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Women Get "Fresh" with Art World Sexism

A women’s art and activism initiative aims to address the gender imbalance.
Do Women Have to be Naked?” Guerilla Girls, 2012. All images courtesy NMWA

The National Museum of Women in the Arts in D.C. are rolling out a new movement that addresses the still-skewed representation of females in the arts. Titling their cause "Women, Arts, and Social Change," the team—headed by NMWA director Susan Fisher Sterling—aim to dissect gender issues in contemporary art and culture, dissolving the structures that reduce females to footnotes, quotas, or afterthoughts in museums, galleries, and institutions.


The initiative kicks off this month with "Fresh Talks," a series of conversations in which invited speakers tackle questions such as "Can design be genderless?" and "Can there be parity in the art world?" which is the subject of the inaugural talk on October 18.

The Guerrilla Girls' 1986 Report Card alongside Pussy Galore's 2015 Report Card © Pussy Galore

"When we began our research, looking into other arts initiatives that were about women and social action, we realized there were almost none. Really, nothing," says Sterling, who said the idea for initiative seeded around three years ago. "So I think we have the opportunity here to become this beacon of reason for women in the arts—to make sure women were represented and effecting social change."

Conversation about gender parity is already omnipresent; however, this has been little change in areas such as arts and culture, where inequality begins with appointment of staff, board members, curators and of course, artists. In 1989, the anonymous activist group Guerilla Girls inaugurated their irregular headcount of female artists versus female nude sculptures shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They asked, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?"

Carrie Mae Weems: Photo courtesy the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

In 1989, the ratio was less than 5% artists to 85% nudes; in 2012, an incredible 23 years later, the ratio is still less than 4% artists to 76% nudes. The transparency of this underrepresentation and the stigmatizing catch-all dredges up fallacies such as: women artists simply can't paint as well as men (thanks, Georg Baselitz); women can't make art and have kids, it's one or the other; and women should be relegated to being objects and muses rather than creators themselves.


"Having children and being a mother… It would be a compromise to be an artist at the same time," Tracy Emin famously said in an interview with Red magazine in 2014. "There are good artists that have children. Of course there are. They are called men." How then in the face of such adversity, can social change be enacted?

Gabriela Palmieri: Photo Courtesy Sotheby's

"A conference can inspire, but cannot make change. Everyone attending this one should do some kind of action afterward," says an anonymous member of the Guerilla Girls, speaking on behalf of the group. A GG member is a panellist in the upcoming "Can there be parity in the art world?" talk, which also features Sarah Douglas, Editor-in-Chief of Artnews, and Gabriela Palmieri, senior vice president at Sotheby's. Maura Reilly, curator and writer, will moderate. GG continues: "There are people in every institution that care about gender and diversity and they are collecting and exhibiting more art by women and artists of color. But there are also people who have drunk the fancy art world Kool-Aid and only care about the most expensive art, and showing the work of the same few artists over and over."

Sterling's view is more of a hopeful one. Having studied the inner workings of the equality movement, she is convinced that the stone has already gathered moss—and now, with some funding, actions can take place. "I've been talking to people for a bit and I kept finding the same reason: they can never find the money [for social activism in the arts]. You must have the capital to be able to make this work. We're finally able to launch our programming, because instead of making headwind, we already have jet stream that is starting to come behind us." After the launch in October, the initiative has two more talks planned. In November, Carrie Mae Weems leads her own talk, "Can an artist inspire social change?"


And the argument about females being lesser artists than men? The GG have the last word. "Hey, no one believes that any more," their spokesperson retorts. "Great women artists are here and completely ready and empowered. It's just the institutions that are lagging behind."

Image by Cara Despain for Micol Hebron's Gallery Tally

For a schedule of "Fresh Talks" and to learn more, visit The National Museum of Women in the Arts in D.C. here.


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