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In hell’s innermost circle, exhausted parents search eternally for tiny Lego pieces needed to complete rocket ships, houses, and robots. This particular corner of Hades has been my home since the arrival of COVID-19. While artists without children post images of themselves making more work than ever, I and other artist parents I know are struggling to find time and energy for the studio at night, or working on the kitchen table while keeping an eye on the kids, or making no work at all.
Like all primary caregivers, since March I have simultaneously run a home school, a restaurant, and a hyperactive playground that occasionally becomes a boxing ring. The coronavirus challenges the canard that art (and all work) requires a devotion incompatible with family life. The virus also demolishes the corollary: that raising children requires the sacrifice of all else. With the quarantine’s interruption of virtually all forms of childcare and education, we acknowledge as never before that professional work must be somehow integrated with family life.
Artist-parents have always faced unique challenges. Art careers are forged in an informal economy where personal networks generate opportunities for exhibitions and introductions to curators, collectors, and other important players. It can be of major importance to be present at the right parties and openings, and to build relationships with other artists by visiting their studios. But for people with young children, it has always been a problem to attend openings that primarily occurred at night, and now, without schools or daycare, it requires new levels of innovation to make any art at all. The problems of working at home with children are now faced by parents in virtually every industry.
In 1992, M/E/A/N/I/N/G magazine produced a forum titled “On Motherhood, Art, and Apple Pie,” in which artist-mothers were asked to discuss their experience. Multimedia artist Myrel Chernick wrote: “There is little time left to make contacts, go to openings, call and meet people, arrange studio visits, those things that are necessary to keep oneself visible, to be considered for shows.” Twenty-eight years later, I found myself in the same situation before COVID-19 struck, and whenever the art scene is able to fully reopen I will remain in this situation, along with most other artist-parents I know.
There is an awful saying: you can either be a good artist or a good mother, but you can’t be both. In an episode of Recording Artists, a series produced by the Getty Research Institute, artist Simone Leigh comments, “I was aware that the world was interested in shaming me at every turn for being an artist and a mother at the same time.” Mary Kelly’s renowned “Post-Partum Document” (1975) (a six-part conceptual series focused on Kelly’s relationship with her young son) deals with her guilt about continuing her career while also raising a child. These are powerful conflicts stemming not only from cultural attitudes, but from the fact that each day offers only 24 hours, which is usually not enough.
In the popular imagination, artists are not supposed to be responsible parents, changing diapers, and picking up their kids from school on time. Mainstream culture wants artists to be the romanticized “other”: shamans, enfants terrible, drug- and alcohol-fueled selfish geniuses who play the foil to a stable workaday existence. Our archetypes are the childless Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, or Picasso, whose concerns revolved primarily around himself.
This iconography is part and parcel of patriarchal oppression, serving as a firewall to keep women out of the fine arts and the professional world in general. Women are put on the pedestal of motherhood in order to keep them there, out of men’s way. Professional discrimination against pregnant women in all fields is well documented, including within the art apparatus.
When women become mothers, their artistic futures are far more likely to be questioned than when men become fathers, because it’s assumed that the father is not taking care of the kids anyway. In “The Motherload,” a 2018 essay for KCET’s Artbound, activist and artist Micol Hebron wrote: “I have heard countless stories of what happens to women artists when they become pregnant or declare that they are starting a family: galleries drop them from their rosters […] exhibitions get postponed or canceled.”
Sometimes, even the gallerist gets bitten: In his book BOOM, Michael Shnayerson reports that when Marianne Boesky was pregnant in 2006, her artist Takashi Murakami left her for the childless Larry Gagosian, declaring, “You’re lactating, you can’t be my business partner.” Journalist and editor Jori Finkel puts it well in her documentary Artist and Mother when she says, “motherhood is the last taboo in contemporary art.”
Today, family structures are fluid and take many forms. It is no longer unusual for fathers to be deeply involved in child-raising, and both parents often work. There are families like mine, in which the father fills the role of primary caretaker, and there are families with two fathers, two mothers, single parents, and everything in between. Without question, artist-mothers still suffer discrimination most acutely, but we are all in this trap together, and it is time to broaden our thinking about how to dismantle it.
There are too many conditions of being an artist-parent to discuss in just one essay, so I will limit myself here to examining one specific zone of difficulty: residencies. I began writing this just before the pandemic arrived, and since the virus took hold, most residencies have been closed. This caesura provides an opportunity to reflect on the ways residency programs both succeed and fail to serve artist-parents adequately, and what possibilities exist for the situation to improve when residencies reopen.
Residencies and the Parent Problem
The art apparatus is designed for people who do not have children at home. Residencies are a prime example. Artist residencies and travel grants facilitate extended focus that helps generate a body of work. They are also excellent ways to meet other artists, writers, and curators that can help further a career. But residencies are predicated on the idea that an artist can just pack up and disappear for months at a time, even a year or more.
“I had to turn down four different residencies last year,” artist Amir H. Fallah told me, “my son is four years old and my wife has a full-time job.” Artist Umar Rashid is in a similar position: “My wife works, I cook the meals, and it would be far too large a strain on our family for me to leave for a four-month residency. I was once gone for Fountainhead’s month-long residency,” Rashid laughed, “and my wife let me know it will never happen again, which I understand.”
Most residencies in the US do not offer support for families, though there is a small number that tries. The Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, California offers a “Family House,” but this still assumes the artist can find somebody to take care of the kids. When artist Ellen Lesperance won the residency’s Chiaro award in 2017, she used the funds to buy her friends plane tickets to Headlands and pay them to babysit. She called the staff and community there “exceptionally supportive.” The Elizabeth Murray Artist Residency Program also offers one-week residencies for families (appropriately, given that Murray raised three kids of her own), but again, this doesn’t work if someone is not available to spend a week caring for the children.
When Lesperance was a finalist at the John Michael Kohler Arts/Industry residency in 2013, the staff voiced concern about whether she would have time to work and what her kids would be doing. “They had tons of questions about my kids,” Lesperance told me. “I didn’t get the residency, but it went to my male friend who also has kids, and he told me he was never asked a single question about his children.”
Faythe Levine, the program director of the Arts/Industry Program since 2018, sighed when she heard this story. “I believe this would not have happened with our current selection process,” Levine said. “I take an individualized view of what constitutes a successful residency.” She added, “It is the artist’s role to define those parameters, not ours, so if three hours a day in the studio is a success for a particular artist, I support that.”
Most residencies are not so flexible. Djerassi’s former executive director, Margot Knight (she stepped down over the summer and has not yet been replaced) told Hyperallergic, “We have a policy of no overnights for spouses nor any children except for day visits,” and added, “we have rattlesnakes and gullies. We once had to refuse an artist who was accepted but wanted to come with their baby.” Knight described the residential accommodations as somewhat communal, a situation in which she feels that children would disturb the experience of the residents, which Knight wanted to be “joyous and productive.”
Artist Andrea Chung had a mixed experience at the McColl Center residency in 2013, where they welcomed family and she brought her three-month-old son. Her husband came, her father, and even one staff person’s daughter watched her son. “However, a well-known female curator was also there,” Chung told me, “who said my son was a distraction, which was really hard to take on top of my post-partum depression.” Another artist at McColl confided to Chung that being childless was a big regret, but she had been too afraid of not having a career.
In 1971, at the first meeting of women artists in LA (which we named the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists), June Wayne [founder of the Tamarind Institute] went into the bedroom and saw my paintings. After the meeting, she asked if I’d like to go to Tamarind. I said, “What’s that?” She explained it was a two-month residency program in lithography at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. I said, “Oh, I could never leave my husband and child!” Almost immediately afterward, I regretted it and felt like a jerk. A few days later, I attended my weekly consciousness-raising gathering (the women were not artists, they were in different professions and stages of life). They all started to yell at me at once, “Call her back, and tell her you want to do it!” So I went. We put Nik, who was almost three, in a daycare program and stayed in a motel (in those days, they would not rent apartments to people with children or animals in Albuquerque!). I evolved a new process in the lithographs, by drawing each color passage with different textures, dots, and dashes, and that led directly into pattern, which changed my art.
Kozloff was fortunate that her son was not yet in school and her husband’s work allowed him to go with her (he is an art historian and critic). But the reality is that for many artist-parents, relocating for two months is simply impossible.
“I think residencies are getting better at recognizing families, but they don’t consider childcare,” Chung explained. “One residency offered me $100,” remembered Chung, “and I was like ‘what am I going to do with $100?’ I had to give it up because it would have cost me too much to go and put my son in childcare, and this was during a month designated for families, but it was totally not realistic.”
“Normally, I only apply for one- to three-week residencies, which leaves few options because most everything is two to six months,” artist Tony de los Reyes pointed out. He described how he put off all residencies for 12 years until his kids were old enough that their care became less time-consuming. When he went to Anderson Ranch in 2018, his parents (who live nearby) lent a lot of support and his wife rearranged her schedule. De los Reyes recalled that at a residency which hosts 14 artists at a time, he “was one of only two people at Anderson Ranch with kids under 18.”
The chair of the Artists in Residence program at Anderson Ranch, Elizabeth Ferril (whose baby was on her lap throughout our phone call) explained that “We are exploring the possibility of a family program — we do not have one at the moment, though it has been suggested to us by previous residents and visiting critics. It is becoming more popular to have that offered, and it is an exciting thing to explore.”
Searching for Solutions
How can we begin to make residencies more accessible to artist-parents? For starters, there are organizations like the Sustainable Arts Foundation (SAF), which in 2013 began providing grants to residencies “designed to encourage residency programs to make their opportunities more accessible to parent artists and writers.” A total of 24 grants were awarded in 2020 and 19 the year prior. In 2016, Kohler received an SAF grant which supported residencies for three artist-parents. Djerassi received SAF funding in 2013, allowing three residents in the alumni program to pay for the childcare they needed in order temporarily leave home. The SAF effort is certainly laudable, though one grant can only go so far. Moreover, many of the most prestigious residencies have rarely received the grant — precisely those residencies that parents might consider important enough for their careers to justify leaving family behind, like the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, or the Headlands Center.
I asked Tony Grant, co-director of SAF, why the best-known residencies are not receiving funding. “We ask residencies to welcome parents explicitly on their websites,” Grant explained, “for example, making it clear that childcare is a legitimate expense they would consider for financial aid.” According to Grant, Yaddo and MacDowell have both declined to take this approach, and so have not received grants recently. The relatively small sums currently provided by SAF (up to about $6K) are not compelling to long-established, well-funded residencies, and the foundation is interested in supporting lower and mid-tier programs to help them develop. These dynamics may relegate artist-parents to less well-known residencies that receive SAF funding for childcare and related expenses, denying artist-parents the career benefits of residencies with venerable reputations.
At present, residencies that support parents follow one of two models: a few provide on-site day camps or other care for children (SPACE on Ryder Farm in New York, Marble House Project in Vermont), and others find funds to offer childcare stipends so that somebody can look after the kids at home while the artist-parent is away. Not all innovations cost money. Grant pointed out that some accommodations merely require flexibility: break a monthlong residency into four one-week sessions; add welcoming language to the website indicating a willingness to work with parents to make a residency possible; create parent handbooks listing all the local resources available for children.
Stories like Lesperance’s and Chung’s make clear that the problems involved in artist-residencies are not merely logistical, they are cultural as well. Children are too often seen as a distraction, fundamentally in contradiction with a residency’s mission. This attitude seems left over from the high modernist idea of artistic purity, in which art and life are separate, a notion that has not withstood the test of time.
Ironically, for all these obstacles, having children is in reality a creative boon. In my own experience, having children has made my work lighter in its sensibility, more playful in its form and color, and deeper in its explorations. Consider also Catherine Opie’s stunning 2004 “Self Portrait/Nursing”; Dana Schutz’s paintings of childbirth; Tala Madani’s 2019 exhibition Shit Moms; Ruby Sky Stiler’s 2018 exhibition Fathers; Matt Bollinger’s tender images of dads with their children (many of them self-portraits with his own daughter); Paul McCarthy’s dark 1987 video “Family Tyranny/Cultural Soup”; and Loie Hollowell’s recent abstractions of her pregnant belly, breasts, and genitals, made during and after pregnancy.
Surprisingly, beyond parenting’s rushes of inspiration, it is also a counterintuitive windfall to productivity. “I love being a mom,” said Lesperance. “My productivity is much higher because I have children, no time is wasted at all because it is so precious and evaporates constantly.” Fallah agrees: “When I had a kid I felt the need to kick it into hyperdrive, I applied for everything (public art, grants), followed every possible lead, doubled down out of terror at the need to provide for my son.” The most recent generations of artists are the first to insist that they can be fully engaged in both making art and having children. When will the rest of the art world catch up?
In the coming year, vaccines will hopefully become available, allowing residency programs to resume operations. When this happens, artist-parents should demand that residencies make room for their participation.