It Will Happen by Stephanie Patton (2014) at Contemporary Arts Center. Photo: Michelle Ivette Gomez, 2015.
By Michelle Ivette Gomez
“Don’t give into the feeling or pressure that you haven’t done anything, or you haven’t done enough. Don’t let it stop you. Don’t stop. Eventually looking back, the accumulation of that time, the value of it will be easy to see.”
– Carlton Turner, speaking to the Alternate ROOTS Visual Artist Innovation Ensemble in New Orleans, LA
Life after graduation has been a whirlwind of emotions for me.
It’s been over a year since I completed my MFA in Curatorial Practice, and the struggle to find a full-time arts job that aligns with my values has been overwhelming. Ashley Minner, a mentor and friend of mine, told me about Alternate ROOTS and how it was a community of like-minded artists who all share similar goals of fighting to end oppression through their work.
I was fortunate to be recognized as a 2015 Joan Mitchell Visual Arts Scholar and invited to attend my first ROOTS Week conference this past August. Going to ROOTS Week felt like I met my long lost cousins. It felt familiar, like I was instantly amongst family.
Just a few months afterwards, my fellow visual art scholars and myself were invited to attend ROOTS Weekend in New Orleans, from September 18-20, 2015. Featuring performances, learning exchanges and dialogues, this gathering continued conversations around Black Lives Matter, environmental sustainability and other critical issues that affect our communities.
While I was so excited to see some familiar ROOTS faces again in New Orleans, I also came to the regional gathering with many questions and self-doubts. I felt anxious about my self-worth as an independent curator while in the process of interviewing for an incredible position in arts administration. I wondered what would become of my community-focused curatorial practice if I got the job.
Right before the regional gathering, the Alternate ROOTS Visual Artist Innovation Ensemble (ARVAIE) gathered for a retreat/strategic-planning meeting facilitated by our co-chairs Jayeesha Dutta and Lauren Hind to identify opportunities for Alternate ROOTS to better support visual artists. Founded around 2004, the ARVAIE developed in response to the lack of visual artists represented within ROOTS’ Executive Committee. Dedicated funding from the Joan Mitchell Foundation for the past four years has supported four cohorts of visual art scholars in order to welcome more visual artists to the annual ROOTS Week while increasing the visibility of visual art on site.
We began our ARVAIE retreat with mini consultancies that allowed us to provide feedback to each other on various dilemmas we were facing as artists. It was comforting to see that similar conversations about productivity, self-worth, self-care and other struggles were validated and that I was not alone. Common phrases such as “I should” and “I’m supposed to be doing” repeatedly rose to the surface as many of the artists shared the expectations they had for themselves. Other dilemmas included finding balance between priorities and time for self-care, how to balance working on our own with limited resources while juggling part time jobs and independent contract work, how to balance our own needs versus the needs of others in the communities we work with, and whether or not we are doing enough work to respond to oppression.
These consultancies made me wonder:
- How does an artist’s self worth and self love impact their practice? How does a healthy sense of self support their work? What happens when an artist’s cup of self love is nearly empty and how does that affect their community practice?
- Do artists value their own needs as much as they value the needs of others in the communities they work with?
- How can artists redefine conventional ideas of success and validation with the constant dehumanization and racism towards people of color and especially towards women of color?
- Do artists place too much value in having their work validated within or by institutions?
This situation is not unique as many other artists, cultural/community organizers and people in general oftentimes measure their success by their productivity as a result of how capitalism wants us to define our self worth. Building solidarity with others on so many intersectional social issues is a struggle when artists deal with guilt, self-doubt and lack of self-worth. Toxic phrases such as “supposed to” and “should be” discredit the value of what we are doing and bring up feelings of guilt. Guilt allows us to overlook all of the work that it took to get to where we are now.
We must silence that inner voice that tells us we are selfish when valuing our own needs. We must take care of ourselves before embarking on our journey to take care of others.
The group consultancies were extremely helpful and relieving. Alternate ROOTS and ARVAIE are outlets for artists who share similar struggles and experiences to come together. It is not only a space for professional support, but financial and emotional support as well. I know that this community will keep me grounded in my values no matter what job I may take.
Moving forward, I would like to see a healing space in which Alternate ROOTS members can regularly share stories about their emotional struggles when doing their work. Imagine how we can better support each other if we recorded these stories and shared them with the world to raise awareness on the importance of self care before caring for others within the arts.
I am enough. You are enough. We are enough. Take care of yourself, find balance, and celebrate all that you have accomplished up until now.
Michelle Ivette Gomez is an artist, curator, organizer, educator, collaborator, connector, and advocate for audience diversity in the arts. She is currently based in Baltimore, MD where she works collaboratively with under represented audiences and artists to create relevant and accessible art exhibitions and programs about social issues, cultural identity, community, and much more.