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September 22, 2020

Later: art and ageing

A fantastic exhibition opened at Inkwell Arts just before lockdown. Later aimed to explore the possibilities and advantages of ageing with a collection of powerful and assured artworks by older local artists. The exhibition was linked to a programme of creative workshops at Inkwell for people over 50, to open up discussions between practising artists and those at different stages of artistic development.

I was involved in selecting the work of the five artists in the exhibition: Garry Barker, Sumi Cannon, Kevin Lycett, Sarah Rogers Whitton and Jane Storr. What a pleasure it was to meet the artists and talk about their work. I was spoilt for choice – not surprising, considering this group of established and professional artists.

Many artists thought that the issue of age was irrelevant. There was a feeling of “So what?” and some were ambivalent about being in an exhibition that focused on age. The artists wanted their work to be recognised as accomplished, interesting or insightful in its own right, neither because of nor in spite of age.

Being involved in Later gave me a chance to think about ageing and art, about the visibility of older artists and about representation of older people’s lives in art. Many artists do not want to be constrained by labels of age (or disability, race, gender, sexual orientation or other characteristics). But older people must be seen and valued – as artists and as subjects for artistic exploration.

I had cause to think about these issues in more depth when I took part in an online discussion about ageism in the professional art world. This followed a symposium organised by the University of Sheffield, part of a project called Creative Lives.

The focus on professionalism is important. The report of the symposium pointed out that ‘recent efforts to tackle ageism have focused on promoting art as a recreational activity, rather than as a professional practice for older people to pursue as a career.’ Whilst recognising the benefits of creative participation, for example, in tackling loneliness and improving wellbeing, Creative Lives aimed to highlight the positives of professionalisation for older artists. The project found, however, that older artists face barriers and discrimination in the art world: negative perceptions, exclusive networks, age barriers in calls for work, skills and experience not recognised or valued.

The persistence of intersectional forms of discrimination was a major issue for older artists. They talked about their exhaustion through a lifetime battling race, class, gender, sexuality and disability discrimination. Older artists found themselves in a double bind: because they didn’t fit the limiting stereotypes of, say, Black artists or women artists, they were overlooked for opportunities to exhibit or develop their work.

Thinking back on Later and the workshops in light of these discussions, I wondered how ageism had affected the artists’ development. Established artists may not experience some of the art world’s barriers but the picture is different for ‘emerging’ artists. This term is often used to refer to young artists, with opportunities targeted accordingly. This is ageism in action, failing to recognise the struggles that older emerging artists face and denying them support.

It’s unusual to see ageing as a subject in art. Later included one of Garry Barker’s series of Votive conversations, which prove that art addressing ageing can be fresh, witty and engaging. While the other artists in the exhibition might not have addressed ageing head on, their experience, maturity and confidence made for an exceptionally strong show.

Gill Crawshaw