Can Going Alt Ac Work Out for You?

William Casement found his Ph.D. and intellectual bent were assets to be parlayed in the outside world rather than a cross to bear.

November 6, 2019

It worked out quite well for me, thank you. I retired in 2015 after an interesting and challenging career that was more lucrative than higher education and allowed me and my family to live for the last 25 years in a location many people envy. I found that my Ph.D. and intellectual bent were an asset to be parlayed in the outside world rather than a cross to bear. And while being employed there, I managed to keep connected to the inside in ways I enjoyed and on my own terms, and without longing to go back.

Academe was there for me if I wanted it. And I did for a while -- through graduate school and into my 10 years as a professor. At first, I was drawn to the comfort of a sanctuary for pursuing the life of the mind, but five years at an institution in financial straits and five more at another one with an oppressive political atmosphere ended in resignation letters. The allure of higher education gradually wore off. I came to see that environment as limiting my possibilities.

I felt good about designing and teaching a dozen courses, publishing a couple of dozen articles, starting an honors program and (for a year) heading a humanities division. But I became disillusioned about my surroundings and, more broadly, conditions permeating my profession: highly trained professionals working for meager pay, administrative bloat, a proliferation of agendas that competed with the function of teaching, postmodern dominance in evaluating scholarship and the increasing control of politics in all aspects of higher learning and campus life. I was ready for a change.

My wife, too, was in professional limbo. Following her stint teaching law, she was at home with our toddler with plans for another child when she started a part-time business buying and selling art, with much of it going to her parents’ gallery in Florida. I joined in. We studied art, drove to regional auctions, talked with dealers and, over several years, got an enterprise going that we knew could grow into more when our kids started school.

Of course, there was a learning curve. In the heat of spirited bidding with a mesmerizing auctioneer, instead of the painting we’d intended, we overpaid for a hand-carved 19th-century wooden rocking pig that still graces our home today. We had to learn the cautionary steps for avoiding forgeries, while realizing that even seasoned dealers can be fooled and some of them don’t care. And there was much more we were mastering gradually.

Originally, the idea was for my wife to be the entrepreneur while I continued as a professor, but the upside of dealing art won out, and we decided to move to Florida and join her parents’ business. We hit the ground running and kept on learning. The gallery was a decade old and already successful, but it’s fair to say my wife and I took it to another level.

I found immediately that the crossover skills career counselors extol when discussing alt-ac employment are more than a pitch to soothe job seekers’ anxieties. My capability at writing was a decided asset in preparing brochures, artists’ bios and specialized correspondence. While many people in the business world struggle to produce prose that would be passable in a basic college composition course, the memos, proposals and reference letters, as well as the manuscripts I had written as a professor made wordsmithing in my new environment second nature.

Research came naturally, too. I’d already been doing some of it, and now I ramped up my activity as I dug for background on artists and on other businesses we might connect with and to establish proper values for what we bought and sold. Once I determined which reference works and databases to consult, experience took over.

When it came to oral communication -- talking to people about art -- I was pleasantly surprised at my comfort level. The demeanor of a teacher communicating with students is something most salespeople don’t have in their background, and it’s very helpful for listening carefully, making clear and organized statements, and thinking on your feet while establishing trust in your expertise. Sage on the stage converted nicely to art dealer on the gallery floor. In fact, I found that on occasions when I mentioned my Ph.D. in philosophy, it inspired respect rather signaling pretentiousness.

Formal teaching was in my past. Perhaps I could have been an adjunct at a local college, but I never inquired. I was busy interacting with the clients and artists who replaced students and faculty members as my daily human contacts, and I got to meet, and sometimes know well, some fascinating people. Besides selling antique works, the gallery represented living artists, many of whom came from other countries and had unusual backgrounds: one of Cuba’s top painters who left as Castro took over, our Soviet-trained painter who told us about “best practices” in exporting art from Russia, a former French paratrooper whose lineage traces through seven generations to a court painter for Louis XIV at Versailles.

Our patrons included many corporate owners and CEOs, such as the head of one of the country’s largest banks who wandered through the gallery picking tags off the wall and handed me a stack of 20-plus of them for paintings he wanted to purchase. We also had random politicians and entertainers, including a former U.S. senator and presidential candidate who asked me for a discount for being, as he put it, a “dedicated public servant.” A Formula One driver invited me to hang a new purchase at his home -- that is, in his garage that displayed six cherry-red Ferraris and some top-flight paintings. Such examples weren’t the norm, but they weren’t isolated cases, either.

What about scholarly activity? That’s something I didn’t want to give up. Writing for publication became my main hobby, as well as my downtime activity at the gallery, and I wrote two books along with a couple of dozen more articles. With no concern about professional advancement and no authority to answer to, I felt free to tackle any topic I liked -- sometimes aiming at expert audiences and other times at a more general readership. Much of my attention went to critiquing higher education, as I watched from outside and maintained contacts inside.

My most recent project, which is continuing in retirement, is on art forgery. Combining my accumulated practical knowledge with art-historical research, I’ve published several articles in academic journals and completed a forthcoming book. That wouldn’t have happened without my venture into alt ac.

My income as an art dealer surpassed what I would have made as a professor, although it fluctuated considerably from year to year according to various economic factors. Together with my wife’s income, we could afford private schools, European cruises, the luxury cars our clients expected to see, good health insurance and now a comfortable retirement. I make the point about finances last because money hasn’t been my primary motivation in life, although having enough of it certainly is important, and also because while some art dealers earn substantial figures, others struggle. I don’t recommend going alt ac by dealing in art. There are too many pitfalls that I won’t enumerate here.

But the general idea of self-employment is one I do recommend that people give some thought to -- doing whatever works within your interests and talents. If not full-time, it could be a side hustle, something that may become a fundamental part of many academic careers in the future in response to the increasingly prevalent adjunctification of the faculty.

That said, I offer a strong warning about making self-employment the sole source of income to support more than one person. People in both the business world and academe have told me they’re happy trading off the potentially higher earnings from working solo for the security of a smaller but regular income through an employer’s paycheck. Having a form of financial backup and a personality that tolerates risk are both important here.

An alt-ac job is also certainly more risky than a tenured position in academe -- that is, for someone who has tenure or a reasonable chance of getting it. A job for life can be a powerful enticement with the ultimate sense of security it provides. I never applied for tenure but would have expected to get it at either college where I worked if I’d stayed a little longer. Something I was silent about with my academic colleagues was that I didn’t want tenure. Where they saw a brass ring, I saw a ball and chain that would hold me back from venturing out of the sanctuary where I could have more geographical mobility, a chance for a better income, surroundings I hoped would be more satisfying and the adventure I sensed was ahead. If I’d had tenure, would I have dared to give it up? If I’d stayed, over time where would my discordant attitude have led? Fortunately, I’ll never know.

My view of tenure was perhaps the final and most telling piece in a mind-set that pointed toward an exit from academe. I won’t claim that leaving is the answer for other people who are discontented, although it may be for some. For me, not only was my level of discontent high, but an exciting outside prospect was beckoning. My experience does apply, however, to anyone considering alt ac in that it is indeed possible to have trained for an academic career, and even to have pursued one, and then switch up and have an alternative career with an intellectually fulfilling life.

“Fulfilling” is the key word. Many people will forge an alt-ac path out of necessity and, I suspect, maintain a longing for the academy and a sense that they’re lesser beings than those who earn their living there. The best answer I can give is to say that, in my case, I honestly don’t feel that way. I have strong misgivings about how higher education institutions operate, but despite that, I have a great love for higher learning. And I respect people who commit their lives to academe, but I know that’s not the only route someone with a passion for the life of the mind can follow and be confident and fulfilled.


William Casement is a former art dealer and philosophy professor living in Naples, Fla. He has authored numerous publications spanning the fields of philosophy, literature, history, education and art. Contact him at [email protected].


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