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Well, it gets you out of the houseÖ

Stacey Guthrie on ageism in the contemporary art world



The day after my fortieth birthday I woke up feeling Ďalteredí. I couldnít put my finger on it for a while but for the last nine years Iíve been slowly disappearing. When I was young, dewy-skinned and oozing fecundity I used to write off middle-aged women who complained of being invisible as negative moaners. That was never going to happen to me, how could it? I was full of life and juice; there was no way that could simply stop. How ridiculous! These women should stop self-obsessing and just get out there and get on with it.

So, twenty years later and Iím one of the see-through old ladies who walk, unremarked-upon among you. Invisible. Unseen. Discarded. My usefulness as a sexual being has long past and in a lot of ways thatís a relief. To be released from the stifling shackles of the male gaze has been 75% welcome. However, I wonít lie, the 25%, etched on every Western womanís psyche at birth that believes youíre only of value if youíre attractive to men has balked, grieved, whined, and thrashed around like a bad actor doing a death scene.

What I wasnít expecting was to be written off as a person with ambition. When my children were old enough, I returned to uni and studied a degree; intent on training for the career Iíd only been able to dabble in while I was changing shitty nappies and painting over patches of Weetabix that had stuck to the wall like No More Nails. Iíd done what I could, when I could but couldnít commit to it as fully as Iíd like. By the way, a lot of women ARE able to commit fully to a successful career and raise children, despite what Tracey Bloody Emin says. It didnít work out for me like that though and it wasnít until I was forty-five that I was able to go back to school and hone my skills as an artist.

There wasnít any real ageism at uni, I was treated the same as any other student. Occasionally I could have done with being cut a bit more slack as someone who couldnít stay until the studios were locked but had to leave early and drive for an hour before going straight into Super Carer mode, but in the main they were pretty good. The younger students were all great and being in your forties is actually beneficial when doing a Fine Art degree, as youíre able to bring all sorts of life experience to the creative table.

Since graduating though Iíve had my eyes opened to the rife ageism that underpins the contemporary art world. With my degree certificate clutched in my hormonally hot hand I started to search out opportunities for 'emerging artistsí. What I found was that a vast number of them have a cut-off age for applying. Some of these opportunities are only for under twenty fives and some of them, the ones who pat themselves on the back for being more inclusive, have a cut off age of thirty-five. Thirty-five! Iím surprised they can still lift a paintbrush the doddery old codgers!

I was lucky enough to be selected for Bloomberg New Contemporaries (2014), who really are inclusive and democratic in their selection process. 'Greatí, I thought, 'Iím safe hereí, yet review after review of the show which Iím part of with other people well over twenty-five, talks about 'young artistsí and 'youthí. Partly this is just lazy, rubbish reviewers not doing their research but that in itself reflects the assumption that all graduates and emerging artists are young.

There seems to be a belief that if you do a degree in your forties or later that youíve done it as some kind of hobby; that it was to 'get you out of the houseí after all those years of being stuck indoors. That seems to apply tenfold if youíve studied any kind of arts based degree.

Well the arts world can stick that assumption right up its ďCeci n'est pas une pipeĒ quite frankly. I studied my degree to be taken seriously as an artist. I trained just as hard as anyone under twenty-five and I also have a whole range of skills that come from having raised a family and walked the planet for forty nine years. My tits might have sagged but my creativity is as firm and ripe as it ever was, if not more so. Iíll admit itís quite disheartening when I come across these episodes of prejudice but itís not going to deter me from pursuing my career and itís certainly not going to cow me into submissively accepting that you canít begin an artistic career at forty nine.

In most other industries it would be seen as discrimination to blatantly say you can only apply for something if youíre under twenty-five but it seems that yet again, the art world has its own set of rules...Iíd be interested in hearing if men feel the same way about going back to education in their forties or if they feel itís taken more seriously as an attempt to train for a career.



Stacey Guthrie is an artist www.staceyguthrie.co.uk. Featured painting is 'woman with soiled non-stick iron' (acrylic on reclaimed board).