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After Erin Morrison finished her Master of Fine Arts degree in 2014, she found a studio in a complex shared entirely by women. She built out the walls with floor-to-ceiling sheetrock, then learned she was pregnant. Morrison had already prepaid her rent until the month after her due date. When her son turned one month old, she started bringing him to the studio. Two weeks later, the building manager told Morrison she felt the baby should not be there, reporting that the other women deemed the child a “distraction.”
In talking about artists and parenting, the word “distraction” comes up a lot. Curators, residency directors, gallerists, art professors, and other artists all gravitate to that word when they talk about the issue with artists having kids. I am the primary caretaker of my two young children, and no lie, raising them puts challenging parameters around studio time. Productivity requires large helpings of discipline and focus, not to mention an ability to concentrate while keeping an eye on the clock. There is just no getting around it: Raising children reduces studio time. But in truth, it is rare for an artist to do nothing but make art, because most artists support themselves with other work. Ragen Moss, whose work was shown in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, works as an attorney while maintaining her art practice, and is herself the mother of a young child. Romare Bearden spanned over three decades as a social worker, making his collages nights and weekends. Many celebrated artists work as university professors, including Catherine Opie, Barbara Kruger, and Charles Gaines, just to name a few in Los Angeles, where I live.
The taboo against family restricts who can be validated as an artist. Our cultural fantasy that an artist must embody pure id is an idea that only the childless fulfil honorably, because their self-centered behavior inflicts little collateral damage upon innocents. Jean Michel Basquiat exemplifies this ideal; Elizabeth Murray, a mother of three, does not. The romanticized archetype of the selfish, solitary genius insists that artists reflect society from an estranged position, from the outside, presuming that consciousness arises only from alienation. This formulation is ur-patriarchal, because women are conceived as embedded within domestic labor, distracted, unable to criticize or analyze, and thus lacking a subjectivity from which to formulate ideas.
COVID-19 demolished the canard that serious work is incompatible with family life. We can no longer entertain the illusion that raising children requires a total sacrifice of any other endeavor. The pandemic’s interruption of virtually all forms of childcare and education made clear that work must be integrated with family life. The office is now the living room, the dining room, or at best a study off to the side, with a door that is difficult to keep closed.
Ruth Asawa managed a household of six children while making her iconic woven wire sculptures. In “San Francisco Housewife and Mother,” curator Helen Molesworth’s essay in the monograph Ruth Asawa Life’s Work, Molesworth asks the question:
What if instead of insisting that women artists be judged by the same formal parameters as their male counterparts we ask instead what the terms “mother” – or even the more scandalous, and typically pejorative “housewife” – might have to teach us about being an artist? What does a housewife-artist look like?
Molesworth implies an answer: the artist who raises children and keeps a home is not distracted, but rather focused by engagement in social life and family intimacy. Artist Julian Hoeber recalled to me that one of his professors, Stephen Prina, used to say during graduate school critiques, “Never underestimate the value of a distraction,” meaning that what you think is an obstacle will feed your art if you allow it. These insights suggest that Molesworth is wrong about one thing: We don’t need a separate set of “formal parameters” to judge artists who are raising their children. Artist-homemakers make work at the highest level — just ask Alice Neel.
Prohibitions against family are imposed not only upon artists but on institutional gatekeepers as well. Independent curator Jessica Hough told me that when she was accepted to the Getty Leadership Institute in 2006 — she phoned the program coordinator (a woman), and said “I’m so excited; what have previous fellows done with their kids when they come?” The coordinator replied, “Those people generally decide not to come; this may not be the right program for you.” Over a decade later, Hough still views family as a “forbidden topic” in the art apparatus, and she avoids mentioning her children unless there is a cue to tell her it’s safe. And with good reason: In 2017, curator Nikki Columbus was hired at MOMA PS1, but when the museum learned that Columbus had just given birth the offer was withdrawn. She sued, the parties settled in 2019, and Klaus Biesenbach, director of Museum of Modern Art PS1 at the time, departed to Museum of Contemporary Art, LA.
Confronted with the loss of her studio, Morrison considered legal action, but in the end rejected that option. The studio manager insisted she pay an extra month even as they kicked her out. This story is hardly unique. The Woman’s Building, a renowned Los Angeles incubator for feminist art from 1973 to 1991, allowed dogs in studios but not children. It’s easy to understand why 20th-century feminist artists felt threatened by the presence of kids. These pioneers were cutting a new path, and everything to do with traditional female roles was potentially threatening. Their militancy was the price of freedom for all of us today. But now we should use this freedom to embrace, as scholar and playwright Lisa B. Thompson put it to me in conversation, “our full humanity.” There is no one way to be an artist, there is no one way to raise children, and we are free to do both at the same time.
Art by Athena LaTocha, Wendy Red Star, Marianne Nicolson, Anita Fields, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith & Neal Ambrose-Smith, and more is on view through January 2022.
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