By Gail Evans
Sure, New York’s galleries happily show your work if you’re an older big-name visual artist who can command through-the-roof prices. But thousands of professional New York artists over age 50 who have not made a big splash in the art world are shunned by galleries unwilling to take a chance on them because of their age. I recently visited a sunny, spacious gallery smack in the heart of Chelsea’s Broadway of galleries that bucks this trend. The Carter Burden Gallery at 548 West 28th Street exhibits older professional artists exclusively. Under 60 need not apply!
The Burden Gallery is part of the Carter Burden Network, one of the City’s major non-profits dedicated to serving seniors through a broad range of programs. “The Burden Network’s slogan has always been ‘we give a voice to older people,’” said Marlena Vaccaro, the Gallery’s Director and Associate Executive Director of the Burden Network. “I like to say that the Gallery gives a wall! We have a wonderful Board and corporate sponsors, but it’s the quality of the work on our walls that keeps us going.”
Vaccaro believes passionately in the Gallery’s mission to provide exhibition space to older professional artists whose careers have stalled or who failed to get the recognition they deserve. “Our exhibitors are lifelong artists who identify as such, whatever day jobs they may hold to survive,” she explained. “Making art is what they do. They don’t retire from making art the way they might from a job. They keep at it, many producing vibrant, important, cutting-edge work. But because their sales potential may not have kept pace with their talent, galleries can’t afford to take a chance on them.”
The Gallery nurtures an ongoing supportive community for its older artists and provides resources to help them “re-emerge” as respected names in the art world. Artists who have already exhibited at the Gallery welcome newcomers by attending their openings, year after year. The Gallery’s newsletter keeps its exhibitors up-to-date on the world of art and its’ quarterly artists’ meetings are opportunities to share ideas.
“One of the most important ways we work with our artists on re-emergence is by helping them become digitally proficient so they can apply to other galleries,” Vaccaro said. “You may have an amazing painting to share with the world, but JPEGS and slides will not get you a show. Today, it’s Instagram and social media and websites. We’re lucky to have Gallery interns who visit artists in their studios and help them become competitive by improving their digital skills.”
Proof of the Gallery’s success? Not only robust sales for its artists through the 11-12 group and solo shows it mounts annually, and its eleven years in a business where survival is precarious, but also its growing reputation for quality art exhibits. It has become so well-known that it receives more than a thousand submissions a year from older artists interested in exhibiting. And unlike the practice at many galleries, Vaccaro and her assistant, Sarah Leon, review each and every submission and respond to the artist.
Vaccaro is very aware that ageism is alive and well in the art world. “Yes, the art world is fixated on the young and the hip,” she said. “But,” she noted triumphantly, “you can rail against ageism and short-sightedness in the art market, or you can offer an alternative. The Gallery is not just changing the lives of the artists we show, we’re also changing the perspectives of visitors who walk in, like what they see, and have no idea they’re viewing work by older artists. I can’t tell you how often someone is struck by a painting or piece of sculpture work and asks, ‘Who’s the artist? Can I see the bio?’ The look on that person’s face when they learn that the artist is 86 is something to see. Believe me, he or she walks out a different person!”
I visited the Carter Burden Gallery about a week before it temporarily closed in response to the pandemic that has shut down New York. At the time Vaccaro and Leon were preparing for new photography exhibits to start March 19th in the Gallery’s three spaces but uncertain whether to proceed.
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