For a long time in my working life, my 9am-5pm had nothing, nothing to do with my 5-9pm (or later). During those days, I’d be consumed with mindless but necessary administrative tasks. Now, I work in the curatorial field, and though my days have changed, my evenings haven’t. I wonder how long I can keep the stamina up. Sometimes, twelve hours later, it's 7pm and I have some granola for dinner before running to an opening. I feel fatigued in my shoulders as I stand, trying to listen intently to someone passionately talking about their work or someone else's. I panic as I realize the minutes are creeping by and I have an essay to edit and images to gather. I have so much to do. What exactly am I working towards? Is this curatorial practice? Is this criticism? Is this being critically engaged?

Lindsey Stapleton: While artist-run and alternative models have always been used to subvert “the system”, it seems they’ve taken a recent turn towards sincere manifestations of something that’s both fulfilling and financially viable. No longer are these endeavors exclusively just-for-fun or short lived. Now, we seem to all believe, they carry a real opportunity to lead to something more significant- a “real” future, and we’re giving these ventures our all.

The way art is seen, sold and purchased has provenly changed. We all know this. Now the sovereign belief is that if you have just a small amount of inertia, you can get in front of someone who has a lot of money who will support you forever. Naive maybe, but it’s a newly achievable dream. The trouble is that such projects, the ones funded by elbow grease and disposable resources, can really only grow if resources open to support it.

Inevitably, capacity and needs will change. As we get older, we want to pay our student loans each month, and we might want a stable place to live, maybe kids, or just a car that runs- all of which cost money. With the arts, however, it’s not just about getting a job. As with any creative field, jobs are scarce, pay is nominal and the advancement line is unclear; one looks elsewhere to pay the bills. Being in the arts often means getting a second gig to support, well, being in the arts. This doubles the drain of work; doubled unanswered emails, doubled to-do lists, doubled short-term goals and long-term ambitions, all of which have to coincide with day-to-day needs.

Often, the steps needed to move to one “job” demand a change in capacity that is not sustainable, and while arts producers are trying to juggle the demands of that level of productivity, they falter and fade. So, when we’re all burned out and tired of the hustle, when we’re all just trying to muster up the will to give half a rat’s ass about the things that fueled a great passion not even a year ago- what do we do to keep moving forward?

Some options:

  1. Move away
  2. Move far away
  3. Tell everyone you have big plans to do something new and great and fabulous, but just go out a lot to keep busy, and feel guilty about sleeping on your dreams.
  4. Recognize that something is wrong and take yourself away from what makes you feel bad (and I don’t mean that in some BS only-do-what-you-love way). Reassess what you can actually do (financially or otherwise), spend time formulating a plan, and restart your career; all the while trying hard not to compare yourself to others and hoping that the rest of your peers haven’t left you in the dust and you’re not actually just part of the massive percentage of people who fall from the artworld and into something else
  5. Change your diet

I’m being a bit cynical here, and maybe a conversation about burnout culture triggers apathy in the audience, but really- what do we do to shake the feeling that our efforts are akin to throwing a pebble into a bottomless canyon?

Art is an economy- it was a $63.7 billion market in 2017- and should be treated like a business (I guess). Most of the people in it, however, aren’t thick-skinned or business-savvy.

Corey Oberlander: There is a never-ending abundance of business models in our realm, but citing Art F City’s reoccurring column “We’re So Not Getting the Security Deposit Back” as a little fodder, artist-run businesses sometimes fail. While the variables are vast, some of the topics surrounding the closure or repositioning of these initiatives are often seen as taboo, including the imbalance of workload for artists and arts organizers.

LTH: Exactly, and what is the balance between artist and their supporters in the field? When we think about an equitable art world, how can we also think about ensuring mutual respect between artist and organizer?

LS: Is it immoral (or unethical) to continue a project--funded and fueled by your personal resources of money, time, and energy--that people in your community depend on, even if your heart isn't in it anymore? How do you handle change, progress, and success on a micro and macro level? How can individuals working within the art world--market, non-profit, institutional--work to improve the living conditions of our collective field? How can art education expand to train artists to create viable alternatives in the art world and beyond?

Is having these questions making it harder to do the work? Or is this a part of the work?

CO: Let’s remember that proprietors of artist-run initiatives, by namesake, usually identify as artists. They sometimes treat their work in the gallery, or their writing, or marketing, or design, or whatever it may be, as their art or as an extension of their art. I myself have given up my art-making “practice” (I will call it what I like) since the early days of opening my gallery in 2013. Now almost 6 years later, read into it how you may, I can’t even fathom where to start back up, but I know that I fully intend to one day. This feeds into that same notion of “there is not enough time in the day”, but it’s not always that I literally may not have a minute to spare, but more that figuratively I do not have a minute to spare. It was also that I wasn’t as compelled to create work for myself when my creative curatorial venture was maybe more overwhelming, encompassing and fulfilling. Two different ways to scratch that same itch, I guess.

“Making” was, however, always in the back of my mind. I swapped research for my own work with research for a curatorial project or an upcoming exhibition. I swapped painting oil on canvas for hand painting “vinyl” letters on our gallery desk. I’d swapped shaking a tub of gesso with shaking up a round of martinis (gin- up, extra dry, with a twist).

Many artist-run initiatives exist for the collective at their core, but often the opacity of the art-world causes fluctuating understanding of the systems in place utilized to achieve the desired goals of said initiative. Maybe we need more transparency, honesty, and dialogue well beyond preconceived notions of “social-normality” or pride. Maybe that goes without saying.

LTH: I grew up in a time of infinite progress, infinite future. And, though finite, solidly middle class privilege. When I was growing up, the Cold War was over. Bill Clinton was President, and we never stopped thinking about tomorrow. The universe was ready for our ideas, my ideas, because Girl Power. Surely we’d be living on the moon by the time I was 30.

For me, this illusion started to crumble when I was in high school, when the USS Cole was attacked. I started to see injustice--hunger, poverty, cruelty--more readily, more transparently. These injustices didn’t diminish my interest in art; on the contrary, it motivated it. Because there still must be progress, and more nuanced seeing, clearer understandings, further appreciations... this was all part of progress to me. Now I’m well over 30 and I don’t even know if progress is a thing.

This underlying belief in progress put me on a path away from institutional work. It put me on a path to writing and editing others. It’s created connections, contexts, a critical community for the work I believe in. The artist-run community is one in which, though not a visual artist, I feel a kinship. But I worry about the mental and physical health of my peers. I worry that we are all working toward a goal that remains allusive, a stability that doesn’t exist. I worry about becoming bitter. I worry about moving forward. I worry about the fact that the art world, and the artist-run community, is so white. I worry that I’m trying to solve problems that I have no training to solve, meaning I’m proffering solutions that are myopic and reductive and I’m too dim to realize. I worry that I’m not empathetic enough as a writer and editor.

LS: Should we just keep faking it until we make it? That seems comfortable, but it doesn’t allow me to really plan a future. Maybe I’ll die before I can’t work anymore in some freak accident. Anyway, can I advance without a non-art formal education? Maybe I just need to experience more of the world and something will “click”? If I just work harder, will it work out?

After closing the gallery, when no longer fueled by guilt/ambition/drive dictated by the needs of that space, I was surprised to find myself relatively directionless. Of all the roles I filled at the gallery, do any of them hold a future? Can I just keep on doing what I’m doing, and my cumulative experience will add up to something tangible - eventually?

LTH: Back to this people thing. Maybe curatorial practice is relationship management as much as it is stewarding an artist’s work. I’m loathe to use such a business jargon-y word, but here we are. What is really gratifying to me doesn’t really have anything to do with my resume. It’s offering support and in turn, being supported. It’s dialogue with artists and thinkers who are deeply considering our collective past and present. I want to be a conduit for those considerations.

LS: I suppose at the end of this dialogue, we three seem to be in the same situation: we know a lot of what we’re doing (or what we’ve done) isn’t helping the cause. We don’t mind a grind. But we are looking for an art world that is more sustainable, equitable, and honest. Otherwise it’s tough to stay motivated and (frankly) altruistic.

In my experience, most people seem to want to stop saying “yes” so much. They want to focus, they want to reassess. I think that’s fine. I think we should stop trying to do everything.

Ultimately there needs to be some significant infrastructural change to how alternative spaces are valued within the art-world cannon. People are choosing an alternative route more than ever as a valid, and valuable way to use their resources. I’ve been lucky enough to meet institutional curators and directors who get that. I think we need more of that: people using their various platforms to support others.

“Aren’t We Supposed to Live on the Moon? And Other Unanswered Questions in a Waning World,” by Corey Oberlander, Lindsey Stapleton, and Leah Triplett Harrington, was commissioned as part of Field Perspectives 2019, a co-publishing initiative organized and supported by Common Field. Field Perspectives 2019 invites thinking that reflects on the future of the artist organizing field. The program is is a collaboration between Common Field and nine arts publications and published in two parts. Part 1 includes texts by Chicago Artist Writers, The Rib and Sixty Inches from Center. Part 2 includes texts by Art Papers The Artblog, BMore Art, Momus, Terremoto, The Third Rail and Title Magazine. Generous support for Field Perspectives is provided by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Corey Oberlander is the co-founder and director of GRIN, a recently closed contemporary gallery located in Providence, Rhode Island. Now based in Atlanta, Georgia, he continues an independent curatorial practice and is the managing editor of The Rib.

Leah Triplett Harrington is curator, editor, and writer. She is currently Assistant Curator for Now + There, a Boston-based non-profit for public art. Her writing has most recently appeared in The Rib as well as Flash Art, Hyperallergic, and The Brooklyn Rail. In 2017, she was a finalist for the Rabkin Prize for Arts Journalism. Leah has lectured at Boston University, Montserrat College of Art, Stonehill College, Tufts University Art Gallery, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is a founding editor of The Rib.

Lindsey Stapleton is an independent curator and the creative director of The Rib. She recently relocated to Atlanta, Georgia after closing GRIN, a contemporary gallery in Rhode Island that ran from 2013-2018.