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.

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