Blog / 2018 / Artists Who Work for Universities Are Very Different from Artists Who Don’t.

July 2, 2018

Hurt feelings and happy ones. That’s what the statement caused:

Artists who work for universities are very different from artists who don’t.

Posting this short phrase to Facebook provoked strong emotions in my artist community, and that surprised me, but, more than that, I was shocked by where the response took me.

I found myself considering my infertility again.

painted portrait of good friends with a garden in the background
Gwenn Seemel
Smile-talkers
2015
acrylic on canvas
30 x 44 inches
(For more about Gabe’s art, go here.)

To be fair, my childfree status has been on my mind recently. In the last few months, family members have joined with the US government in turning up the pressure to procreate. Still, the argument that institutional artists aren’t that different from independent ones—or the idea that institutional artists know what it’s like to be independent—looks a lot like the breeder/barren disputes.

For example, some parents say that, because they didn’t have kids until their 30s, they know what it’s like to be childfree as an adult. They believe they have experienced both parenthood and the childfree life. But they haven’t, and they can’t.

If a childfree person can’t know what it’s like to be a parent—and we really can’t—then the opposite is also true. Childfree adults aren’t simply overgrown 20 year olds. We have experiences and responsibilities as childfree adults that parents will never understand.

painted portrait of Ella Jaroszewicz
Gwenn Seemel
Ella Jaroszewicz
2004
acrylic on canvas
19 x 18 inches
(For more about Ella’s art, go here.)

The same is true of artists who work for institutions. I’ll never know all the challenges they face. I recognize that their take on the money/time balance is different from mine—and also that their regular paycheck comes at a price. I sense that a person needs a specific kind of courage and generosity to coach young artists day in and day out. And I can imagine the aggravation of office politics, but I can’t ever comprehend the toll it takes.

By that same token, institutional artists cannot understand the independent life. Like many parents who romanticize the childfree person’s existence, institutional artists project their early independent experiences onto longtime independent artists, even though the adventures of the 20 something indie just don’t add up to anything resembling the reality of the committed independent artist.

Non-institutional artists are barred from many opportunities, large and small, because institutions promote among themselves and generally favor their own. This is a fact, and it sucks. It sucks almost as much as the judgment I receive from many parents and from society as a whole when it’s discovered that I’m childfree.

a young white woman with curly hair, painted in bright colors and bold strokes
Gwenn Seemel
Kaity Gmitter
2018
acrylic on panel
7 x 5 inches
(For more about Kaity’s art, go here.)

All that said, in the end, it turns out that institutional artists and independent ones may have more in common than I thought.

When I originally posted on Facebook, I was having an “everybody else has it easier than me” kind of moment. And, while I feel a little sheepish about that now, I admit that I am relieved to see that the institutional artists feel it too. That makes me want to be gentler with them and with myself.


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