Visual Art

I Should Have Been a Pop Star

In this series of articles, Leslie Moody Castro takes on the role of journalist or interlocutor to explore the inequity in the creation, curation and exhibition of art. Read more here. Telling my story By Leslie Moody Castro I have a longstanding inside joke that I bounce around regularly with a colleague and conspirator in the contemporary art world. One day in my last semester in graduate school I passed her a $50 bill, the same amount of money she and I had taken turns loaning each other over the course of months. It was my turn to pay it back. Granted, I was still a student, but by that point I had been working independently as an arts professional in some capacity for a number of years.

At that point specifically I was finishing a masters degree in Museum Education with a portfolio supplement in Museum Studies from UT Austin, I had lived abroad, I spoke two languages, had a fair amount of published articles in the world, and especially for my age I had some pretty great experience under my belt. But even with all this I was facing one of the most depressing and discouraging moments of my life: I simply could not find a job. I sent application after application, and was met with rejection after rejection. Let's be honest, no one likes rejection, not in personal life, or professional life, and after a while it just begins to chip away at you.

I had never second guessed myself so vehemently as I did at that point in my life.

My story is not one of independent wealth. I am not an art world professional passing the time until I get married, become a housewife, and start popping out babies. I have worked hard for my education and for all the opportunities that I have had, and even more importantly I've learned a ton along the way and always continue to do so.

But the art world can really knock a girl down every once and a while.

For a number of years now I have been working solely as an independent curator and writer. Simply put: I am a freelancer. As you can imagine, employers aren't exactly knocking down my door, and freelance curating isn't entirely "in-demand," and I completely understand this. The art world itself is a very strange world to be in. It operates on its own timeline, around its own events, and just generally around its own narcissism. Let's face it, the art world is not going to solve problems like world hunger and poverty. But creative fields like theater, music, and the visual arts provide an outlet for creativity, and moments of cultural intersections that can alter the lives of individuals, and all it takes is one individual to alter the course of change. The visual arts are a part of defining culture, and culture is part of defining history, and our history is our legacy as individuals, as citizens, and as nations.

I remember the day I had a chance to visit with a colleague I hadn't seen in a number of years. He asked me what I was up to. When I told him that I was freelance curating he looked at me and said: "So you're basically volunteering."

I had to admit he had a point. I had spent one year curating the show he was looking at, which is a quick turn around in the art world. Typically I spend at least 2-3 years planning exhibitions, and this is normal. Depending on the project that two years involves: researching audience and programming for the exhibition space, traveling for site visits, traveling for meetings, researching artists, writing the proposal, drafting the budget, gathering the work or working with the artist to produce the work, writing the curatorial text, writing any explanatory text, traveling to install the exhibition, installing the exhibition, putting together the checklist for the audience, planning the public programming, traveling for the public programming, or staying in that location for the duration of the exhibition, making sure the artists are paid, making sure I am paid, opening the exhibition, planning the curatorial talk for the exhibition, performing the curatorial talk for the exhibition, etc.

All these things take up to 1-2 years to come together. For many exhibitions that I do in smaller, experimental spaces there is a standard fee of 5,000 for the curator. It sounds great, but after it's all said and done and you really do the math, that's breaks down to be less than $210 per month over the course of two years. And that's when everyone actually pays on time.

It can be disheartening, and I try not to do the math anymore.

So there I was, handing over a $50 bill that I could barely afford to part ways with, to a brilliant friend who needed it equally as badly, both of us nearly finished with graduate school, and struggling to make things work. It was in that moment that I started thinking out loud, and wondering about the creative talent of the likes of Britney Spears, Katy Perry, or even Beyonce. All music moguls, but I wondered what kind of emotional and creative impact they would really leave on the world. Do they evaluate their audience? Do they think about deliverables or the reality of impact on an audience? Is there ever some kind of accountability system where they evaluate who they have reached and how? Do they ever consider modifying their mission and vision to expand their audience? Obviously these considerations are based on an economic system, and the impact it has on their wallets more than anything. And in that moment of handing over that $50 bill I suddenly thought, "I should have been a pop star, it would have been so much easier."

Fast forward a few years, and now I am in Dallas living and working at a residency program called CentralTrak, a gem within the UT Dallas system. I am here to produce a project, but unfortunately, after two years of researching, planning, and traveling back and forth from Mexico City where I live, I had to cancel the project for budgetary reasons. Instead, the project has shifted dramatically to focus on these budgetary reasons, and over the course of the next month or so I will contribute an essay a week analyzing how we value the visual arts and culture in Dallas and the United States. This series of articles will revolve around making the budget transparent, asking questions from voices outside the art world, and generally questioning why there is a lack of value for the visual arts and culture.

Perhaps, just perhaps, I really should have been a pop star.

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