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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Assistant

Behind every great artist there is an assistant. Or more accurately, behind the artists most often called “great” there are two, or twenty, or enough for a full-time accountant. Many of my friends are artist’s assistants. I worked as one. My girlfriend is an assistant; my sister is too. When I first became involved in this peculiar profession, I was struck by the variety of tasks collected under that one umbrella, but the art world is big, studio habits are varied, and methods of fabrication so specialized that the required labor is as diverse as its results. Depending on who you ask, being an artist’s assistant is a lot like being a friend, or a secretary, or a 19th-century factory worker. Wages range from paltry to lawyerly; work spaces from stately to slovenly to simply unsafe. Some spend their days in business-casual and others in coveralls, but what they all share is unfettered access to the personalities and studio workings that others only glean from CVs or biographical blurbs. There are stories of ungainly tantrums, eye-popping extravagance, clichéd eccentricity or profound compassion; these accounts are traded by artist’s assistants like baseball cards or bragged about like battle scars. It would be a gross understatement to say that it’s engaging to talk with assistants about their workdays; it’s often like hearing from a star-struck therapist freed from the binds of doctor-patient confidentiality.

Much has been written on the impact of outsourcing on art and art-making, but only a few splatters of all that spilled ink define assistants as much more than mindless matter in the service of something larger. Sure, like most employees these days, the job description of an artist’s assistant could be summarized as doing what one is asked when one is asked to do it, but there seems to be so much more to the vocation than that. Artist’s assistants are the junior members of the creative class, the chorus at openings, and the raw material of future stars. Their role is part of a long tradition, but it also reflects a professionalizing of the art world that’s anathema to what many look back on as the good old days. It’s a sensible step towards becoming a self-supporting artist, but it pivots on a nepotism that makes “sensible next steps” seem absurd. The job revolves around an artist’s singular personality all the while proving that singularity is a myth. It is a paradoxical position that bespeaks much about the current art world, its rules, and the pitched field of competition these days.

More than 30,000 people got a Master of Fine Arts degree in 2005. That’s a good-sized town of educated artists eager to work. They have dedicated years and tens of thousands of dollars and made innumerable sacrifices for their dreams and understandably want to be involved in the object of their study. The problem is that not all of them can be. In a recent issue of Frieze, Robert Storr, Dean of the Yale School of Art, cites the staggering number of MFA grads and adds, “Match this total against the number of galleries or jobs available and the picture of a chillingly social Darwinist art system clearly emerges.” It may not be as ruthless as survival of the fittest, but for young artists searching for jobs as assistants, it’s a cutthroat world of connections and called-in-favors. Considering the competition, it’s easy to understand why the people who get in are happy to stay, even when the conditions become the stuff of legend. A few years ago, one friend of mine who was hired as a studio assistant / mold-maker didn’t meet her famous employer until more than a month into the job and the first time they spoke was at a holiday party three months later. Listening to her reflect on her stint is to hear a string of horror stories that for libel’s sake is best kept in the realm of gossip. Still, she laughingly told me she was thankful for the opportunity.

This particular artist employs dozens of assistants and I’ve known a good deal of them. They told me that the workweek could be seven days long with 18-hour shifts and no overtime pay. One confided in me, like an Upton Sinclair character: “In his studio, people come in and they get chewed up and spit out and it keeps going.” This assistant has a college degree, an impressive resume that could place him in a number of other fields, and plenty of friends willing to do him favors. Still, he did two tours of duty in this dehumanizing studio, and when he finally left, it was to assist someone else. There is something about working for an artist that keeps him in the field. Every assistant I’ve spoken with admits to a similar attraction. It has something to do with practical education and the tradition of artists and apprentices.

The European apprenticeship paradigm is far older than our current conception of the artist. Before Western artists were designated as conduits for god, before they were cultural barometers and long before they were Vanity Fair cover stories, they were artisans whose careers and practice were regulated by guilds or confraternities most often named for Luke the Evangelist, the patron saint of painters. Under these trade associations, which were the governing bodies of artistic commerce from the 14th to the 18th century, an artist could make and sell his work only after becoming a Free Master; a rank achieved through years as an apprentice (think indentured servant), and a few more as a Journeyman (a hired hand). Of course, this regulated ascendance is a far cry from the current reality facing young artists, but the notion of on-the-job training persists and seems to imbue many young artists with the extra-vocational impulse to seek out apprentice-like positions.

The schooling of an assistant is an education of anecdote and experience about money and the market, a reality as hidden from art students as the Tooth Fairy’s identity is from incisorless kids. Anyone who has worked for an artist will tell you that living and hearing the stories, dealing with the issues, and making another person’s career run smoothly is a crash-course in the other side of art. Assistants experience gallery negotiations long before engaging in their own. They learn about collectors, dealers, consultants, and curators through interactions or gossip. They find out how to deal with fabricators, handlers, and preparators. They know to plan for language barriers and time differences. The Artists Rights Society, author percentages and other insider secrets are the everyday of assistants. In my talks with friends, I’ve heard about practical gestures (“She gave me her whole mailing list”) to fundamental observations (“Seeing how you go from research to material tests to process to display to lighting to getting people to talk about it and getting it sold”) to deeply personal anxieties (“Knowing that no matter how successful you are you’re still always worried”). In all of these instances, knowledge flowed from employer to employee. In the best cases, the artist-boss is aware of his or her mentoring role and at times intentionally focuses on it, but most often an assistant’s lessons come through osmosis or the trial-by-fire moments of making and coping. One told me his boss recently said, “I love working with you, but I’ll have done my job if you leave.” In studios, turnover is only slightly less regular than graduation. No one on either side of the assistant/artist relationship thinks of it as permanent arrangement; a year or two, or a few more at most, is a fair run. Only when the influence goes in both directions, or circumstances make the bond more symbiotic than usual, might an assistant’s tenure last longer. It’s a short-term job in which unorthodox education balances the equation and shared experience humanizes idols. These are the fringe benefits that an assistant expects, but it seems to me that there is still something beyond these practicalities.

Being an artist’s assistant means you’re taking part in a prescribed art world. It is a definable, describable job attached to a recognizable name that assuages aunts and uncles and grandparents at holidays. It is a passport to a world that has been worshiped and studied but always at arm’s length. “Being an assistant makes me feel like I’m participating in the art world and in the discussion,” is what one friend said to me. “When we finish a piece in the studio, I feel pride. It’s not about authorship, but about the larger conversation that I’m taking part in.” I have friends who are employed by famous artists, cool artists, the type of artists mentioned at parties with knowing, quiet confidence. One of these friends recently told me, “I think that who you work for says something about you as an artist. Maybe that’s a weakness of character, but it’s true. There are lots of uninteresting artists doing really big public projects who need a lot of assistants. I would not want to be in a situation like that.” In her cohort, big public projects are not a desirable conversation. Instead, working for the “right” artist, laboring under his or her name, and learning more than the most inside insider is key to projecting a certain identity as an artist. In a world that hinges on expression, the opportunity to align yourself with something, to have that thing be noticed by people, visited, and talked about in a certain way is a step in the right direction, a sustaining taste of what almost every assistant wishes would come.

But what exactly is coming? The current art world is the only one I’ve ever known, so I can’t say for sure but I think what’s happening to artist’s assistants right now is evidence of a new arrangement for young artists. Facts and figures and everyone involved agree on how unwieldy the art world has grown, that its base has outpaced its upper-ranks, and that this unbridled growth (and the money that made it happen), as well as the glut of young artists, has created more tiers than ever before. It feels professionalized and systematized and filled with the calculating logic of industry. Contemporary critics tell me this is not the way it used to be—they fondly describe an idealized world where art making was its own reward—and although they sometimes sound like my parents’ friends lamenting the lost spirit of the ’60s, I believe the lessons at the heart of their tales. What I wonder is how the art world portrayed in their stories actually felt to young artists back then, whether it seemed no different than the current one does now? Did it feel like something you needed to work your way up in? Or did it feel like a place where making work was all it took to be an artist, and being an artist was the way to make it in the art world? For artist’s assistants, for young artists, and for art lovers, this is a pressing question: Have the first few years in the art world always felt like an associate’s position or is that new? It is one thing to look at art works made today and say they’re too glossy, or too commercial, or too big for their britches, but it’s a much larger issue to consider the impact of this type of work and its mode of production on the generation of artists raised in its midst. Right now, artist’s assistant jobs keep people employed and interested and in studios making art. They also keep young artists convinced that there is always something more to learn and always another hurdle on the way to success. It is an eternal delay of readiness, the paying of dues at a phantom tollbooth. If this is new, repercussions are surely near; and if it isn’t, it’s propagating now like never before. Just take a look at next year’s crop.


Graham T. Beck

Beck writes about art, cities, the environment, and his issues.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2008

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