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On Aging Artfully


Norman Messiah

Asked if he had any examples of his work with him at the Sotheby 's launch of the RCAC study, NY artist Norman Messiah replied "My shoes”.

A new study suggests we all have much to learn from older artists

A recent study of older artists, conducted by TC's Joan Jeffri, awards this group high marks for a range of indicators associated with “successful aging” and suggests that they “have a great deal to offer as a model for society, especially as the workforce changes to accommodate multiple careers and as baby boomers enter the retirement generation.”

Jeffri, Director of TC’s Research Center for Arts and Culture, and her co-principal investigator, Douglas Heckathorn of Cornell University, surveyed 213 visual artists, ages 62-97, in New York City, and found that most demonstrated personal growth, creativity, self-efficacy, autonomy, independence, effective coping strategies, sense of purpose, self-acceptance and self worth. The artists in the study also tended to remain actively engaged in their work and productive well past retirement age, and also maintained extensive social networks – a key finding because, as  the study notes, “people with ‘robust’ networks tend to stay out of nursing homes and…gain benefits in their quality of life.”

Undertaken to assess the needs of aging artists in New York City's five boroughs, the study (which was supported by the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging) was conducted in English, Spanish and Chinese. Its title -- “Above Ground: Information on Artists III” – is drawn from the words of the oldest artist in her nineties who participated, who, when asked, “How are you doing today?” replied “Well, I’m above ground.” The researchers brought together the study population through a methodology called “respondent-driven sampling,” developed by Heckathorn, in which they initially targeted artists known to have extensive social networks and gave each of them four coupons, with information about the study, to give to colleagues who met the study’s guidelines.

The study recommends that society redefine its understanding of both “work” and “old age”; create support for informal social care using the networks provided by artists as a model; investigate more flexible models of retirement benefits that allow for multiple jobs and careers and freelance work; and adapt the administration of rent laws to allow seniors on fixed low incomes to remain in their rent-controlled and rent-regulated apartments and provide similar rent regulations for younger artists renting in New York City. It also recommends that the city create artists’ studios on Governor’s Island, make provisions for artists’ studios to remain in gentrified areas, help artists transport their work and archive their materials, and increase the access of social and artists’ services to reach the aging artist community.

“Above Ground” was released in early December at a special reception at Sotheby’s.

Jeffri, a poet and arts administrator turned academic, has been studying aging artists for several decades.

The study can be viewed at

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