Over the past nine months I have applied to arts administrative positions all across the country, including every city I have never wanted to visit. One of my mentors occasionally reminds me that opportunities abound in Doha, Qatar, but as committed as I am to working in the museum field, there is only so much angst I am comfortable causing my mother in pursuit of my professional interests. Moving to Utah in 2009 for a position as communications director at the Salt Lake Art Center was difficult enough for her to fathom. Persuading her that I was making a good career move wasn’t the issue; rather, it was convincing her that I’d be able to meet a nice Jewish boy while living two blocks from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Certainly if I were to move to Doha, my love life would be the least of her concerns, so alas, I have limited my job search to the United States.
Unemployment has its obvious challenges. It creates a sense of anxiety that sticks to my body like a hot wad of chewing gum on a rubber sole—it stretches, snaps or is eventually compounded, but it doesn’t really go away. While trying to stave off bipolar-like symptoms that sway radically from motivation and promise to apathy and discouragement, NPR offers uplifting reports explaining why the unemployed are likely to earn less than their working peers for the rest of their lives.
The most frustrating aspect of job hunting is the repetitive process of applying to inspiring institutions where I know I could make a positive impact, only to be denied an interview—denied, to be clear, not by letter or email, but in the trendy econo-dip fashion, which, for those of you who are not in the know, is characterized by cool and enduring silence. On the rare occasion that the opportunity presents itself, I find myself composing a heartfelt note to an HR manager, conveying my sincere gratitude for her rejection letter. In such instances, there is only one question to ask myself: Is this really what it’s come to?
Unemployment also has its benefits, and despite what I’ve written above, some even rival the radiant luster of its setbacks. On a Monday morning last fall, a friend and I took a hike where we spent hours enjoying luxurious shade, picking wild raspberries and stumbling upon moose—a cow and her calf standing like statues on the curved trail. Moose appear cute and cuddly (spindly legs and all) but they are known to have a mean streak. The duo we encountered spent 20 minutes assessing our worth and intentions until they were tranquil enough to absent-mindedly chomp on leaves and continue their ascent into the thick, waxy foliage. (Job or no job, they could sense we didn’t deserve a hoof in the mouth.) Upon returning to the base of the trail I thought, “Where was everyone today and how were we so lucky to have this spectacular experience to ourselves?” Then of course it hit me that everyone was at work. Suckers.
What I have learned from being unemployed, other than how to grow rhino skin and enjoy leisure time while I have it, is that I’m too passionate about museums and the arts to relinquish my aspirations to any old job. My professional experience is in contemporary art galleries, art museums, public art agencies and academia, and I feel an affinity for each. In the future I’m hoping to focus my attention on curatorial work. It’s true that ten years ago I had a brief stint as a BriteSmile dental technician, but I’m no longer masochistic enough to work in industries where I clearly don’t belong. Why would I when they can’t possibly “complete me” à la Zellweger and Cruise in Jerry Macguire?
I’ve taken calculated steps to move myself in the right direction. Since roughly 70% of all jobs are filled through some form of networking, I have gotten savvy at marketing my skills and interests and have turned life into one big informational interview. I also recently moved back to my hometown, Denver, to make connections in a larger city and live closer to family. Negotiating my unemployment status, as it turns out, has revealed that I’m capable of creating my own opportunities. When I’m not hobnobbing with moose, I spend my time freelancing for artists, curators and companies such as the Eames Office in LA. This has not only allowed me to participate in invigorating experiences, but it has also reaffirmed my belief that proactively pursuing one’s goals is essential. For me, that will always beat suctioning spit from a stranger’s mouth.
Marlow Hoffman is a WMA member and recipient of the 2010 Wanda Chin Annual Meeting Scholarship Fund. She is currently seeking employment in the museum profession.