Friday, May 29, 2009

Economy Down, Creativity Up!

It’s everywhere. People are struggling and businesses are closing. Assumed to be the longest recession since World War II, the economy has faltered and sent tremors rippling down Wall Street, along Main Street and near you.

In such a somber environment, it is prime time for creativity to stand up and get noticed. And it’s everywhere. People are reaching for new experiences, businesses are reinventing themselves and the light continues to shine bright on flexibility, change and imagination.

We are living the adage of “Necessity is the Mother of Invention”. Spending less is the necessity; invention is a panorama of new avenues to explore and new solutions to deploy. To save money, people are changing their ways. Sharon Kraynak, a salesperson at an art store in Philadelphia, responds to many new customers asking for information and advice about different products. Sharon observed, ‘They have decided not to go away on vacation so they want to do something creative at home instead. There is so much pressure to hold their jobs that this is a healthy release for them.’ Creative pursuits remain strong. Kathleen Lenkeit, 59, works for the state of California and knows about holding her job while maintaining her hobby of knitting. “The Governor furloughed us 2 days each month, for a 10% pay cut.” says Kathleen “Now there's talk of a 3rd furlough day each month (with another 5% pay cut), so I'm trying to be conservative in what I'm buying. But, a gal's got to have her yarn and patterns to stay calm!’ Another crafter has turned ways of being frugal to her advantage. “I used to enjoy shopping for my craft supplies but when the economy took a nose dive, I changed my approach” says Joan Lobenberg, 74, “and now I enjoy integrating found objects in my work. There is no cost, the elements are unique and my work has generated lots of interest.”

Interest in art has escalated. Museums in the western part of New York State have realized increased attendance and membership despite reduction of funds. And it is also in cities across the country. "Rochester is a microcosm for the entire country," said Dewey Blanton, spokesman for the American Association of Museums in Washington, D.C. "Attendance has never been stronger because in tough times people rely on museums for respite and renewal. But attendance doesn't pay all the bills."
Struggling to pay bills is a big problem for many seniors so the education sector is getting creative. Colleges and universities are growing their courses and workshops to adjust to an increased demand by unemployed older adults needing career support. Retirement, once within grasp, is now years away. In 2008, Maryland's Anne Arundel Community College had almost 14,000 adult students aged 50 and older. In response to this growing demographic, they have developed more resources to help them. "We're getting a lot more requests from people who are going back to work," said Terry Portis, director of AACC's Center on Aging. "As a result, we’re trying to beef up our career counseling area."

With these financial social changes, comfort zones have shifted. The new imperative is to think outside the box, adapt to new turf, relish new challenges and find reasons to be grateful. Reframing, the process of looking at something in a different way from different angles, is a helpful technique to navigate through this tough economy. It’s having a new lens to generate a vision of opportunities to survive, and even thrive, in this economy.

Albert Einstein said: "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

--By Judith Zausner

Monday, May 18, 2009

Herb and Dorothy

They did not plan to be rich or famous. After all, they both had long, quiet careers in the government. He was a postal worker without a high school diploma and she was a librarian for the New York Public Library with a graduate degree. But Herb had an insatiable passion for art and Dorothy slid right under his wing. Now, approximately 50 years after they met, the Vogel’s have amassed a vast and unique collection of American contemporary art, mostly minimalist, that has been donated to the National Gallery in Washington, DC. And they are still collecting.

How did they do it? They lived frugally in a rent controlled apartment in New York City where they still live today. There are probably more live pets (cats, fish and turtles) than pieces of furniture. When a guest arrives, a plastic folding chair is extended gracefully but it will not stay extended too long. Their apartment is small but packed, literally from floor to ceiling, with art. Having decided to live on one salary and purchase art with the other, every Saturday they went art shopping as others were doing their weekly food shopping.

They’re a diminutive unassuming couple. So in the 1960s, it was somewhat unusual to see them romping around SOHO visiting galleries, artists and undeveloped loft spaces. Many artists became happily accustomed to seeing Herb and Dorothy and looked forward to selling their art so they could pay their rent. The old adage “cash is king” worked. And at the end of the day, you could follow them on the subway or hailing a taxi carrying wrapped parcels of art back to their small apartment. And so they developed friendships with many of these artists and had an advantage as a buyer. Once they were even given preliminary drawings of the Christo and Jean Claude project Valley Curtain in exchange for watching the artist's cat while they were away. Sol Le Witt, Chuck Close, Richard Tuttle, Eva Hesse, Donald Judd and many others are in their 20th century collection and you can take a glimpse of some of their artist friends in this short video created by the Indianapolis Museum of Art:

Herb is the negotiator and talker; Dorothy remains more quiet. He likes to study and analyze art, Dorothy prefers to intuit her decision and move on. He enjoys building breadth in a collection by an artist and she picks across the art spectrum. Despite their different styles, the Vogel’s still continue to buy, based on personal values of what they like, on their definition of “beauty” and ultimately what they want to own. Naturally they are also practical buyers; they have to be able to afford the art and it has to fit in their apartment. Not that they have income issues. Although they are both retired, they have anticipated benefits from their jobs as well as an annuity from The National Gallery of Art in appreciation of their donation. So their apartment was only temporarily void of art work after the Gallery packed it, and they have been avidly collecting again.

The documentary titled Herb and Dorothy was created by writer-director Megumi Sasaki who tells their story in a way that is personal and public, serious and funny, and totally engaging with scenes ranging from Dorothy’s shopping at the Apple store for a Mac to the huge vans carrying their art to The National Gallery so 50 museums in 50 states can provide exhibitions of pieces in this collection. Enjoy the trailer

Sasaki says: "From the beginning, my intention was to make something other than a so-called "art film." I wanted to capture how these two ordinary people accomplished the extraordinary in the field of art collecting. The film is about the power of passion and love, and a celebration of life.

The story of Herb and Dorothy Vogel is unique not only because of their avant gardé vision and discernment as collectors, but also their love and dedication. It is through their loving partnership that the viewer truly experiences this remarkable story.

The Vogel’s' message is also about access. Art is not limited to the elite few. You don't have to be wealthy or an art school graduate to enjoy art. If you are interested in collecting art, you don't have to follow trends or others' advice, just listen to your own voice. Trust your eyes and instinct. Simply take the time to look, look and look.

In today's world, where art is treated as another commodity and a work's investment value takes precedence over its artistic value, Herb and Dorothy offers us an important question: What is it to appreciate and collect art?

My fortunate encounter with these beautiful people has changed my view of, and appreciation for, art and life."

--by Judith Zausner

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

When Creative Success Comes Later in Life

Some have struggled for years in jobs, others have followed a quiet creative life and many have tenaciously held on to their entrepreneurial spirit. Yet success found them later in life. When you have dreams of something beyond your present experience, patience is your biggest friend.

Here are some examples:

Anna Mary Robertson "Grandma" Moses was in her 70s when she began painting scenes of her rural life in upstate New York. This self-taught artist, mother and widow became one of the most famous American folk artists of the 20th century and continued painting in her 90s.

Louise Nevelson was in her 50s when she sold her work to three New York City museums and now her art can be seen internationally in over eighty public collections. Shortly before her 60th birthday, she became President of the Artist's Equity New York chapter which was the first of many art leadership positions she would attain.

When she was just months shy of her 50th birthday, Julia Child collaborated on her first French cooking book, a two-volume set titled Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Soon after, she promoted her book on television and that catapulted her overnight sensation in the culinary world.

Colonel Sanders of finger lickin’ good chicken fame, had a difficult start in life but early on realized he had a creative cooking talent. However it was not until he was in his 60s that he started KFC and became a millionaire.

Up until the age of 40, devoutly religious Anton Bruckner, composed music solely for the Catholic Church. Then a meeting with Wagner turned his life around and he began to compose symphonies of epic proportion. He was working on his great Symphony No. 9 when he died at 72.

Elliot Carter has received media attention at age 100. A review from The New York Times music critic was in praise of his latest, centenarian work, Interventions, describing it as "lucidly textured, wonderfully inventive, even impish. This was the work of a living master in full command."

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her family's life in the 1870s and 1880s in the acclaimed The Little House on the Prairie series of books for children. She published her first book at the age of 65.
Harry Bernstein was in his 90s when he decided to write his memoirs after his wife of 67 years died. His book titled The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers and continued writing with the recently published book The Dream.

Louis Kahn, a Russian immigrant, was an important architect of the 20th century. He created his first important piece of architecture, the Yale University Art Gallery, when he was in his 50s and continued to design notable academic buildings.
As jobless architect during the Depression, Alfred Mosher Butts invented Scrabble which became the most popular word game in the world. He did not realize success of the game until his early 50s when Macy’s Chairman placed a large order and promoted it.

Charles Darwin was 50 years old when he published his complete theory of evolution in On the Origin of Species which sold out the first day it was released and subsequently had six editions. He continued to write for at least 10 more years (eg The Descent of Man).

André Kertész was born in Hungary and after years in France photographing artists, he immigrated to the US. Now remembered as an eminent photojournalist, his career vacillated until, at the age of 70, he had a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art and subsequently in galleries all over the world.

This is a short list of many people in a variety of creative venues who pursued their passion and realized success at age 50 and beyond. Their achievements took many paths, twists and turns, and surely moments of self doubt. Coming from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds, (for example, Charles Darwin never had to earn a living while Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up with few resources) their privileged status was not a common thread. But I believe that these late bloomers all share an exceptional ability to persevere, a brilliant talent that would not lay quiet, a set of good genes and a stable environment. They have enriched our lives as a result of their determination and unwavering spirit and they challenge those who believe that old age is simply a negative consequence of living.

Henry David Thoreau said “I have learned that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

--by Judith Zausner

Monday, May 4, 2009

Creative Resilience in Difficult Times

Yes, it’s tough out there and the wind has not shifted yet. Since there is no economic weather forecast that is reliable, we have to accept this financial debacle and find ways to continue to manage our lives creatively and successfully.

It would be great if there was a magic potion to clear the negative fumes but our resilient attitude will be our best tool. Maintaining your dignity and optimism and building a personal well of happiness is important.

Ian Thiermann at age 90 lost all of his retirement savings, over $700 thousand dollars, in the Madoff scheme but refuses to dwell on the negative. He has launched himself again after 25 years of retirement and now works for $10 an hour, 30 hours a week, as a greeter at a local grocery store where he was a regular customer. This initiative was made possible by Ian’s positive attitude and acceptance as well as the smarts of the store management to recognize the value of inspiration to others. Ian and his wife refuse to be depressed; instead they are focused on gratitude for the support of friends and family around them.

How are artists responding? Brooklyn artist Geoffrey Raymond is 55 years old and, less than 2 years ago, the former PR executive reinvented himself by seizing the Wall Street collapse to generate a new business. He paints oversized portraits of fallen CEOs and then positions himself with his work outside their headquarters. He offers Sharpie markers to those passing by to write their comments on the canvas; employees get a colored marker and an unaffiliated person gets a black one. Geoffrey has painted portraits of Richard Fuld (Lehman Brothers), James Cayne (Bear Stearns), Hank Greenberg (AIG), Rupert Murdoch (News Corp) and others to capture people’s attention and give them a place to vent their thoughts. Not surprising this has also captured the attention of the media as well as buyers on eBay where his paintings sometimes start at an opening bid of $5,000. And there is a report of a well heeled employee with a strong sense of humor paying $10,000 for a portrait right there on the street.

An economy meltdown is hard to visualize but artists Marshall Reese and Nora Ligorano created just that. The ECONOMY ice sculpture called mainstream meltdown certainly provokes conversation. Purposefully staged in New York City on 10/29, the 79th anniversary of the stock market crash, it had a pristine elegance in its 1600 pounds of ice that measured 15 to 20 ft across and about 5 feet high. Yet it was doomed; it could not last 20 hours and was an economy meltdown disintegrating right before your eyes.

The economy is down but community service is up. Doing good is becoming trendy. There has been a recent rise in non profit start ups, a new surge of interest in volunteerism and an increase of applications to work at non profits. People are stirred to reach out and infuse positive energy in a negative environment. It is difficult for a young person graduating college to look for a job when the market is weak and competition is strong. That situation has stirred some to take a strategic leap and join the Peace Corps upon graduation because they will learn a lot, give a lot and by the end of their two year assignment hopefully the economy will have improved. Even corporations whose stock prices have tanked realize the value of community service from an inside and outside perspective. It feels good to the people making a difference and it looks good to the community and to the public. According to the January 16, 2009 Verizon Press Release, “In 2008, Verizon employees volunteered more than 607,000 hours to 5,169 nonprofit organizations. The Verizon Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Verizon, supports employee volunteerism by awarding a $750 grant to a nonprofit organization when a Verizon employee volunteers 50 hours or more to the organization during the year.”

At Civic Ventures (, their studies find that “Half of all Americans age 50 to 70 want work that helps others. A full 50 percent are interested in taking jobs now and in retirement that help improve quality of life in their communities.”

Heather Gee, Vice President for Development and Donor Services at Women’s Philanthropy Network in Philadelphia says that the group of volunteers at a recent event believe that
“.. .women who have a common interest to give back to the community will make this world a better place and really create positive change. They believe in the power of women working together to change lives and save lives.”

In this difficult time, it is important to realize one’s own strength and resources to change internally and to give externally. Creative resilience is not an option, it is a necessity.

Be the change that you want to see in the world. (Ghandi)

--By Judith Zausner