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I only started getting into art way late. So much time has been lost. Is my career doomed before it began?

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With life being subject to time, and time passing in one direction only, life can feel like a one-way street. While this is true for time itself, it’s not true for our range of actions: yes, we are a weird accumulation of our past experiences; but no, we definitely don’t have to stick to previous choices – especially if they don’t feel adequate anymore. If anything, life offers an abundance of options: navigated smartly and with luck, a lot can be seen, experienced and accomplished. A lot can be changed.

Adapting the direction of one’s life is often both encouraged and admired by those that know about our frustrations. At the same time, society at large doesn’t usually offer a lot of support structure for such major movements; debt repayments are relentless, child and living costs increase steadily. Downsizing will usually be essential to changing careers, but is often interpreted as a step back; you’ll most likely have to wade through chaos, in order to establish a new, hopefully better order. In addition, ageism exists on nearly all layers of society, and also in the arts: art school applications, exhibition requirements, grants or gallery representation: they all tend to have strict, both implicit and explicitly stated age limitations. Does one’s career depend on them?

Your age isn’t something you can influence. You have no control over it. It can therefore serve as a perfect excuse to not ever start trying – it lets you be a blameless victim of circumstances. At the same time, although your age might seem absolute and ever-increasing, other people’s perception of it often turns out to be entirely dynamic: some will see 28 years as old, while others will interpret 63 years as young. Some will mention that you feel younger today, than how you appeared two years ago – after a diet, a separation, an accident or childbirth. In that way, age can be somewhat relative. Age doesn’t just denote the years since your birth; it also indicates the amount of time you had to grow, experiment, and collect experiences.

Your age can feel like a burden – but it’s always also your potential.

Age doesn’t denote lost, but lived time; time that can be used to gradually turn you into the person you want to be. Your experience and empathy can help you understand whether you want to work in the arts; it can give you the insights to increase your chances of success. Your age can feel like a burden – but it’s always also your potential. Society often favors the young, especially the alleged geniuses amongst them; yet art itself doesn’t favor creations based on their author’s age. While the art market might use extreme cases for marketing purposes (artists being extremely young or old), art itself never cares.

Art Doesn’t Care About Your Age

Instead, art cares about your expression, your authenticity, about your process and how you reflect and work with its past. It cares about pushing limits both sensitively and drastically. Art doesn’t care about careers or market values. You can’t be “too late” for art – but if you could be, why not see it as necessity for urgency? If you really could be too old to get into art, why even wait another day before starting your experiments? If your age worries you too much, consider using it as the starting point of your artistic exploration: depict age. Depict your alleged weaknesses, society’s unfairnesses, and the fears and desparations that drive your courage. Research artists that did the same before you, and find out whether you can extend their vision through yours. If you feel to have wasted years, you can either focus on what’s forever permanent and unchangeable – or refocus and try to set up a different future for yourself.

Remember that you are not your age, but your experience and motivation; your expression, network and luck. You can’t influence whether what you create is encouraged and wanted by your surroundings – but one’s surroundings aren’t necessarily the right judge on whether something makes sense or has importance. Accept that some of the most successful artists didn’t have a career in their lifetime; this can happen. Some art isn’t meant for its contemporaries. But by not trying to create the work that you could create, you’re most likely selling yourself short. Stop to regret, and start to work.

Without euphemism, consider the benefits of being older: expression is the consequence of emotionality, knowledge and courage – things that can ripe with time, if you focus and work on them. Most anyone’s career will benefit from visibility and networking; depending on your character, you might be able to present yourself and your work in a more adequate, self-assured way. This might help you to establish specific dialogs with gatekeepers, simply based on your potentially deeper experience as a human being. Or it might not: some people will focus your grey hair and wrinkles, and your allegedly outdated manners – and be unable to see your potential. This will be burdensome and frustrating, but it can’t be helped: let them lose out, and look for better options. It’s not a good reason to not get started. Understand that your age might even help you to be more disciplined and focused in the studio – after all, there’s no more time to lose.

While the art market has a tendency to thrive on young age (for market reasons: their work’s price level can expand easier, and over an allegedly longer time), someone’s age is never the only metric: it’s ultimately your work that matters, and your network. The later you start, the more important your network will be. You need to focus your work, and get to know gatekeepers: curators, gallerists, art critics etc. Read the “Networking” subchapters for detailed approaches.

If you consider yourself to be late at starting art, consider the following strategies:

  • Understand your situation: Although the art world is exciting, it’s also challenging and frustrating. Those who enter it later in life will quickly experience certain people’s arrogance and aloofness; compared to their previous work experiences, this can be off-putting. Understand that this kind of experience might happen to everyone switching industries later in life – it’s rare, and therefore suspicious to certain people (while admirable to others). Know that you will need to work and network smartly, and maybe harder than younger peers. You might require more luck as well. You will benefit from realistically defining your idea of success: it might be exhibitions and gallery representations, or it might simply be a life that’s no longer bound to your previous job (without gallery representation, you will get to keep one hundred percent of your earnings). Understand your fears and aspirations, and let neither of them drown you.
    Understand that everyone can set up an artistic practice. To judge your art world chances, consider your motives: what do you want from the arts? Money and fame, or a worthwhile mode of expression? You can work on both, but need to accept that in certain ways, you can control the latter way more than the prior.

  • Be realistic: Establish realistic structures in regards to time, space and money: how much time can you invest in your practice, where can you pursue your work, and how much money will these require. Set up work habits to pragmatically increase the depth and scope of your artistic practice.

  • Experiment: Allot time to experiment with different media, styles and semantics. The more you do this, the better you will understand what you like, and what you don’t like. This will help you to understand your quality ideals, and will therefore be another basis for your artistic practice.

  • Start gradually: Start your experiments in your spare time, without investing too much: most media have more affordable student-quality materials. You don’t need a studio: a dedicated wall or corner in your flat will suffice. Understand that most every invested hour will bring you forward. Try to motivate yourself to find thirty minutes per day, to continue your experiments. If you manage to establish this kind of schedule, you will know a lot more about your tools, materials, media, styles and semantics within a year.

  • Find education possibilities and funding: Research local adult education centers, universities and art schools, as well as adult learning grants. Visit institutions do understand whether you want to enroll, or rather want to become self-taught. The former will usually offer a stronger network, access to studios, materials and workshops, as well as more feedback opportunities – yet only accepts the lucky few. Adult education centers are a more affordable in getting to know media and materials – but usually aren’t strongly tied to the art world.

  • Find mentors: Your previous experiences might have created access to wealthy supporters – understand who they might be. Your path of trying to change your life, of living your dream might feel harsh and real to you, but might also serve to  inspire others, and motivate them to support you beyond expectations. They might be very curious about your new “adventure”, the works you create, and the new side of you they never knew about.

  • Start saving money: Investigate your financial situation to understand where you can save on your living expenses – housing, commute, vacation, hobbies etc. Understand where else might be able to save, and how you could downsize; the longer your savings lasts, the lower your fixed costs, and the easier your life will be – at least financially.

  • Consider therapy: If you lack self-confidence, specifically about your age, then consider for this to have a deeper reason. If you can afford the time and money, invest in a healthy therapy setting to reflect your past, and its consequences – it will likely help you to establish a better basis for the future. You might also consider using art as therapeutic model: while despised by some as too egocentric, others have used it to great success.

Photo of Louise Bourgeoise, Credit Unknown

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