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Old 09-23-2008, 06:33 PM   #1
Alexandra Tyng Alexandra Tyng is offline
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Level Playing Field?




This letter and response was recently posted in Robert Genn's art blog:

"Dear Artist,

"This morning Suzanne Lee wrote: 'In a recent group exhibition in which I had participated, it appeared that the men were taken more seriously as artists than the women. More value was put on their work in terms of prices paid. This hit a nerve for me, and upset my idealistic notion that the art world was devoid of these sorts of attitudes. I'm hoping I'm just being oversensitive and a little paranoid, but I fear that I will have to work twice as hard and produce twice the quantity to be equally respected. Please tell me I'm wrong?'

"Thanks, Suzanne. Unfortunately, you're not being paranoid. The uneven playing field has been with us for some time. Just when I think things are improving for women, I see setbacks. In art, where taste can be arbitrary and buyers don't have a lot of confidence, the old shibboleths of safety, male superiority and ego-force kick in. Just as it's going to be a while before a nun gets to be a pope, the powers-at-be are at work.

"Women artists need to fight it and men artists need to back them. Charlotte Whitten, the former mayor of Ottawa, notably said, 'Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.' That's the spirit women need. Fact is, women painters currently outnumber men four to one. Check out the ratio in any art club. One could say that women are naturally creative and naturally bicameral. In my limited experience with women, they seem to also take advice, network well, and are in touch with their emotions.

"That being said, I was recently asked to support a group show exclusve to women. While the motives for this sort of thing may be noble and temporarily empowering, I don't buy it. I don't support anything that discriminates by age, race or gender. If someone invited me to support a show for men only, I wouldn't. I want to live blind to all that sort of styuff. In my experience, most jurors bend over backwards to get it right. I just wish the general public (and a few dealers) did the same.

"Whenever this sticky topic comes up, which it does in the Q and A after many of my public talks, I tell people not to look at signatures and definitely don't look at who's standing beside the art. Actually, I don't think painters should be standing there at all. They should be somewhere else, painting.

". . . .I shared Suzanne's letter with my painter daughter.'It seems to me, Dad,' she said, 'this is not a letter about the subjugation of women artists. . . it isn't a feminist issue. . . it's a self-esteem issue. Thriving as an artist--in all of its forms--our entitlement to our lives and livelihood, our imagination, our believed limitations, our expectations and dreams for our work, our professionalism, our perceived competition and, most importantly, our JOY, requires the serving of an eviction notice to the voice of doubt squatting inside us'."
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Here's a link to the blog. There are many responses to the orginal letter that you might like to read.

http://clicks.robertgenn.com/level-playing-field.php

I'd love to hear your reactions!
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Old 09-23-2008, 07:28 PM   #2
Michele Rushworth Michele Rushworth is offline
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Well, sexism is everywhere, as is racism. I'm not sure I can change either one in my lifetime. I do my very best for my clients and my family and see where things end up.
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Old 09-23-2008, 08:08 PM   #3
Claudemir Bonfim Claudemir Bonfim is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Michele Rushworth
Well, sexism is everywhere, as is racism. I'm not sure I can change either one in my lifetime.
You can be sure that you're making a big difference.
The world gets more beautiful everytime you start working.
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Old 09-23-2008, 08:10 PM   #4
Claudemir Bonfim Claudemir Bonfim is offline
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I'm talking about you two, ok?
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Old 09-23-2008, 08:40 PM   #5
Michele Rushworth Michele Rushworth is offline
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Thanks! I hope I'm serving as a pretty good example to my two teenage daughters, who see me building a successful business, so that's a start.
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Old 09-24-2008, 08:35 AM   #6
Alexandra Tyng Alexandra Tyng is offline
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Thank you, Bonfim, I can't tell you how much I appreciate what you said. It warms my heart!

I believe sexism truly does exist in the art world, that it is not just in the mind of this woman who asked the question. It's also not a self-esteem issue, though having self-confidence is a very important ingredient for success. The realization of the "uneven playing field" happened in a similar way to me. As a child, I always wanted to be an artist and I was totally encouraged by my parents in this. I don't remember ever doubting my abilities. Self-doubt was just not on my radar. I assumed I could be whatever I wanted to be. And why not?
When I was a little older, maybe 12 and into my teens, I became aware that my mother was having problems in her career. She was passed over for tenure although she was more than qualified. She was kept at a lower level as a professor and was denied benefits that other people got at her level. She complained and got nowhere. She wasn't a social reformer taking on the system, but a single mother and working professional. Architecture was (and is) her life and she was trying to support herself and me, while asking for what she deserved. As a result she got negative reactions from people in her department. As you know, universities are very political places and you have to play the game. She never knew how to play the game, she was just straightforward and it got her nowhere. I also saw female colleagues of hers become known just as much for their outspoken ("strident") views on women's rights as for their work, when their outstanding work should have been totally the focus of people's attention. This was a time when there were very few women architects, so in order to be well known you had to be pretty darn good.

I suppose I drove my mother nuts when I would say to her that I just didn't see any problem for women artists. She would say, "Well, honey, that's wonderful and I hope you never do." Like many young people, I thought her problems were of the past generation, and that I would never see things like that happen. Also, there were many more female artists, so they would never be in the minority like female architects. In 1995 I joined a gallery that has a good balance of male and female artists. We were (and are) all treated well and so I continued blissfully along thinking there was no sexism in the art world, or that I was immune to it.

Then I began to hit the glass ceiling. Actually I think there are many, many glass ceilings at many heights. At first I didn't realize what was happening. I just felt that I was expending an enormous amount of effort (something I do anyway) and getting nowhere. Eventually I did get somewhere but I began to realize I would have to work about twice as hard!

I was shocked to find out that a woman I know was told by her gallery that their work has to be priced lower because the men are the breadwinners and their careers needed more push. I was shocked to realize my art history textbook only had one woman artist in it--and I had never noticed! Or that only 9% (or some ridiculously low percentage) of work in museums is by women. I was horrified to hear that people don't collect work by women because it is "less collectable," i.e. doesn't rise in value as fast or as much. WHY? It's a very complex interweaving of subtle factors that feed each other in a vicious cycle. People have underlying assumptions and attitudes that they communicate to others without realizing it. It's impossible to know what causes what.

I'm concerned about the problem in general and what it means for all women and men (my artist friends and beyond), and I wish the problem didn't exist. But I have very little interest in whining and complaining. When Michele says she does her very best for her family and clients, that strikes a chord with me. Working is much more interesting and rewarding than spending my time complaining about inequities, etc.. I am a naturally upbeat person and I naturally keep focused because there's a lot I want to say in my lifetime and life is so short! If I have to work even harder, so be it. At least I'm dong what I love to do, which is more than a lot of people can say.
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Old 09-24-2008, 09:02 AM   #7
Julie Deane Julie Deane is offline
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Excellent postings. Unfortunately, too true. Subtle and not-so-subtle cues to treat mens' work as somehow worthy of more attention, prestige and...money. I appreciate the work of the "Gorilla Girls" of the 60's, who started questioning the status quo.

Women - at least of my age - have often been conditioned to ask for less, too. So we have to take charge of our careers, ask a fair price, and make our way. That's one reason I think portraiture is a good field - no need to have a gallery be involved if we are willing to do the sales footwork ourselves.
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Old 09-24-2008, 09:20 AM   #8
Nancy Bea Miller Nancy Bea Miller is offline
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Well said Alex!

I appreciated your raising the issue of gender discrimination in the arts. This inequality is hard cold fact: as invidious and pervasive as any other prejudice. There are serious works of scholarship devoted to the issue ("The Obstacle Race", "Old Mistresses" "Anonymous Was a Woman" etc ) and groups which crunch the numbers and keep tracks of the trend (Guerilla Girls, Women in the Arts Foundation, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, etc.) The statistics are still startling!

Like Alex and Suzanne, I never dreamed that I would have to deal with the subject. I do not lack confidence, and felt encouraged by teachers and friends in my choice of career. But even in art school, I began running into little "bumps' in my path that were unexpected. One example: one of the school administrators led a distinguished older gentleman up to me at a student show and introduced us saying to me "Mr. X has just bought your painting of the stack of books." Mr. X visibly started, gulped and blurted out "YOU painted that? Oh, I thought that was by a man!" Seeing the confused and undelighted reaction his words were creating he hastened to reasssure me " Well, my dear, it's simply amazing. You paint like a man!"
He obviously meant this as the highest accolade. But did he ever buy another piece from me? No, he did not.

There were other situations along these lines, but nothing big enough to deter me from my chosen path. Just enough to make me aware that it wasn't quite the level playing field I had imagined. That was about 18 years ago. But only last week I discussed my pricing with someone in charge of such things, wondering out loud why another artist I know of similar "rank and file" is getting significantly more for his work. The answer came, honestly and a little apologetically, "Well, you know of course, part of the problem is that men are still, even today, perceived as the main bread-winners. It is felt that they need to earn more, to support their families."

With this all-pervasive prejudice in place that men are, if not more talented, at least more worthy, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, having said all this, an artist who is a woman can't let these subtle societal inequities deter her. Women do of course succeed, and get ahead. It just seems to me they are fighting against some persistent undercurrents and perhaps are so used to doing so that they may not even realize it. It helps to be aware that these prejudices do exist and to try and not take the subtle set-backs personally: any successes will taste all the sweeter. And of course, there are some women who will never feel the subtle sting of prejudice. There are a lucky few in every generation: often lifted over the obstacles by painter fathers or family friends/connections in the art world. I say more power to them. Just don't let them be used as "evidence" that the very real inequality most women artists face is non-existent.

Thanks again for bringing up this sensitive issue Alex! I know many people might feel shy about expressing their thoughts on the subject, afraid to be seen as "whiners", but my sense is that the SOG forum is a safe place for people to share problems and joys with equal honesty.
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Old 09-24-2008, 11:32 AM   #9
Alexandra Tyng Alexandra Tyng is offline
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Equally well-said!

Julie, thanks for pointing out that angle of portraiture. Still, for women to distinguish themselves it is helpful, at some point, to accrue a few awards and other distinctions in order to be in the running for the "top" commissions.

Nancy Bea, thanks for posting that articulate and thoughtful response! I just wanted to add a thought about the women you describe below:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Nancy Bea Miller
there are some women who will never feel the subtle sting of prejudice. There are a lucky few in every generation: often lifted over the obstacles by painter fathers or family friends/connections in the art world. I say more power to them. Just don't let them be used as "evidence" that the very real inequality most women artists face is non-existent.
I agree, we must not use these woman as evidence. I suspect they are not unaware that their status has a down side. Once a woman is lifted up or advanced by her association with a male mentor/husband/father, she forfeits the chance to prove herself on her own! Inevitably some people question whether that woman could have risen that far that fast without this advantage. These women become the butt of snide remarks to that effect even if they are supremely talented. I think it's only fair to these artists to evaluate their work on its own merit.

Last edited by Alexandra Tyng; 09-24-2008 at 03:32 PM.
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Old 09-24-2008, 10:13 PM   #10
Carol Norton Carol Norton is offline
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star "Crabs in a Bucket"

Quote:
Originally Posted by Alexandra Tyng
These women become the butt of snide remarks to that effect even if they are supremely talented. I think it's only fair to these artists to evaluate their work on its own merit.
Oh, boy. This same mentality resonates throughout all areas of competition. Athletics, (women's sports) resonates with others who field play the "crabs in a bucket" mentality. One tries to rise to the top; the others do their best to pull her back down so that no one is superior. This human flaw was the hardest thing I ever had to explain to my beautiful, athletic, work-oriented daughter, who later became an an All-American in her field. I think perhaps SUCCESS is the primary issue. Female issues further subvert the success of those who do well. Art, athletics, business, etc. somehow become the beacon of those who understand what happens in the climb for success. Men have their issues; women have theirs. Both have different pathways to the same goal; both have ways to nullify their competitors.

Thanks for the honest evaluation of women in the field of art. In 1962, I was told by local gallery owners, prior to a showing, that I needed to change my name to "C. Norton." I know for a fact that the owners had my best interests at heart. They let me know that my name, "Carol Norton", would not bring in the kind of recognition/price that I desired.
Don't think I ever believed them. That was then. This is now.
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