Young artists coming out of art school often hear the suggestion that they learn about the business of art, and make connections in it, through becoming an artist’s assistant. Sounds reasonable, but it raises the question, What kind of employers are artists?
Obviously, not all artists are the same in their relationships with the assistants they hire. Some prove quite helpful to the careers of the young hopefuls working for them, while others just want their trash taken out and don’t make me ask twice. Certainly, no one gets rich working as an artist’s assistant – $10-15 per hour, when needed, with no sick or vacation pay and no health insurance is the norm – and not every professional artist will permit their assistants to use their studios and tools during their off hours.
Gina Campanella, who graduated SkidmoreCollege in 1989 and set to work as an artist’s assistant, first for Michael David, later for Joyce Kozloff and Barbara Zucker, had some luck.She wanted to work for a woman artist, because “I thought a woman artist would be more of a mentor to me,” taking interest in her work and helping launch her career.
In fact, some of her hopes were realized. A print publisher who visited Michael David’s studio when she was still working for him, struck up a conversation with her, took her out to lunch and introduced her to Joyce Kozloff. Kozloff, for whom she soon went to work as an assistant, introduced Campanella to Barbara Zucker, and it was Zucker who recommended her to fill a short-term teaching spot (a sabbatical replacement) at the University of Vermont where Zucker herself worked. Both Kozloff and Zucker also chipped in $250 apiece to pay for Campanella to attend the VermontStudioCenter as an artist-in-residence. Campanella became part of a network of artists (“Joyce has never missed a show I’ve had”) and, through working for some artists who are more established, learned something about what it is to be an artist. “I saw how they found materials and how they researched their subjects,” she said. Through conversations in the studio, she understood “how their personal and professional lives intertwined.”
Few job descriptions are as nebulous as that of artist’s assistant, because each job reflects the personality, temperament and work-style of the artist involved. Assistants may be asked to work alongside the artist on a new piece or sweep up after the work is done. “I made coffee, answered the telephone, took instructions,” Campanella said. “There was a lot of that.”
Assistants with baccalaureate and Master’s degree in art may find it demeaning to sweep an artist’s floor or fetch the mail. “Who is supposed to clean the floors?” installation artist Whitfield Lovell asked. “Am I supposed to get on my hands and knees to clean the floors? I don’t ask my assistants to clean my whole house, just the studio. They are here to make my life easier, and that’s not negotiable.”
Perhaps, male artists find the maid jobs (answer the telephone, fetch lunch, make coffee, clean up) that artists sometimes ask their assistants to do more galling and, therefore, more difficult to perform properly than female assistants, causing friction in the studio. Practically every artist who has ever hired assistants has had to fire some, frequently because of a contest of egos and sometimes because assistants believe they have been hired to be artists and not gophers. Artistic egos may collide. “Once upon a time, I had an apprentice,” sculptor William King said, “but there were days when there was nothing for him to do. I asked him to clean up the shop, and he didn’t want to do that. He was a budding artist, not a janitor.”
Menial jobs become a source of friction. “If you won’t take out the garbage, you’re not much help to me,” artist Vito Acconci said. Mimi Gross noted that she has a much easier time with female assistants, because they are more willing to do the housekeeping, office management tasks than males. “When I had a small child, I’d ask a female assistant to babysit while she was in the studio,” she said. “I wouldn’t ever think of asking a male assistant to watch my child. They’re more into their attitude and, if you ask them to do something they don’t want to do, they won’t focus on it and do it badly.”
Campanella’s experience may be anomalous, as mentoring rarely takes place. Some artists become quite resentful when they feel an expectation to make introductions for someone in their employ or when asked to write a graduate school recommendation for one of their assistants. Jonathan Williams’ experience of Frank Stella did not include much conversation other than shop talk. “Everything that mattered with Stella was the work at hand, and we really didn’t talk about anything else,” Williams said. “I don’t remember him ever asking me much about myself.”
There may be a certain lifespan to the job of being an artist’s assistant: The artistic ego can only be repressed so long if one’s ambitions are to be an artist. As much as they see artists working with others (sometimes whole crews) around them, artists need to be self-reliant, believing in what they are doing artistically and proactive about their own careers. Burn-out exists in the world of being an assistant, especially when the hoped-for introduction to a willing dealer or collector never takes place. Campanella said that working for other artists was “fine when I was 22 or 23 and right out of school. By the time I was 30, though, I wanted something more. I didn’t want to still be making $10 an hour and living like this.” The break may come about when another opportunity arises (Campanella found a job at Tommy Hilfiger) or when an assistant’s own career begins to take off (by 1978, Saunders claimed, “my work was starting to sell and I didn’t need to work for someone else”). Sometimes, assistants just quit and try to assess what they want to do next. Julia Jacquette, who worked for painter Richard Haas off and on for 10 years, stretching canvas, mixing colors, handling bookkeeping, organizing slides, working on his maquettes and painting sections of his murals, stated that she “grew out of” being an assistant. “I realized that I needed to not be working for another artist if I was to show my work and to have my own sense of self.” She “segued into teaching and occasionally selling my work. Teaching is not as hard of your self-esteem.”
By Daniel Grant