General 3-2-2005

Art Job Follies: Burning Down Atlanta

Suz Szucs attends the College Art Association conference: the annual ritual for job-seeking artists from all over the country. How brutal was it? Not bad--

Suzanne Szucs

It’s February. That means it’s time for CAA. There are two basic reasons to go to the College Art Association conference: either you are an art historian and need to network, or you are an art job applicant and need to network. This year the annual pilgrimage was to Atlanta, Georgia. I can’t remember it ever being in Minnesota and, although it travels every year to different regions, it doesn’t look like it’s coming near anytime soon. The Mid-America CAA did have its conference in Minneapolis this year, but I tragically missed that one due to making art. Because the Georgia legislature passed an anti-gay marriage amendment on November 2, I figured they need all the gender-bending queer folk they can get, so I took myself down to the conference for a look-see.

I’ve been to many a CAA conference – it’s been a nice way of seeing different parts of the country. My first one, in San Antonio, has been my only foray into Texas and was quite worthy of that state. First of all, the city has a pretty awesome art scene, with a warehouse district cleaned up and devoted to the arts. The city also boasts the Alamo, and real Texicans. On someone’s advice, my cohorts and I searched out and stumbled into the “authentic” bar. A little two much authenticity was felt by one of my gay companions; and I, being a healthily voluptuous redhead, was immediately beset by a very short, haughty cowboy. Let’s just say, my friends and I were out of our element and, not having a handgun or switchblade between us, retreated to the safety of the touristy riverwalk, but not before I downed one or two margaritas and danced cheek to breast with my new cow friend.

Yep, networking. What is a conference for other than tying one on to recover from the meat market of interviewing? Give a bunch of creative types that many hotel rooms at their disposal and silliness is bound to ensue. Add a more than healthy dose of overwrote pretentious art theory and the gates to panic-driven drinking will open wide. The Toronto conference drove my companion and me to the hotel bar for martinis. Have I really never had one made better, or was it that every time we entered a session the speaker was talking about detritus in art? The only solution to such random weirdness was to retreat to the bar. Detritus, by the way, is a fancy way of saying crap.

Okay, here’s how the conference works: you’ve got one world of sessions devoted to art historical topics and another for the candidates interviewing for a smorgasbord of art-related jobs. The two are pretty separate because if you are involved in the interview process, well, it’s hard to do both. It’s a slow burn for the interviewees. They have to fly in, book hotel rooms and get dressed up to wait in hotel hallways for their half-hour of interviewing bliss, sometimes sitting on the bed of the interviewer like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. It’s not much easier for the interviewers, cramming 20 or 30 “sitdowns” into 2 or 3 days.

Last time I was at CAA, I had 5 interviews in one day and by the end of it was pretty sure I wanted none of the jobs. Two interviewers were almost certainly having an argument through me: “Would you please tell my colleague what you think of the post-modernist perspective of dog shit?” “And tell my colleague that dog shit is most certainly a modernist concept, as it is the individuated conceit of an artist made physical.” Later in the hotel lobby I saw one of the interviewers and asked him how he was liking the conference. The tension in his face told me clearly that not only was the conference a bust, but he wouldn’t be at his job long. Academia can be a very lonely place.

There is even a whole category of CAA urban myths. My favorite is the one about the guy who went to his interview so nervous he had his thrift-store clothes completely inside out. Artists are not typically known as the most conventional bunch of citizens. We all know there is a machismo in paint-stained black jeans. What to do with this attitude when interviewing for a professional position, albeit in a hotel room or at one of a hundred meeting tables? Does one express herself in an arty outfit, letting her individual flair expose itself, or does she try to gussy it up and put on the more professional face? Here’s my two cents worth: be comfortable but tidy. Oh yes, and don’t forget the shoes – screw the outfit, it’s the shoes that matter. Make sure they are hip, clean and classy.

I have to say, after last year’s antics, the 2005 conference turned out to be pretty tame. Unfortunately, my schedule didn’t allow me to get to many sessions, but I did manage to sneak into the one I really wanted to see, Tomboys and Girlie Girls… it certainly sounded promising, but leave it to art history PhD candidates to take the thrill out of adolescence. Mechanically read papers obsessing on Lolita were punctuated with occasional art photos of teenage girls. My perfect moment came after the session ended… as I stumbled out into the hotel lobby, I was confronted by hundreds of young girls just arrived for Cheersport 2005. Ah, the beauty of it!

I can be cynical about the conference: I can be critical of the art world in general. Sometimes it can all seem so pretentious and elitist, so “hipper than thou.” But it was wonderful to be surrounded by so many ideas, and so many people hungry for them. Highlights were several panels devoted to the concerns raised by the Patriot Act and others exploring the role of art in the civil rights movement. These are huge issues that affect us all and it is comforting to know that my tribe is thinking and doing something about them.

And the interviews weren’t so bad. Maybe I’m more comfortable with what I have to offer, but this year I was cool, calm and collected. And my interviewers responded in kind – none of the shenanigans of previous years. In fact, it was a pleasure meeting new people and talking about art. I found the pathos this year in my fellow interviewees. Time and again, I’m so nervous, I could cry played on the country radio station of their visages.

At lunch one day, I met a woman oozing with anxiety as she prepared for her next meeting. We got to talking and after a while she said, “I hate it when they turn it around and ask me to tell them about myself… I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what they want.” I tried to comfort her, I really did, but I could tell this whole CAA job thing was not her bag. She was going to be disappointed.

“Be yourself,” I said, smiling earnestly, “Make them want you.”

Suzanne Szucs

Suzanne E. Szucs is an artist, writer and educator living and working in Rochester, MN. A recipient of numerous grants and awards, including an Illinois Arts Council Individual Fellowship and two Minnesota State Arts Board Individual Artist Grants, she has shown her work widely. Szucs has a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and a MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She writes critical articles for Afterimage and has recently lectured about her work at SPE, College Art …   read more