Once upon a time artists mostly produced art. These days, however, artists are supposed to put on shows; curate shows; deal with media, with marketing, with galleries (and with gallerists!), with designing their own websites, with photographing their work, with not dressing like a slob, with paying rent for both their apartment and their studio; buy supplies for their art; do their own carpentry; know their own cultural context; understand art history; be hip to whatever current famous European philosopher is popular (was Derrida, now it’s Slavoj Žižek); be aware of what’s going on in the art scene (extra points for knowing what’s going on in the literary scene, too); maybe speak at least one other language (two is better — and having basic working knowledge of a guitar or piano is another plus); be able to outdrink other artists and, if need be, have enough stamina to stay up all night at parties. Oh, and to be really popular, an artist should be a good cook and throw fun dinner parties (hint: chicken is universally liked, as well as homemade bread, and lots of booze, if possible).
As you get older, throw in the need for a decent job to pay the bills so you can make your art, learn to jog or get into that weird fake rock climbing stuff they do at some gyms, get a dog or a cat, be able to discuss important books like Moby Dick, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Love in the Time of Cholera, Infinite Jest, and Being and Time. It’s enough to drive you crazy.
If you get your MFA and then are lucky enough to get a teaching job, well then, get ready — not only is there almost no job security, but most art schools don’t pay that well for part-time teachers. Expect to run around and maybe teach at two or three schools at a time as you build up your teaching résumé. Of course, for that you’ll need a car. And the car will need gas. But if you don’t get your teaching experience you will probably never get a solid & regular teaching job. Based on my personal experience, many schools pay from $35 to $55 an hour for part-time teachers. Unfortunately, if one class is, say, three hours long and you teach three classes a week, that means you are only working nine hours a week & making between $315 and $495. That’s $1,260 to $1,980 a month — before taxes. That sucks. You can’t live on that! It’s enough to drive you crazy.
Worst of all, you could do all of the above and not be making the kind of work that sells. You might feel your art is really amazing but then not have a gallery. Or you could be doing work that sells but not have a gallery that sells very much art. Or you could have a good gallery representing you but are too busy running around teaching to produce enough work to make a living. At this point in their careers, inexplicably, some artists I’ve known have decided to have children. Or they had children right in the middle of their MFA program. Then they juggle having a child while they hunt for a job or try to finish school. It’s not wrong to want a family, but it is enough to drive you crazy.
So where is the work/life balance for artists in this country? No artist health care, no artist unions, no artist retirement pensions. Very few stable art jobs. So what happens when we get old? If we don’t get famous will we be forced to eat cat food while we live in low-income hotels on Broadway and the Tenderloin until we die? When is all this supposed to get better? If anyone finds out, let me know.