April 26, 2018
The realization that art could first save and then expand my life came when I was a teenager in a troubled home. Life with my mentally ill mom and alcoholic dad near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before the Internet, was difficult. A smart, queer feminist without the language to talk about any of it—let alone identify with those lineages—I was profoundly depressed and mostly miserable. I ached for art and counterculture (remember that word?), but they were really hard to come by in small Rust Belt towns in the nineties. I read books, made zines, bought 45s, and ordered Sub Pop record catalogs out of the back of SPIN magazine, which at the time was a wonderland filled with mysterious ads for things like The Anarchist Cookbook.
Then, in 1994, the Andy Warhol Museum opened in downtown Pittsburgh. I was fifteen and fortunate to be present for the museum’s midnight opening thanks to my neighbor Carol, an artist and public school art teacher who saw in me a deep need for connection to something beyond what was available in my sad town and busted school. Something new was born in me that night as I wandered the museum from top to bottom, looking at Warhol’s iconic and more obscure works, obsessively combing through the gift shop, gawking at the drag queens and kindred freaks clamoring to explore this unfathom- able building. That museum opening uncovered an intuition stifled by my surroundings: there would be places I belonged and there were communities I must find.
Back then I could barely understand, let alone articulate, what was so important to me about the museum, but now I know it clearly—it was a history and lineage of queer art. Andy Warhol made an exciting life for himself despite his impoverished Pittsburgh upbringing. I saw color and humor and pos- sibilities for a better future. I saw strange people who made their own world, and it looked wild and limitless. I saw political discourse and tongue-in-cheek paintings, sculptures, and drawings. The Factory, music, art, women, style, humor, sex, and outrageous drugs—I just had to turn eigh- teen and move away! That became reason enough to live through my remaining years in high school.
It’s been more than twenty years since that night at the Andy Warhol Museum, and since then I have consistently, heavily relied on artists to make me want to be in the world at its worst and embody a deeper experience of life at its best.
My early career background was in professional feminist activism and higher education—I cut my teeth in a university women’s center where I learned a lot about how to be a person, a feminist, and a friend. I decided I should be a therapist, so I earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology. In 2007, after a decade in the Midwest, I moved to San Francisco to live in a queer community filled with artists. There, I began working exclusively in the arts and with queer artists, learning how to raise money for artists and for nonprofit arts organizations.
From 2009 to 2013, I helped organize a queer writers’ retreat through the San Francisco literary nonprofit RADAR Productions. Along with the writers Michelle Tea and Ali Liebegott, I hosted dozens of LGBTQ writers and artists each year, providing them with weeks of quiet working space, delicious group dinners, and creative community in the Yucatán Peninsula. As it was a passion project, we worked hard to raise the money to create this free retreat for the artists and writers we adored, many of whom had little to no access to other colonies and residencies. We knew so many gay geniuses and wanted to support them.
That first year, I heard the writers talking at dinner about the fears and anxieties that impacted their work. I noticed that the same problems and questions came up again and again. One day while I was making ceviche for dinner during that inaugural retreat in 2009, it occurred to me that many artists encoun- ter similar issues and stumbling blocks but don’t know that they aren’t alone and that there are paths out of those woods. I heard artists talk about their feelings of not being “real” enough, fear for the future, confusion about how to both make money and have time to write, concerns that there weren’t enough resources to go around, bewilder- ment at the world of grants, and panic that they would never reach a level of success that would make them understand they had made it, whatever it was.
In that moment, steeped in lime juice, I had the profound realization that I could integrate my fundraising skills with my counseling background to provide specialized consulting services and focus specifically on artists. I launched my one-on-one consultations with artists in 2009, and my practice has grown ever since.
Now I live in Los Angeles and have written at least a thousand grants. I write grants year-round and have raised nearly four mil- lion dollars for artists and arts nonprofits, largely comprised of relatively small grants in the ten-thousand-dollar range. I have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours talking to artists about their lives, careers, fears, hopes, anxieties, problems, projects, and dreams. I help my clients get funding, get into residencies, find career-launching opportunities, and build strategic partnerships. I also help my clients dig into their trauma and fear, develop new habits, grow their communities, heal their relationships with themselves, and shift their perspectives on success and happiness.
In reality, I have very limited time to work one-on-one with artists. When an artist is referred to me and requests consultation, I frequently have to tell them I don’t have the time. Over the years, I often found myself thinking, “My time is limited. I should write a book.” After the 2016 election, the urgency to write it all down skyrocketed; I wanted something concrete to give to every artist whose ongoing struggles are heightened by the Trump administration.
You cannot possibly know right now how much your work is going to impact someone, someday. A single work can change and save a life, you know that. Likely, you’ve been on the receiving end throughout your life. Your work—the work you’re making right now and the work you haven’t dreamt of yet—is going to impact the people who need to experience it. But first, you have to get the work out of you and into the world!
Your career—like social change—is a marathon, not a sprint. I want you to be in it for the long haul so that the work you’re eventu- ally going to make has a chance to be in the world. But you must get out of your own way. The world you have grown up in—regard- less of your identities and experiences—has taught you limiting ideas about being an artist. You and I both know that you need to make your work in order to be alive. Artists have to make art.
I want you to rethink how to engage your practice during these oppressive political times, to grow some new skills, and to learn some support strategies that will ensure you can keep going, upward and outward.
From Your Art Will Save Your Life, by Beth Pickens, (c) 2018, used by permission from The Feminist Press.
BETH PICKENS is a Los Angeles-based consultant for artists and arts organizations. She provides career consultation as well as grant-writing and fundraising assistance to clients across the United States.