Monday, July 18, 2016

Who Cares for Whom? Parenthood in the Creative Community

Alberto Aguilar, Rest Area (Museo Picasso Barcelona), 2011

The Atlantic magazine has just bafflingly proclaimed the arts “A Field Where Working Moms Aren’t Punished” just a few months after New York Magazine published Kim Brooks’ essay with the provocative tagline “Is Parenthood the Enemy of Creative Work?” (a subtitle that was recently amended.) While many of us would be hard pressed to describe the arts as a supportive field from which to combine family and career, we also resist the long-held belief that the two are incompatible. Parenthood can be profound and generative. It can also, let’s be honest, be incredibly complicated to pursue a creative career while raising a family. It is also difficult to maintain an artistic practice while coping with a serious health concern, caring for an aging parent, dealing with political oppression, or any of the other situations that intersect our lives as human beings who make art.  Yet some of the most powerful art ever made has come from those living in the thick of challenging experiences.

Courtney Kessel, In Balance With, 2010
Unlike other professions, artmaking often happens in the (unpaid) time between other responsibilities, which means it’s the first thing to be pushed aside when any semblance of free time disappears. But here’s where being creative comes in. Eventually, when we’re ready, we invent new systems of production, we adapt creative practices to work in short bursts instead of long hours, we call on friends and family for help. We think and read and plan for a time when we’ll have more time.

So the making, it will happen. But what to do when we find ourselves excluded from artist residencies or dropped by galleries at the mention of small children? Or more subtly, when we find vast numbers of cultural events inaccessible once we’ve created another person, or come to take care of one? Why should this isolate us so profoundly from our artistic communities?

One response to structural and social problems is to work collectively. This has led to a growing number of projects including Enemies of Good Art (UK), the Mothership Project (IR), Broodwork (USA), (m)other voices (NL), Home Affairs (USA) Invisible Spaces of Parenthood (UK), and Cultural ReProducers (USA), a creative platform I have run since 2012. These groups create an important solidarity and a critical mass.  But reaching out can be daunting when you’re juggling personal and professional responsibilities on a whole new level.


Creating systems of support can also happen one artist at a time. There’s plenty we can do as individuals that adds up to better conditions for all artists. On the surface there might seem to be few models for art world success for anyone raising a child. The autonomous (male) genius working late into the night is a pervasive ideal, even as diverse collaborative and social practices flourish.  Women have often kept their personal lives undercover to be taken seriously as artists, so while many have also been mothers, you’d never know without some digging. In an increasingly professionalized art scene it might still seem inappropriate to bring up family if it’s not the focus of your work. But owning our roles as artists raising children can shift assumptions and create space for parenthood as one of many possible options. Many of these ideas focus specifically on mothers or parents in general, but it should go without saying here that similar tactics can be applied to include the voices of other groups as well.

Sonja Thomsen, Trace of Possibility (installation view), 2013
* Mention parenthood during an artist talk. A few brief words on the challenges of reconfiguring studio time or seeing things from a new perspective can have a profound impact, making parenthood seem possible, realistic, and visible. While it is typically less damaging to the reputations of male-identified artists, it’s still rare to hear a father discuss his role as caregiver. Parental roles are changing, and these conversations matter.

* Acknowledge the impact of raising a child when applying for residencies and funding where it’s relevant. When they’re writing proposals, the performative duo Spectralina (Selina Trepp & Dan Bitney) put it this way:

We are committed to being creative and engaged with the world while making sure that this includes our daughter. Having her in our life influences our outlook and thus also our creative output. Our art is inspired by our reality, as most art is. We see her inclusion in our creative life as a cultural and political position. It is important that what is represented in the culture industry isn’t limited to the experience of single people; or to people who can afford and want a nanny; or to men who have wives who take care of their kids in the background. Art should be at the forefront of social change, and in that capacity it should offer models which allow for artist families to be visible and supported.

* Depending on timing and temperament, bring the kids to art events usually populated exclusively by adults. This can be far more stressful than staying home or digging into the budget for a sitter, but under the right circumstances it can benefit everyone involved. If you have a friend with kids (or a friend who likes kids), see if you can take turns to share the experience with family but still connect with other adults.

Sonia Delaunay, Couverture de Berceau, 1911
courtesy of the artist and Musée d'Art Moderne
* Know your foremothers, and reference them. Sonia Delaunay’s formative work of pure abstraction was a baby quilt made for her newborn son in 1911. Lea Lublin moved a crib into the Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris to perform ‘mon Fils’ in 1968, caring for her seven-month-old son in public for the run of the exhibition. Housebound with a newborn, Candida Alvarez painted on linen napkins, a practice that still informs her vibrant work. Stories like these have been buried by years of taboo and gendered hierarchy. In her recent book Mothernism, Lise Haller Baggesen calls for a repositioning of motherhood as a place of experience and indeed expertise, a valid point from which to speak:

What I am asking for here, I guess, is for mothers to occupy spaces and conversations within art and academia, to claim a voice, many voices, to speak within and against the canon, to reflect on the complexities of mothering and motherhood within that context.

* Reschedule. Timing is a practical barrier that can be hard to understand without the experience of early parenthood. The events through which an artist builds connections to their creative community – opening receptions, lectures, performances – almost always take place in the evening, in the midst of some precarious dinner-bedtime ritual. Last year I noticed several shows at prominent galleries in my city had openings scheduled for 2pm on a Saturday instead of the usual Friday night thing. Had the stars aligned? If so it was just because the exhibiting artists asked for a time that worked better for them. For at least one, it was so that his partner and two young children could join him for the event.

* Reconfigure. Beyond scheduling, there are other ways to make art spaces accessible to participants of all ages. The Ottawa Art Gallery recently announced it will pilot free childcare at art openings this year. Plug Projects in Kansas City, MO, sets aside a quiet, informal space in back with markers and coloring books so that parents can nurse or chat while their overstimulated kids take a break from the crowded intensity of the opening. This is also the room where the cold drinks are kept, so everyone passes through at least once. It’s a simple fix that can lower everyone’s blood pressure and allow people with different needs to participate.

* Ask what you’ll be paid. The question of how to financially sustain our creative lives is an issue
that affects all artists. When an artist is invited to do a visiting artist lecture or develop a new project, they're not doing it for ‘free’ if they have to pay a childcare provider or negotiate with a family member. Setting guidelines for compensation not only helps to support one's own work, it helps set a precedent for treating other artists fairly. Be specific and ask if there’s money to help cover childcare or production costs. By asking, you’ve made that part of the equation visible. 

Many of us also work with artist-run spaces that have no budget to speak of, run by creative people who are happy to support artists in other ways. While artist fees are sometimes just not possible, some spaces can offer professional photo or video documentation, while others might have part of an apartment to house your family out of town, or give access to specialized equipment.  Being clear about what we need and how we can support each other allows us to build stronger creative community.

For sliding scale fee calculators and other great resources for artists and art spaces visit CARFAC (Canada), W.A.G.E. (USA) , and Paying Artists (UK).  

 Christa Donner, grant proposal sketch for the Cultural ReProducers Event Series, 2013

Christa Donner is a multimedia artist who investigates the human/animal body and its metaphors. She is the founder of Cultural ReProducers. This essay is published in partnership with Temporary Art Review, an international platform for contemporary art criticism that focuses on alternative spaces and critical exchange among disparate art communities.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Making It: the Artist-Parent Index

This summer we're pleased to partner with Temporary Art Review to share the work of cultural workers raising kids with a broader audience. Temporary Art Review is an international platform for contemporary art criticism that focuses on alternative spaces and critical exchange among disparate art communities. They're profiling projects that support the work of artist-parents, and we suggested the Artist-Parent Index, an evolving database of artists making work about their experience as parents: 

Address: Virginia, USA
Contact: Sarah Irvin
Email: info (at)

How is the project operated?
 The Artist Parent Index is an artist-run project.

How long has it been in existence? 
The website launched in January, 2016.

What was your motivation?
 I created the Index to advance the discourse on parenthood in the visual arts through a topically searchable database. I wanted to provide a way for people to easily find artists creating work about their experiences as parents.

Number of organizers/responsible persons of the project:
 I run the project independently now, but I had a work study student, Michelle Jose, through George Mason University for the first 6 months.

How are programs funded? 
I am personally funding the project, but Michelle’s temporary position was funded through the Work Study program at Mason.

Who is responsible for the programming?
 Currently, just me (Sarah Irvin).

Number and average duration of exhibitions/events per year: The site is a continually growing database of artists, exhibitions and organizations. Right now, there are over 100 entries and I am constantly adding more.

Do you accept proposals/submissions?
 Yes, the index is open to include any artist creating auto-ethnographic work about parenthood. You can submit to info (at) or through our submissions page.

What is your artistic/curatorial approach?
 My approach is thematic, focusing on visual artists
creating work on parenthood. My goal is to create an exhaustive resource of artists and exhibitions focusing on parenthood as well as the organizations supporting these artists. I think of it as an inclusive global map of artistic activity on this theme. Each entry has associated search terms including medium, topic and location. So, if you search using a topic such as “breastfeeding,” a list of artists making work about breastfeeding is generated. The entries themselves mainly serve to get you to the artists’ websites based on your search terms. There is also an interactive map that allows you to search based on location.

What’s working? What’s not working?
 I’ve gotten a great response to the site so far. I’m pleasantly surprised by how many submissions have come in, and some curators have mentioned that they used the site for research. I’ve also received emails from artists interested in making work about parenthood, so connecting with them has been exciting. My main problem is that I have so much

information to add and I am working on this project alone right now. It is exciting though, that there is so much work being made about parenthood. Its a good problem to have.

What kind of role do you hope to play in your local art scene or community? 
My hope is that this is a research tool for artists, curators, and educators. There is a growing global community of artists creating work about parenthood, and I want the site to provide these artists with exposure and exhibition opportunities. 

What idea are you most excited about for the future? 
I like the idea of having so many entries that visitors can’t see the site’s searchable map anymore because it is completely covered in pins.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Ludic Landscapes and Political Parks: Revisiting Aldo Van Eyck in Mexico City

Aldo Van Eyck's first playground, Bertelmanplein, constructed in 1947
In partnership with Temporary Art Review we're pleased to share this essay on the legacy of Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck and the social and political importance of making public space for play. Temporary Art Review is an international platform for contemporary art criticism that focuses on alternative spaces and critical exchange among disparate art communities. 

The Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck once claimed that if cities are not “meant for children they are not meant for citizens either,” and that “If they are not meant for citizens- ourselves- they are not cities.” For Van Eyck, citizenship was intimately linked to play and how city-dwellers interacted with, and constantly formed, the city around them. This is a radical thought — a citizenship based on social engagement and an ongoing search for joy in life (in the city) rather than a citizenship based on national origin or place of birth. To be a citizen is to imagine, explore, and play. In the lean post-WW2 years, Van Eyck took his theories of play and urban life and made them real, designing over 700 playgrounds across the Netherlands. Less than a hundred of these spaces remain but the impetus behind them and the questions they try to answer are more relevant than ever.

The Netherlands in this era was a country, it may be fair to say, obsessed with play. Figures such as Dutch historian Johans Huizinga and artist Constant Nieuwenhuys and avant-garde movements like CoBrA helped found the field. Huizinga, in his seminal 1938 book Homo Ludens, tried defining play by arguing that:

    1.    Play is free, is in fact freedom.
    2.    Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.
    3.    Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.
    4.    Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.
    5.    Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.

Van Boetzelaerstraat, 1961
Where, then, do playgrounds fit into this definition? Does play create playgrounds or do playgrounds create play? Van Eyck grappled with these issues and the rigidity of contemporary playground design. He aimed to create a new form of playground that did not force a single vision of play but rather
served as a theater for the city, offering basic structures to free, not chain, children’s imagination. If the dominant logic of modernist urban planning was to remap and recreate the city — bulldozing and destroying organically created neighborhoods — Van Eyck then intended to work within existing structures and place his playgrounds in often-untraditional places.

A classic Van Eyck playground was, at first glance, strikingly utilitarian. He often centered his playgrounds on a simple sand pit and instead of having large colorful jungle gyms he would place a few concrete blocks, serving as stepping or jumping stones, and simple curved climbing frames. These were often asymmetrical compositions and existed within the city. They were not raised, sunken or walled plazas; Van Eyck tried to use pre-existing spaces like an empty lot or a small intersection to integrate his designs into the surrounding community rather than trying to override it. Even his first playground, Bertelmanplein, embodied these principles. While it at first looks like a simple urban plaza, none of the elements are perfectly centered, rather existing in their own tenuous relationships. These playgrounds were sites of creative potential; there were no cartoonish statues or musical steps, just simple structures that children could transform using the power of play and imagination.

Van Eyck argued that his playgrounds produced space, predicting Lefbevre’s The Production of Space decades before it was written. Van Eyck theorized argued that “whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more. For space in the image of man is place, and time in the image of man is occasion.” While Lefbevre switched the definitions of space and place, the similarity of their thoughts is clear. Van Eyck’s playgrounds sought, to follow his definition, to create places rather than simple spaces and prioritized social value over physical structures. He was also heavily influenced by the philosopher Martin Buber, who famously explored the relationship between “I and thou” (Ich-du). Buber focused on these small, almost unobservable dialogues and mutual exchanged between strangers. Van Eyck integrated Buber’s concept of “ich-du” in his playgrounds, trying to create places of encounter that used play to bridge “I” and “thou.” His playgrounds can be read as engines of radical encounters, creating new places, occasions, and citizenships through the simple act of playing.

Final Model for Riverside Park Playground, 1965
This spring two exhibitions opened in Mexico City that grapple with these issues and deeply resonate with Van Eyck’s designs. The first, The Playgrounds of Noguchi at Museo Tamayo, brings together for the first time a series of designs for unconstructed playgrounds by Isamu Noguchi. Noguchi’s playgrounds are strange landscapes, filled with colorful and geometric concrete forms. Instead of using just swings and slides, Noguchi constructs large concrete forms, ranging from orange trapezoids and chartreuse triangles to serpentine walls. These large versions of his sculptures are liberated and activated through play and, to a certain degree, democratize his practice. Only a few playgrounds were built — such as his Playscapes in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park — and the majority only exist on paper or as small maquettes. His most famous designs are perhaps his series of unfinished proposals for a new playground in New York’s Riverside Park with Louis Kahn, displayed through a series of concrete models. The proposals vary, but they all show a deep interest in elongated sinuous forms that recall prehistoric tumuli. His landscapes ebb and flow, creating dense spaces that cry out to be discovered in a similar, if less utilitarian, way to the playgrounds of Van Eyck. Further, both often include simple details — like plain concrete forms — instead of elaborate jungle gyms. Yet, they are also always divorced from their surroundings, either by walls or artificial hills; these playgrounds exist in spite of, not because of, the city and are in many ways the opposite of Van Eyck’s small, more discrete interventions. Finally, the exhibition includes a small reconstruction of a set of his swings and concrete blocks.

Parque Experimental El Eco, APRDELESP
The second, Parque Experimental El Eco, by architectural firm APRDELESP at Museo Experimental El Eco, creates “a space within another space” that transforms the institutional setting of the museum into a democratic “park” where anyone can hold an event. While not a traditional playground in the sense of Noguchi’s or Van Eyck’s designs — there are no jungle gyms, sandboxes, or traditional playground accoutrements — the space carries on Van Eyck’s project. Parque Experimental El Eco is completely open to the public and anyone can, through a website, schedule their own event. The space consists of a grass-filled courtyard, complete with barbecue grills, tables and an inflatable pool, inserting a quotidian backyard scene into the museum. It fulfills, in many ways, Van Eyck’s goals; a few objects in a plain setting unleash the imagination and its public nature creates the possibility of chance encounters and new unforeseen dialogues between “I” and  “Thou.” Although the project is not directed towards children like a traditional playground, its sparseness and desire to create new forms of citizenship, albeit through an art museum rather than the city at large, certainly echoes Van Eyck’s goals.

Even if these playgrounds, playscapes and parks use play to create new sets of social relationships and, potentially, to democratize the city and its cultural institutions, they are not all equally
Parque Experimental El Eco, APRDELESP
democratic. Mexico City, like most others, does not have equal access to parkland or playgrounds across its 16 delegations. Azcapotzalco and Iztapalapa have less than half the green space per resident than Miguel Hidalgo, where Museo Tamayo is located. Even Noguchi’s parks — like his designs for Riverside Park — were marquee playgrounds in wealthier areas. If we imagine that Van Eyck’s thesis is correct, and that play and child-focused urban design is central to citizenship, then this is a damning conclusion as inequalities in play become inequalities in citizenship. Informal playgrounds and play exist, of course, everywhere. But true playgrounds exist as social and political theaters even if this facet is all too often lost in questions of aesthetics, and the radical potential of playgrounds should not be ignored.

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Henry Osman is an independent curator and writer based between New York and Mexico City. He debut book, Privacidad Total/Total Privacy, was published in February with Gato Negro Ediciones. He is an editor at Drippy Mag and he has recently curated shows at Preteen Gallery (Mexico City) and Free Paarking (St Louis).