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.
My parents are children of the Common Wealth — this means, Keep Calm and Carry On is something of a family motto. Indeed, as I grew out of a student into the professional world, I’ve become characterized by a cool-under-pressure, feathers-never-get-ruffled demeanor.
“The whole building could be burning down and you’d just be chugging along, with a smile on your face, telling everyone everything is going to be fine,” a friend said to after he witnessed the crises of miss-printed labels, wine shortages, hidden-ladders-becoming-unhidden, and the myriad of other assorted exhibition opening night calamities that I quietly wade through.
I think I was flattered at the time, but then I realized, sometimes being known as the girl who keeps calm and carries on can get you into trouble.
When the metaphorical building is burning, you’re always the first sent into battle the blaze.
Alternatively, when all of a sudden you don’t look so calm, the people around you start to panic.
I confess — as far as my life is concerned, things have gotten crazy busy. Working weekends, travel, exhibition installations, committee meetings, public lectures, holiday craft markets, exhibition openings, de-installations — all things that need organizing and completing. Indeed, the stretch between now and the end of January is the relentless, burdensome push of a boulder uphill.
About two weeks ago, somewhere in the early stages of my stretch of craziness, I walked into work on Monday morning carrying a bouquet of my favorite flowers. My eyes were puffy with fatigue and my skin chalk white and my boss immediately commented on my pallid complexion.
“Why are you so white?”
“Am I? Oh. Well, that’s what I look like without makeup.”
Then she saw the flowers.
“Who are those from!”
“From me! I thought it was a good week to have some flowers at my desk. The Italian exhibition. Gala. Ya know. Lots going on!”
“I was hoping they were from the boy. How is he?”
“We broke up on Saturday.”
“Oh! Really! Why?”
“We’re still friends.”
A few hours later, she called me into her office.
“Are you okay?”
I think I probably started to well up at that moment. It wasn’t that I was upset about the break-up, quite the contrary — there’s no way anyone witnessing the evening would have believed the two people sitting across the table from each other were ending a romantic affair, it was that congenial. No, the tears started to build because, frankly, I felt overwhelmed. And the last thing I needed was to be asked if I was okay. I just needed things to get done.
When I was in high school, my English teacher assigned the class a “quote” personal essay. We had to find a quote that described us and write a personal essay illustrating how. I chose something uttered by the great actor Michael Caine:
“Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but paddling like the dickens underneath.”
I walked out of my boss’ office feeling very much like a duck.
“I’m going to get those exhibiting artist emails off now,” I said and walked back to my desk, feet paddling like the dickens to stay afloat.
“How are you adjusting to life as a full-fledged working woman?” –> This is the question I’m most frequently asked by those that know me. Not “how’s the new job,” or “what’s your boss like,” but how are you coping with this foreign concept of a 9-5.
Overall, I’d say I’ve adjusted pretty well. And then I have days like yesterday and I realize adapting to my new lifestyle is still a work in progress.
This time last year, I was a full-time athlete. My 9-5 involved wearing no make-up, traveling abroad, and working out twice a day.
Since I started my job as a gallery coordinator, my biggest challenge has been balancing the regimented fitness routine I’m used to with the new demands of a workweek. Despite not being a morning person, I’ve committed to a morning gym schedule — a decision that reminds me why I try not to face the world until I’ve have my two cups of caffeine.
Yesterday, standing in the change room post spin class, wrapped in a towel, I assessed the contents of my locker:
Linen military jacket: check.
White, curve-hugging, scoop-neck top: check.
Printed linen ankle-length skirt: check.
Custom made cowboy boots and Navajo belt: check and check.
Outfit resembling costume for an extra in the movie of Custer’s Last Stand: assembled.
But wait… where’s my bra?
I held the skin-tight shirt in my hand and considered my options. Being small chested, I’ve frequently ventured out into the world sans support wear. But the elasticized and someone transparent material I was about to don made the decision for me.
Going bra-less would make me look like another kind of working woman.
It was settled: I’d wait for the Victoria’s Secret between my car-park and the gallery to open and buy a new bra. I’d be late for work, but at least I’d be setting the right example — only the day before I had lectured my assistants about “gallery-appropriate quantities of boob-age.”
I inherited 2 filing cabinets at work. One came filled with loan agreements and checklists from past exhibitions. As of today, the other is stocked with clean undergarments.
My first day as the Exhibitions Coordinator for a large art not-for-profit passed in a flurry of paperwork, meetings, and how-tos. I was taken to “The Nook,” a u-shaped work station that I would share with my boss’s executive assistant. I looked at the desk that had been vacant for 5 months and was now mine. It had been turned into a storage shelf — boxes filled with leftover wall-hanging materials, stacks of postcards announcing opening receptions for exhibitions mounted 5 years ago, and a box of crocheting hooks.
Before I could begin coordinating exhibitions, I needed to coordinate my desk. Clearing the rubble took the remainder of the afternoon, but left me with a blank workspace to decorate. I walked in the next day with an armload of items necessary to transform my half of the Nook into a homey yet functional gallery-managing command center.
“Your corner has a personality!” Ali-Kat cried as she joined me at her station. “I dig it. Do you have Pandora? Because yours is the only computer with speakers. Let’s get the party started!”
I could tell we were going to be good Nook-mates.
Of all the things adorning my command center, there’s one item that has particular symbolic meaning. In the upper right corner of my bulletin board I’ve placed a photo from my 2007 college graduation. Four of us stand arm in arm among thousands of undergraduates and graduates dressed in powder blue, all receiving our degrees. We look happy and tired, young and ready for battle.
The photo is there in part because the 3 guys standing with me are my dearest friends, mostly because that moment represents an entire journey from that day in May to this job, this desk, this future. We posed for the camera to remind ourselves that we had survived 4 years together. The next 4 years would be unpredictable — each followed paths entirely different from the ones routed for us as of May 2007.
Then we were 4 kids just starting out, uncertain of the purpose of our past and clueless about our futures. It’s hard to always know where you’re going, but the way I see it, it’s important to always know where you’ve been.
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.