ART GURNEY: The Survival Journal Of A Working Artist of Color
The Myth of the Working Artist and Why White Art Spaces Are Friend Zoned
I’m a “working artist.” I put that in quotes on purpose. Truth is, many working artists aren’t really working full-time. We have side gigs, unemployment from previous side gigs, partners who obligingly support us, family who obligingly helps us, or maybe we are broke AF and living off fumes until our next art gig. But we emphasize that description of “working artist” on purpose because we want to be taken seriously. It’s a provenance to potentially become those unicorns we see in the media, the ones pictured in magazine spreads sitting in their cavernous studios talking about their Vienna Biennale exhibition or design line sponsored by corporation X.
It’s a front. That art unicorn with the $200 quirky haircut wearing black Prada devoid of pet hair? They rarely exist in this dimension. She has a roommate who works at a salon who hooked her up because not having artsy hair can be pretty unforgiving for social media. That artist wearing designer clothes? He scored that outfit at a thrift store and wears it in different ways; you just don’t notice because he looks so dead serious in the bio photo. That person who looks so Instagram ready at the event? They’ve been eating on the art opening train of free cheese and wine and will probably go home to an empty fridge with moldy grapes from the last event. The aftermath of bills, frustration, monotony and triumphs: that is what this journal, Art Gurney, is all about. It is my no-holds-barred documentation of the reality of our life as artists in this society, and a sometimes humorous survival field guide to navigate it.
I’m pretty fortunate. I rent my own studio, have exhibited in cool places, won some competitions and led some incredibly meaningful projects. I’ve even had the featured spread in a regional mag, and yes, I do aspire to be in the Vienna Biennale. (ha!) But some days I am still internally struggling to grind out work I think is good enough to be on display in a gas station restroom. Many times I wish an art fairy would come to my house to convince me that binge watching sci-fi with snacks isn’t better than finishing my own project. This is why some of us get agents. Because there are moments when we need a leprechaun with business acumen to kick us to that deadline with a paycheck rainbow at the end of it.
It wasn’t always like this. For many years I spent less time on my art and more time on my paying gigs. For me, it meant working as an Executive Director, Program Director, etc., moving from one nonprofit org to another. In a sense, it was worth sacrificing my personal artistic practice for a respected career in arts administration helping others. Did it make any real money though? Hell nah. Did I have any benefits? Not a one. The industry expectation of sacrifice on behalf of org art staff is almost on a sharecropper level. So a year ago, against all odds, I quit. This week marks the first anniversary opening my for-profit studio, The 584. Maybe in a few years I’ll consider arts admin work again, but only if the work paid well and health benefits were amazing (insert comedy laugh track here). But there is another serious reason why I left my career.
I also quit because Trump is real and my tolerance meter for White ally bullshit broke.
As an artist and art leader of color, I burnt out. My brain fried from trying to draft yet another infographic explaining to White co-workers about the necessity to rectify demographic imbalance in arts leadership and client inclusion. Today, I sip tea in my leaky studio and referee my ego and id while I create. I refuse to trade that in until I’m healed and ready. In between art gigs I have to occasionally deliver food and work in kitchens, but I make the same wage for less hours than I put in at the office. I’d rather serve plates instead of wasting my time spoon feeding “liberal” art leaders about what cultural inclusion is when they should comprehend it in the first place. I do applaud those that are still on the front lines, facilitating the good fight. We need you there, cause we know y’all need regular Trader Joe’s wine to deal.
This is the fallout of trying to survive in the apocalypse of what I call a dystrumpian society. A new age of artists of color is emerging. Before the election, we once saw our mutually progressive viewpoint as a passport for welcoming all into our art lives. After the election, we questioned how a pussy grabbing, violence-agitating bigot and his cronies could be in voted into office post the age of the Obamas. We started looking at the voter numbers and saw our White “allies” with a new “wtf how could you let this happen?” lens. The bar for friendship, allyship and kinship was raised in the creative community. The bar for tolerance was lowered.
As a result, new evolving identities have been formed, Kehinde style, with a demand that our daily frame become a gilded image in art and culture. The commodity of Black and Brown identity has exchanged hands with new denominations, language and pass cards. Thick Deep Brown is the new paper bag test; woke bright yellow women like me, because of our akin to an oppressor Caucasian standard, are relieved to no longer be the feminine ideal. Latinos no longer have to speak Spanish to belong, but Spanglish speakers, also like me, better represent authentically if we assimilated our language. Our brethren of Asian descent are leveraging pop culture to flip down “model minority” stereotypes and require a new normalcy for their place in the cultural narrative. Native American artists are standing ground on their land and reclaiming their heritage. We’ve founded quirky creator collectives, DJ groups, art salons, magazines, movies, fashion lines, apps and more to compel the mainstream media to interact with us on our cultural terms. We out here. Out here claiming everything, and it’s about dang time, because it was always equally ours as well in the first place.
In response, some of our White creative friends have became nervous, because for so long we cuddled up to each other to survive as outliers of social norms. Our mutual identity was bonded by that lifestyle in the studio, gallery or museum, but now there are new demarcation lines. Worried that they might be left out, their fear and fragility has become a subtle form of racism, which nobody has time for right now. I think we can all agree that all artists do need each other. Yet when the means are necessary, POC artists must exercise our right to celebrate our narrative exclusively. In the past, when Black and Brown artists and arts admins needed to be leaders of their own images, White ones rarely took a back seat in leadership for us. Yet we did it for them, and still do, all the time.
It’s time for White art leaders to learn when to take several seats. Do it for the culture.
We need to stop cheerleading the leadership that dominates art culture today when it fails to reflect the culture of the community it serves. With a government obliterating art budgets, can we tolerate funding for arts organizations that refuse to acknowledge their privilege and supremacy practices? According to a 2018 snapshot study by Americans for the Arts, 90.7% of arts nonprofit Executive Directors identified as White, with similar stats for most Board Members. Even where I live, Durham, which is considered to be the most multicultural and progressive city in North Carolina, is no exception. Since that national study, there has been an industry-wide investment effort to develop leadership in this area, but it has a long way to go until all of us, regardless of race, win.
So how do we accelerate change on the horizon in this dystrumpian apocalypse? I say we need to start with a new litmus test of the acidity of privilege and imperialism in the art world. A guide that can become part of a type of “no-fly” list level of ground rules for interactions in the art world. (reaches in pocket…oh wait, I’ve got one right here!)
A POCket Guide Of What You Cannot Bring Aboard As An Art Ally:
- No, allies and patrons, you may not bring insulting micro-aggressions into the studio. We are working professionals who require your respect, no matter how innocent your intention summary may be later.
- No, White leaders, you may not facilitate that lecture about artists of color without making a genuine effort for representation and expertise on the subject.
- No, arts orgs, you may not continually have a White-led nonprofit Board in an urban community based on the excuse of not being able to identify qualified candidates to lead.
- No, gallery owners and curators, you may not have an all-White staff to docent about artists of color and make money discussing our art work with your face alone both leading and in the audience.
- No, White artists, talented as you may be, you may not put our images in your work and make money from it from art exhibitions without a process of real interaction, dialogue and discussion with us before, during and after.
- No, everyone, including fellow POC, you may not talk over us, dismiss us, or infantilize the next generation for loudly speaking truth to power.
- And finally, no, you may not express being tired of hearing about rules 1–6 until we no longer have to experience it.
If you are feeling burdened by this list, take a moment to do some self-examination and phone a POC friend. (Please, don’t email them. Don’t chat. Chats don’t change the conversation. They turn into arguments using angry Beyonce gifs and emojis.) Ask if you have ever been this person to them. Don’t defend: just listen, acknowledge and heal it. Then grow, together.
With each new post in this series, I want to hold this pair of golden scissors to cut and collage this art shit anew.
That is what led me to create ArtGurney. This is the first article of what I am hoping ArtGurney will be for you, the reader. A journal that reflects a collage of the apocalyptic struggle and challenges of all working artists, regardless of race, but from the lens of my own diverse cultural background. Yes, there will be a bit of humor and bite from time to time, but that’s just like life itself. At the end of every post, I will share an ArtGurney “art call.” It is a call to action for yourself or as a leader in your creative community. Turn it into an art project, a group salon, a meeting (gasp!) or a moment of self-care.
Here is the theme of the first Art Call: Lose Your Fear. This is a call to all artists and organizational leaders who can affect real change. It’s time to get out of the Matrix and celebrate the real. Commit to stop working in creative fear and start actively working in creative joy. It will be difficult, but our dilemma will continue if we are disingenuous about removing the obstacles that impede our path. With the larger monster of gentrification, government policies, hatred and violence chasing us out, our art lives are literally at stake right now. Let’s all lose our chains.