Bethany Bristow

Bethany Bristow installing Mandala at the Museum of Art and Design in 2009

Instead of a formal biography I’ve chosen to write as myself to share with you directly a little about who I am and why I decided this was a good time to chat with Brainard.

My name is Bethany Bristow. I’m an artist and Certified Financial Planner TM living in Brooklyn, NY.  Not a typical combination both for artists with day jobs, nor financial service workers with other interests. I’ll explain below how this all came about…

About nine years ago I went through what I thought at the time was an unexpected financial crisis but now realize that some of the choices I had made left me vulnerable. I had been working part-time up until that point at a variety of jobs that paid me a modest amount and allowed me to focus primarily on my art career. I lived the way a lot of artists (and plenty of other Americans) live, hand to mouth, no budget, no contingency plan, no real emergency fund. As it happened the lease on my small loft was up for renewal and the landlord doubled the rent, which I was sensible enough to know there was no way for me to afford. I decided to move on. I had an exhibition coming up in Europe, I was tired of my day job of the last five years; I figured I’d store everything and see how it went in Europe and then pick up the pieces when I got back in a few months. Things didn’t go so well. I sold no work from the exhibition, I depleted my meager savings and I ended up homeless, but save friends who put me up on couches and housesitting. Not a great situation anywhere, never mind NYC, as housing prices were going up markedly at that time (as they have been again in the last few years).

Unexpectedly and perhaps ironically, part of my getting out of this crisis situation was taking a job in financial services or as it is sometimes called, “Wall Street”. A label that conjures up everything from the Occupy Wall Street movement to stock brokers who “make money the old fashioned way, they earn it”, to Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities “Masters of the Universe”, to silicon alley hedge funders, and other snarky moneyed types who some times buy art.

It was through art world connections that I got my foot in the door of this new world. It was both enthralling and terrifying. There was a whole new language and culture to learn. I approached it like an art project. I analyzed the environment, I looked for things that needed my attention, ways to connect with an audience, how to make meaning. My new colleagues were incredibly generous in giving me a chance to learn the ropes and listened to my different perspective. Opportunities to learn and grow kept opening up. Making a decent amount of money for the first time in my life was strangely satisfying.

While I’m not the first artist to have a day job in the financial sector, Jeff Koons, Paul Gaugin and Franz Kafka immediately come to mind, it is unusual and not what artists typically find themselves doing. For me, the simple fact of being an artist as well as a woman placed me on the outside, while being on the inside, in some ways a distinct advantage, lemonade out of lemons. This different perspective has helped me think critically about my positioning both in my life as an artist, as well as my second profession as a financial planner.

No surprise many artists have a complicated relationship with money… the ideal of making a living by just selling art, elusive and mythic tenure track teaching positions, family money, starving artists, etc. And like most people, money is a subject that many can’t or don’t want to talk about openly. If you are like me, maybe you’ve looked at someone else’s life and said, “how do they afford that?”, “how DO they pay their bills?” Maybe these internal thoughts are what led me to become involved in the art and science of financial planning; developing an intellectual and idealistic interest in helping people figure out the financial puzzles of their own lives.

However there are still aspects of working in the financial sector that bothered me deeply, the “bro-culture” that finds itself in the news from time to time, as well as the emphasis and rewards based on sales results rather than fiduciary responsibilities. Even though there are many well-known institutions out there now talking the talk about the importance of women working in the industry, as well as “doing the right thing” for clients, there is still a ways to go before the reality matches the ideal. That being said the approximately 10% of the industry that are women, were a great source of encouragement and solidarity. Those of us who are a part of this sisterhood, will know exactly what I mean here.

About a year and a half ago I again reached a crossroads with my day job, my life goals and work life balance. Ultimately, my decision was to leave my firm and work independently in order to reach my full potential and work within my own ideals. I wished to develop ways to help other artists and women with financial literacy and empowerment. I wanted to work in a way that did not involve meeting the goals of anyone other than myself or my clients.

In order to really do this I felt I would need the additional credentials of the CFP®, Certified Financial PlannerTM. I took classes at night for a year and then made the leap and resigned from my firm in September in order to study full time to take the exam in November. I was elated and relieved to pass. And as of January 3rd, 2017, I completed the rest of the certification process. A new chapter begins in my life including time in my studio again!

The two books I mention in the interview are Pivot, by Jenny Blake. Sort of a self-help/how to book on career or other life changes, a bit didactic, but helpful in working through the decision making process and The Other Paris, by Luc Sante. A fascinating history of Paris’ dark underbelly, including great photographs and ephemera of the time. He’s also written about New York in his book Low Life.

Saigon I, digital c-print 2006

Detail of a sculpture from the installation Radiant Voyage, 2006, glass, feathers and candles.