Last week I opened a new exhibition. It’s been two years in the works, and to date is my biggest curatorial achievement. People seem to like it. They’re telling all their friends and sending me nice emails. It’s bringing people together. So I’m kind of proud of it.
A friend who came to visit was kind of proud of me too, and passed my catalog onto a friend of hers who happens to be a hugely influential collector of contemporary art. He flipped through the catalog, recognized two of the significant names, and then shared his one comment on the content…
“Oh wow! She’s really pretty!”
He was referencing my head shot.
I laughed when she told me. Inside, I was rolling my eyes.
If I were a man, would he have told her I was really handsome?
There really is nothing more demeaning to a woman in a professional setting than a reference to her attractiveness. Don’t tell me I’m pretty. That’s not going to convince an artist to work with me (well, it might if that artist were Jeff Koons) or a museum to hire me. “Pretty” isn’t something I’ve worked to achieve — it’s not a professional milestone. When it comes to my job, I’d rather a criticism on the quality of my work than a compliment on the quality of my face.
I stood in the gallery, bent over backwards staring up blankly into my 50-foot ceiling, trying to assess the durability of my lighting tracks.
“How the hell am I going to suspend an 8-foot winged sculpture from up there?! Fairy dust?”
If that had been my only concern with this exhibition, my nerves would have been easily quelled with one stiff drink and a reassuring “no problem, boss” from my assistant. But no, the weighty sculpture flying 30 feet over the heads of visitors from uncertain supports was, believe it or not, the least of my worries.
I looked down at my floor plan. Up at my ceiling. Back at my floor plan. I spun around the gallery, mentally measuring the walls and open space, counting the number of works I had selected. I had 5 installation days ahead of me and at this point, all I could do is hope that it would all come neatly and elegantly together.
It’s a rare moment when life hands you the opportunity you’ve always wanted. Rarer when you’re young and relatively new to the big leagues. It’s your moment to turn into your greatest success or to fall, face first, into the pile of shit you’ve dug-up along the way.
When I was handed the curatorial reins of our gallery’s biggest exhibition of the season, I realized this was that opportunity for me. And it was giving me heart palpitations.
Our PR department had confirmed an interview with and a feature in the New York Times. No. Pressure.
Being 26 and standing at the helm of what was already being heralded as a landmark exhibition is daunting. Youth grants me energy. Passion mandates confidence. But youth, energy, passion and confidence doesn’t guarantee success — just sleepless nights and aching muscles.
“I don’t understand why I’m talking to you,” the writer from the Time said to me as I sat down with her the hour before the opening. “I was expecting to speak with the curators.”
“I am the curator.”
My youth belied my position of authority. An hour later, my boss popped in to see how things were going on our walk through of the show.
“This is a fabulous exhibition! I’m having a great time!”
Could it be that I had just won over the New York Times?
At 6PM, only minutes after the final wall label had gone up on the wall, the doors swung open, a crowd poured in and the champagne bottles were popped. I can’t exactly tell you what happened over the next two hours — it was a whirlwind of hellos, of press interviews, of congratulations.
I imagine the way I felt is very much how a bride feels on her wedding day: exhausted from all the planning and preparations, unsure of the durability of her lipstick and full-body-ness of her hair, but excited because she knows she’s just launched herself happily head-long into a brand new life.
I don’t know who Matthew C. Klein is, but I like him. I like Matthew because he wrote an Op-Ed piece entitled “Educated, Unemployed, and Frustrated” for the New York Times on March 21st, and in doing so, is one of the few of us early 20-somethings attempting to tell the world how we feel. We’ve been mocked on the cover of The New Yorker, labeled boomerang kids by those who need catch phrases, and attacked in the New York Times Magazine. But we’re not just fodder for a cartoon. We’re young adults stalemated, stuttering in our attempt to get going. But we have a voice.
“The millions of young people who cannot get jobs or who take work that does not require a college education are in danger of losing their faith in the future…Even if the job market becomes as robust as it was in 2007… my generation will have lost years of career-building experience.”
Right On, Matthew, right on.
Us educated 20-somethings trying to find work in saturated job markets, where entry level positions are going to applicants technically at a “mid-career” stage, are living in a constant state of uncertainty. It’s a Catch-22. The process is frustrating, and we’re forced to be victims — you can’t say to a potential employer, who may take weeks to get back to you, “Please, Sir/Madam, could you make your decision on me a little faster — I’d like to get my life together now.”
There are many times over the last few months when I wanted to bash my head against a wall — like when I learned an email I sent to an old boss about a job opening at her museum went into her spam folder. She liked me for the position, and would have gone to bat for me, but didn’t get my email until after the position had been filled with another applicant. Lesson learned? Pick up the phone.
Someone told me landing that first job is all about luck. And while luck hasn’t necessarily been on my side, I’ve managed to stay cheery. Remember, if all else fails, there’s always my back-up career as a wingwoman.
I try to be practical. Interviewers do have jobs after all, and they have work to do: “There was just an opening in their gallery — I’m sure they’re busy.”
Then another week passes. No one has said “No” yet, so I’m still inclined to give the company the benefit of the doubt:
“There must have been a fire in the building and they’re not allowed back into their offices this week.”
Yea, that explains it. I’ve only heard back on a handful of job applications because of an unannounced outbreak of wastepaper basket fires raging across the tri-state area. And apparently, Mercury just entered retrograde.
Okay, it’s not me or my resume — it’s Mercury and office fires. I feel better now.