Looking through the jobs and opportunities on a-n.co.uk recently, I spotted this listing for a residency in Luxembourg. It looked interesting, but then I noticed this: ‘Applicants should not be older than 40 years’. Why 40, I wondered? Why has someone sat down and decided they don’t want any resident artists over the age of 40?

This age restriction thing always bugs me – especially when there seems to be no reason for it. Usually the opportunity will specify that applicants should be under the age of 35, or occasionally even 30. Sometimes, you read these listings and then you’ll have a look at the organisation’s website, and it’s only when you get the full brief – maybe at the very end – that it states you have to be under 35. It’s happened to me so many times: an opportunity will look promising but then you read on and realise you can’t apply because you’re too old.

When I mention this to people who aren’t involved in the art world they can’t quite believe it. If you apply for a job in any other realm, it’s common practice not to ask your age, sex or race – positions are generally offered without any prejudice or bias. It seems so strange that when it comes to art, age discrimination is relatively widespread. If something is obviously sexist or racist, we’re pretty much all in agreement that it’s a bad thing, but it seems like we haven’t yet decided if ageism is wrong. We’re all a bit vague about it.

Maybe there is an ingrained view that people leave art school when they are in their early twenties, and that they are the ones most in need of help – that once you’ve reached the age of 35 or 40, you don’t need things like grants or residencies anymore, because you have a successful career. But of course it’s not like that. Imagine if you went to art school in your 40s and then found you couldn’t apply for anything because everything was aimed at younger artists?

Young and emerging

Sometimes the word ‘young’ can get thrown in without any real thought – ‘we are looking for young artists’ or ‘we want to support young, emerging artists’. But at what point do you stop being young? I often look at these things and wonder what would happen if you just applied without mentioning your age. If you got shortlisted and then interviewed, would there be an awkward situation where you turned up and they said ‘hang on – you’re not young!’ Or if you applied for something where it clearly says you’ve got to be under 40 and they loved your work, but then it transpires that you are over 40 – what would happen?

Do they just throw the age thing in there hoping that they’ll get a more youthful and – in their minds – more dynamic applicant, rather than an artist in their 40s, 50s or 60s? I get the feeling that sometimes the people who word these listings just haven’t really thought about it.

When I was younger, if I saw an opportunity that said you had to be under 35 I’d think, ‘Brilliant – I can apply for that’. I’d never question why you had to be under 35. I’d just accept that perhaps once I was beyond that age I wouldn’t really need to apply for these things anymore – I’d be grown up and successful and generating an income.

With the residencies, commissions and exhibitions that I’ve worked on, my age has never been an issue. No-one has ever said to me, ‘Oh, you’re a lot older than I expected!’ When you’re working as an artist, you turn up with your work for a show or you turn up to do a residency or public art commission interview and there’s never any kind of feeling that people are expecting you to be a different age. At least I’ve never experienced that.

So why does this completely absurd situation still permeate certain opportunities? After all, you’d never advertise for a plumber and say they had to be under 40, so why advertise for an artist and discriminate in this way?

More on a-n.co.uk:

Applying the age discrimination law

Connected Parts – Ally Wallace’s recent exhibition at Lillie Art Gallery, Glasgow reviewed by Jenny Brownrigg.