If you work in the art world, your life probably looks pretty good from the outside. You spend a lot of time traveling around the world for art events, and a lot of your job is simply thinking about art and talking about it with celebrities and museum directors. Many of us like to puff up how exciting the life is—ArtInfo has an entire series dedicated to tracking the art world’s high times on Instagram, and ArtForum has a style-and-gossip column called Scene and Herd. Even if you don’t get paid that much, the experiences are priceless. But just how glamorous is all this travel, really? Not nearly as much as you might think.
At the time of this writing, many art worlders are at Art Basel in Switzerland, the world’s largest art fair. I was probably too poor to have tried to attend the last time I did, which was in 2009; despite having already left the US and paid for my travel, I had no money to book a hotel. As a result, I found myself on a train from Venice to Basel with no place to stay. In the end, a friend of a friend of a friend let me stay in a camper parked behind a prison in Little Basel. I showered where my acquaintance worked—in the oncology wing of a hospital, just in front of the prison.
That trip wasn’t particularly glamorous, and to be fair, the experience was almost certainly less glamorous than that of most journalists. Still, even the best of us get paid next to nothing and often end up huddling in the champagne rooms at Art Fairs, gossiping about the muffins we smuggled out of our free continental breakfasts.
The art-fair experience isn’t always so great for dealers and curators, either. As one friend aptly described the job, it’s “traveling all over the world to stare at virtually the same walls in the same booths in the same convention centers while experiencing no culture from where you actually are. You could be in Basel, Brussels, London, Paris, Cologne, Miami, Dubai or Hong Kong, and you barely notice. Some of us also have the misfortune of working in said booths alone and not being able to pee for 12 hours.”
That’s not exactly a perk, and neither are the tiny budgets most of us are forced to work within while traveling. Among the horror stories I’ve heard, one curator told me that after fronting personal money to cover the hotel, flight, food, and some artists’ costs, the exhibition-venue announced that it had used the money set aside in the budget to cover its own costs. It took six months to recoup several thou- sand euros.
I have my own stories about flying thousands of miles and not getting paid, but they're not my worst. In 2008, after having flown to Miami and New Orleans for the Prospect 1 Biennale, I spent several hours at the New Orleans airport waiting for a storm to clear so I could make a studio visit in Lisbon. By the time I arrived, I’d missed my connecting flight to Amsterdam and was put up in a hotel by the airline. My bags were checked, so I ended up sleeping naked and putting my dirty clothes on again in the morning.
When I arrived in Amsterdam, the connecting flights were a mess thanks to weather, and after a six-hour layover I managed to miss my plane to Portugal. I had been waiting at the wrong gate. An agent announced I would need to pay a rebooking fee, and I burst into tears, knowing I had no money to pay the fee. “What’s wrong with you?” she demanded. I explained through sobs that I was broke, approaching day three at airports, and still wearing the same clothes. She took pity and rebooked the flight free of charge.My arrival in Portugal did not lift my fortunes. My bags were lost in transit, leaving me to sleep in my clothes for yet another night. (All this, just to visit an artist’s studio!) When I woke up, I showered and asked the wife of the artist with whom I was staying if I could borrow a T-shirt. “Maybe you need more? Pants?” she asked. I nodded briskly. “Underwear?” she added. I nodded again, tearing up. She gave me everything I needed. As I put her underwear on though, I felt something sticky between my legs. It was my period, and for the last time that trip, I burst into tears.