An interesting discussion has been taking place on the ‘faces’ listserv of women in media and communication arts concerning the continuing underrepresentation of women artists in galleries and other exhibition venues. Artist Deborah Kelly started the discussion off with a post entitled “Are there any women artists in France? At all?,” writing:
“I just received the regular newsletter from the Palais de Tokyo, which has a very active program which seems to show male artists exclusively. Not that the curators ever feel the need to mention or notice or highlight (OR EXCUSE) such a thing….
Women are ‘mysteriously’ vanishing from public life and art— perhaps partly because we stopped counting and calling to account.”
In the deluge of responses, many different aspects of this frustration were articulated: that when the issue is raised in public forums, men don’t see a problem or a need to participate in the ensuing discussion; that women curators don’t show enough women artists; that the need for Guerrilla Girls style activism never seems to abate. The writers are calling the situation bad everywhere, and some participants voiced concern that the situation is actually getting worse (and I would guess that it is likely to continue doing so, given that the poor state of the world economy will tend to make people behave more conservatively in general).
From artist Anne-Sarah Le Meur:
“I began to boycott exhibitions with 100% [male] participants. In France, if you have 10% women, you should be happy.”
From artist and writer Martha Rosler:
“In 2005 or 2006 a young male German curator working in England told me that a young male French curator had proposed a show for the English institution, and the curator says he exclaimed in shock, ‘But there are no women!’ The French guy stared at him and replied, ‘We don’t have to think about that any more!’….
Guerrilla Girls are still working hard here in the US because things are slipping back back back… And women artists are still disrespected by most critics.”
From artist Perry Bard:
“I just came back from Beijing where I’m in a show with 10 male Chinese artists and 10 artists from US male and female. When I asked the curator why no women he said they weren’t ready yet.”
Not to pick on China, but—over half a billion women and none of them are ready?
For a look at some recent statistics for Australia, check out the CoUNTess blog (“women count in the artworld”), which features a spreadsheet summarizing the poor situation on that continent.
In new media, digital media, computer art, techno-art, and related “hot” areas, a number of observers (myself included) have noted a closing down just in the last decade or so. That is, in the early 1990s, when the web was new and hardly anyone knew what “new media art” or “internet art” or “interactive art” or any of those other neologisms might be, women were much more visible and exhibitions were more inclusive than they are now. (It would be interesting to see some research nailing down this anecdotal evidence.)
One question this raises is the degree to which the problem in the techno-arts is not just one of inadequate curating, but might also have to do with women leaving the field in discouragement (or not entering it in the first place). Speaking from my own limited experience as a curator in the United States, I would venture that both are at work. In 2000, I co-curated a show on computer games and art (SHIFT-CTRL) that included roughly 40% women (the numbers are difficult to count precisely since several companies and large collectives were included). Four years later, when I co-curated a sequel exhibition on independent and alternative games (ALT+CTRL), the proportion of women artists was much lower despite energetic efforts by all three curators to recruit women for the show—no more than 15%, a percentage that reflected the tiny proportion of women who responded to the show’s open call and to our recruitment efforts. If I had this latter exhibition to do over, I would handle it quite differently; I feel that we missed a real opportunity to take issue with the culturally embedded notion that games are a male domain.
The question, as always, is: what is to be done? Several listserv participants noted that some women artists, perhaps especially younger artists, don’t want to be included (or made to feel they’re being included) in shows as part of a quota of women. But as artist and writer Faith Wilding noted in her response:
“Maybe tactics of solidarity have to be invoked again—if you are the only, or one of the only women artists invited to an exhibition, conference, etc. then tell them you won’t participate unless they change the list (also make them think about needing to include differences in general).”
And Martha Rosler likewise noted that it is critical that women own the fight and not succumb to that maddening sense that it should have been won by now.
“In 2003 a young female French curator held a panel in Paris about this very problem and the audience was packed with young women. One asked, in anguish, ‘Why did we fail?’ I could only answer that history is not yet over…”
And this is really why the problem has to be addressed vigorously. Exclusion from exhibitions is only the first stage in a vicious spiral. If you’re not in the exhibitions, you don’t get bought by collectors, who later pass their collections on to museums, who draw on those collections for future shows. And perhaps most importantly, you don’t get included in the books that periodically emerge summarizing the state of a field. You are literally written out of history. (And don’t count on the rewrite—it’ll have its own inaccuracies).
If this sounds like a call to arms, it is. And I’m not just talking to you (whoever ‘you’ are). It’s myself I need to remind, as much as anyone.