The Jini Dellaccio Project – The story of a wise-ager

A fiscally-sponsored project of Artist Trust to honor photographer Jini Dellaccio


A wise-ager is like a teenager, just at the other end of life, apt to cause trouble and give hope. Etymologically, “wise-ager” is related to wiseacre, wisdom, and wizard.                                                                                                    


The Jini Dellaccio Project participates in redefining life after 70, the “wise-ager” years. Its aim is to call attention to the real potential of the wise-ager stage of life and to demonstrate the value of using and sharing experience gained over many decades. It believes wise-agers have the imagination and power to be part of making the world a better place while living fully and finding joy in it at the same time. It’s about investigating the potential of the years many of us are given after the traditional age of “retirement,” years many or most people in our parents’ generation didn’t have.

The project is named for photographer Jini Dellaccio who died at age 97 in 2014. She was an exemplary wise-ager. She set her own course and lived a spirited and meaningful life that spanned playing saxophone in a girl band in her 20s during the Great Depression to learning to use a digital camera in her late 80s. Her story grounds the project in the inspiring life of a real person. My peerless co-conspirator in the project’s creation is Sarah Cavanaugh, who knew Jini and stood by her through the final phase of her life.

Years before the Jini Dellaccio Project began, I could imagine the potential of the “wise-ager” life. As these years came closer, though, my high aspirations for how I’d spend them ran smack dab into a practical, financial wall. I couldn’t afford to give myself over to the work I wanted and felt I had the potential to do. Like many others my age, I needed to find a way to keep making a living at the same time. Until then, I’d managed to make up a life that allowed me to be paid for work that mattered to me. That work got harder and harder to find. I know that other wise-agers and I are not alone in this challenge, and I also know that there is a huge amount of work in the world that needs to be done but that isn’t attached to jobs that pay anyone to do it. So, rather than squeeze my “real” work around a patchwork of small jobs, I chose to make up another way to gain enough financial flexibility to do the work that matters to me now. Helping to create the Jini Dellaccio Project is a result.

The Jini Dellaccio Project is a three-year experiment funded by a gift exchange rather than a market exchange. It is fueled by gifts that individuals make to Artist Trust, the project’s fiscal sponsor. With the funds collected, Artist Trust pays me through a contract to help define and manage the project and to exemplify a wise-ager life. I treat this as a gift that carries a strong sense of obligation to give back to the community. This gift also offers me a sense of freedom from specific expectations for what the return will be, a flexibility to learn and adapt as I go, with the possibility of giving back something unexpected.

For years I’ve been musing on the history and meaning of gifts and their place in our lives and in our economy today. In the abstract, giving and receiving gifts seems as honorable an exchange as buying and selling a product or service. But in real life, gifts are emotionally charged.

From Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift,I came to understand that gift exchange establishes emotional bonds (it’s a relationship, it’s messy), while market exchange leaves no connections behind (it’s a transaction, it’s clean). One is associated with community and obligation, the other with freedom and alienation. From James Allen Smith, a historian of philanthropy, I learned that “the substantial power of a gift coexists with great potential for harm.” The old Germanic words gift and gif convey both gift and poison.

I believe in the power of gift exchange, in our societal need for gifts as a balance to the marketplace, and in gifts as characteristic of a commons and of civil society. As I took on this project I had to deal with the queasiness I felt being on the receiving end of gifts. But I want to use the language of gifts and not that of investments. With all its messiness, the language of gifts is closer to the values that Sarah and I want the project to stand for.

The whole story of the project and the way it came into the world is much larger and more complex than what’s here. My part of the story began in the middle of anxious nights of financial worry, of shame at not having put together a financial plan for my “retirement,” of losing my familiar cheery self, the one always able to see the sunny side of a setback. I began to get out of this hole when I found the courage to share my anxiety with Jini’s friend, Sarah, the other half of my writing group. In fact, none of this would have happened without her, the project’s co-creator. Her story is different from mine, but our two stories cross and intersect in ways that have changed us both. Another part of the story is the role played by Artist Trust and its director, Shannon Halberstadt. The role of fiscal sponsor isn’t one Artist Trust has played before: legal and fiscal responsibilities had to be clear, mechanics had to be developed, Shannon and the board had to believe in the value of the project. After deliberation and due diligence, though, they did what artists themselves often do, they took the risk.

So, here we are, with one year of the project behind us. When the year started, I wanted to tell people what would come of it. “I don’t know yet” never felt sufficient, even though I knew it was the right answer at the time. So, it feels good now to look back and see what actually happened. A summary of some of the activities in the first year and a few thoughts about what’s next is available online here.

The Jini Dellaccio Project is a grand experiment, an exercise in imagination, collaboration, and many tiny details. I’m eager to see what the next two years bring.

September 1, 2017

Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property, 1983. Re-published as The Gift: Creativity and the artist in the modern world , 2007.


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