Telling Your Creative Block to Take a Hike
Why Finding Time is Better Than Having Time

Late Bloomers : What Above Ground can tell us about Art, Age, and Experience

One focus of this blog is to share information about artists as they age. 

In part this is to refute the idea that older artists lose value as they age, but also to argue against the belief that adults who pursue art in their "retirement years" do so for inconsequential reasons. 

To dismiss the artistic investigation by an adult over fifty, and certainly over sixty or seventy, as “pastime activity” does a disservice to those who put the idea of an “art career” on hold for decades due to circumstance, obligation, location, or immaturity.

And I reject that argument. 

I recently discovered the Research Center for Arts and Culture, supported by the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging, and their 2006 Research Report titled ABOVE GROUND: Information on Artists III: Special Focus New York City Aging Artists.  Dr. Robert N. Butler, President and CEO of the International Longevity Center, explains that “Not only does this study combat the misperceptions of aging, it sheds new light by the unique solutions artists embrace in living… It shows them as productive, self-aware and savvy. And it provides some new ways of thinking about all of us as we age.”

This study reveals some interesting facts: for instance, the experience of being a professional artist (as in a life-long commitment to art) seems to be universal.  We do not need to be living in a major art market to share this aspect of being an artist.  But I would add that the requirements of researching specific populations create an unintended bias, in this case one against the Late Bloomers, those who meet the definition of being a serious artist – life-long pursuit, educational accomplishments, exhibition records, sales, and members of artistic communities – but when asked the questions “When did you start and where do you live?” we can only answer “a decade ago and we live everywhere."

It is important to note that the artists in this study were all visual artists living in specific areas of New York City, between the ages of 65 and 91, who self-identified as professional artists, answering questions such as I consider myself an artist, the main body of my activity is some form of art, and I have a demonstrated record of exhibition, performances, installations, publications or other evidence of my art. 

Here are some of the more interesting facts that caught my attention:

  1. Artists are very invested in their careers, which are not seen as traditional experiences but circumstances that provide a high level of life satisfaction.
  2. More female artists than male experienced interruptions in their careers.  Women also reported more gender bias (not surprisingly men reported none), while all artists reported experiencing discrimination based on age and choice of medium.
  3. The core experience of being an artist is universal, with less satisfaction regarding critical review, career opportunities, and income, and high levels of satisfaction from personal autonomy and validation as an artist.
  4. Artists never retire; they work in their studios daily.
  5. Artists rank higher in Life Satisfaction Scales than the rest of the population, even as they age.
  6. Social networks – and daily communication within those artist-to-artist networks – are important to productivity.
  7. A majority of artists continue to sell their work, but income from art remains a small percentage of overall income.

I often receive emails from readers wanting Career Advice.  And this is what I have learned: even though this blog has a subtitle of "developing an art career after fifty,"  your Art Career is not likely to meet the definition of a career in our youth-oriented, income-measured, and single-goal-oriented culture.  At times the artist’s life can be difficult to sustain economically.  It is not easily justified to others who expect traditional cause-and-effect results. And it is more likely to be a broad, multi-dimensional, life-long experience that is highly satisfying to self-aware, productive, and flexible individuals who cannot imagine living without producing their art. 

Most of us consider this a fair trade-off. 


“How are you doing today?”
97-year old visual artist: “Well, I’m above ground.”

                                                —IOA III Aging Study

“Art is the only thing that’s left in the world.”

                                                —Homeless mixed media artist, age 72, one of the many quotes from Above Ground




after thoughts:  When my mother passed away a few years ago I received a folder containing all of my report cards, from kindergarten to the end of high shcool.  I was an average student, but consistently, I received an A in art from every teacher, every year.  My parents were unimpressed.  I took my cues from them, and wandered in the wilderness until I grew up at age fifty. 

Starting early does not tell you whether a person has the talent to be a successful artist: it only tells you that they grew up in a supportive, enriching, artistic environment where they were mentored early and encouraged to achieve their goals. 

It can also take you a decade to reach the level of professional accomplishment that puts you in the game, and another decade to begin to see significant results. 

That leaves you a few more decades to play with, give or take your starting point.