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Even in the best of times, most writers I know do not support themselves with just their writing. They teach, work day jobs at tech start-ups, or as bookkeepers, or have some side hustle. (I do video editing.) Sometimes writing is the side hustle — the thing you dream about doing full time. If only we lived in a country that properly funded the arts.
I’ll be honest: Before I received the call that I had been awarded the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, in late 2019, I was starting to have doubts about whether or not I could hack it as an art writer. Who am I to call myself a critic? I would think. I have no background as a visual artist. I did not study art history. I had been an English major who wound up working in film and television for the last 10 years.
Prior to receiving the grant, I had been covering exhibitions — primarily in New York City where I live, and featuring Asian and Asian-diasporic artists — regularly for about three years. During that time, I had applied three times for the grant. While unsuccessful that first year, my application ended up being selected for AICA-USA’s Art Writing Workshop, a partner program that provided much-welcomed mentoring from former ARTnews editor Robin Cembalest. I was such a newb. Robin gave me a necessary crash course: from shepherding me around to the different art fairs, to reminding me to sign the guest book whenever I enter a gallery (something I still forget to do).
During those years, as an emerging writer desperate for bylines, I took abysmally low-paying gigs. If I totaled all the invoices for every review, artist interview, and essay I’ve ever written, the amount to date still wouldn’t come close to equaling the check sent to me by Creative Capital, who administers the grant. It is the largest sum of money I have ever received for my writing — and it actually sustained me.
What that money gave me was the chance to prioritize my writing — something that I wish didn’t feel like a privilege but does because writing does not pay my rent. The money also gave me the encouragement I needed to keep going. To put it another way, it allowed me not to have to worry about money while I pursued the project I had proposed in my application: writing about the problematic but alluring concept of an “Asian aesthetic.” This became the basis of “The Aesthetic Project of Remaking ‘Yellow’ Identity,” an essay I’d fantasized about writing since I first began thinking about art. It took nearly nine months from the date I initially pitched the idea to my editor for it to be published — a luxurious amount of time to get the piece right. The essay came out in Asia Art Archive’s online journal IDEAS in April, at the height of the lockdown in New York City.
In a year when very little in the art world happened (at least not in person) the usual writing opportunities all but dried up. When possible, I wrote about virtual exhibitions. But I came nowhere near meeting the pace of publication I was used to in previous years. In light of the pandemic, had it not been for the grant, I might have taken those long, dark days during quarantine to reevaluate working in this field: the insulting compensation, the gatekeeping, the capricious nature of media outlets, and their opaque accounts payable departments. I probably would have pivoted away from writing about art or given it up entirely. Having a safety net to fall back on during a year like this one revealed to me how it’s crucial to support artists and writers not only when times are good, but when times are bad.
I feel grateful for the support that has been given to me and acknowledge the privileges that I had to begin with. But I wonder how many current and potential art writers are out there in need of this kind of support — especially those whose voices are traditionally marginalized, overlooked, or diminished in the mainstream? As a volunteer editor for a nonprofit literary magazine that publishes creative writing in all genres and art in all media, I continue to think about how to pay it forward. Now I dream about what real equity and inclusion in not only art criticism but all forms of writing might actually look like.