Ageless artists

When a team with the Research Center for Arts and Culture at Columbia University was gathering information for a study on aging artists, their subjects had plenty of observations to share, from the thoughtful to the matter-of-fact.

“My job is a verb – constantly learning,” an 87-year-old actor from New York City declared. A former Rockette dancer, age 68, confided, “It’s the jumping that’s hard. I can still kick.”

The report, aptly titled “Still Kicking,” was released Thursday. (An executive summary is here; the full report is here.) Although the topic – the well-being of aging professional performers in New York City and Los Angeles – may seem rarefied, the lessons are not.

The researchers found that most of the artists they interviewed were still working, engaged with their art and their audiences and highly satisfied with their lives. As the baby boom generation reaches retirement and America wrestles with thorny social and policy questions about aging, perhaps we should turn to performing artists as an example of how to rescript the story of our lives and grow older with grace and resilience, the authors suggest. “This is one case where artists can show the way.”

The findings in “Still Kicking” are based on interviews with 219 professional performing artists in New York City and 51 in Los Angeles. The artists ranged in age from 62 to 97 and included actors, musicians, dancers, choreographers and singers.

One of the clearest things that emerged is that older performing artists enjoy fulfilling lives. They are satisfied with their lifetime performing career and most would choose the same career all over again. They take more artistic risks than when they were younger and have a deeper creative experience.

Although the majority of those who were interviewed lived alone, they communicated daily or weekly with other artists. More than half continued to be working artists and didn’t plan to retire until they were 90. A professional singer told the interviewers, “Singers don’t have retirement plans; I have to sing until I die.”

On the practical side, most of the artists who were surveyed had health insurance. Ninety-two percent had a will. The majority also had a designated health proxy and power of attorney.

The study found that performing artists face challenges as they age. Physical limitations were one of the barriers, especially for dancers. Many of the artists said they would stop working if injuries or declining health made it too difficult for them to continue. For some, the report noted, “retirement is both a financial and an emotional impossibility.”

Ageism was another barrier. The study recounts the experience of one actress:

One fit, attractive, brown-haired 75-year-old actress whom we interviewed, was called to audition for the role of a 75-year-old. She had to go out and buy a white wig and borrow a cane to emulate what the casting director thought 75 looked like.

The number of performing artists who work sporadically or who are freelancers also means that many fall outside the safety net of health and retirement benefits for a significant portion of their career.

Some observations from the report:

– As Americans live longer and the proportion of older Americans continues to grow, an emphasis has emerged on “creative aging” and the role the arts can play in promoting better health among older adults.

– Older artists can serve as a model for more flexible approaches to work, semi-retirement and access to health insurance.

– Older adults can feel fulfilled and supported in their later years when they have meaningful work and are engaged with their community.

This is believed to be the first study that has examined the needs of performing artists as they age. It seems to point the way toward models that other aging adults can follow. “A greater understanding of aging artists’ survival mechanisms, their relationship to their work, to each other, and to the social systems which make their work possible can provide a beacon for a lifetime of meaning, often self-motivated and self-generated,” the study’s authors wrote. “This meaning is something to pass on to future generations and as part of their early and continuing education. It is a guide to what is most central in our lives, and to our individual legacies.”

Photos, from top: Jazz musician Ellis Marsalis Jr., age 77; actor/director Clint Eastwood, age 81, on the set of “Gran Torino” in 2008; actress Patricia Neal, age 85. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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