Are things really that bad for women artists? (yes, maybe no)

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, Bruise, mixed medai, 1997.

By  Lauri Lynnxe Murphy

It isn’t often that a Facebook post inspires a full-on flashback.  But there it was one morning a few weeks ago: my friend Brittany Schall, an artist younger than me by almost 20 years and twice as savvy and talented as I was at that age, sharing an article entitled: New Study Finds Women In Arts Make Almost $20,000 Less Than Men.  She began her post by saying, “I hate discussing this” (because like all women, we take the risk of being accused of sour grapes by pointing out the obvious), then went on to describe a conversation she had with a collector who told her, “I never collect women artists because they’ll probably have children and get distracted from their career… Full stop.”  It sounded so familiar.

In 1996, I was on top of the world — I had just finished with my undergrad and had been picked up by one of the best galleries in town, Rule Gallery.  A meeting had been arranged with a big collector to introduce him to the work, and I excitedly, nervously arrived, dressed in my Sunday best as opposed to my usual studio clothes, eager to talk to him about my work.  It was a short conversation, and one that ended with exactly the same words Brittany described above.  Is it really possible that in 20 years, that little had changed?

Mary Abbott's All Green, from 1954 was included in DAM's Women of Abstract Expressionism. Image provided by the Denver Art Museum.
Mary Abbott’s All Green, from 1954 was included in DAM’s Women of Abstract Expressionism. Image provided by the Denver Art Museum.

Then, a few nights later, in my Art Student’s League class, a woman who is 15 years my senior blurts out the same sentiment: “I signed my paintings with an initial my whole life because people don’t buy women’s work, because they think we just run off and have children”.

Will we ever be free of this idea?

Of course, that’s the maddening thing. Discrimination is rarely that blatant, that forward, so one is always wondering, which is one of the most insidious parts of it.

Any artist is beset by insecurities, especially given how competitive our field is and how subjective judgments of our work can be.  We are always asking ourselves: “Why wasn’t our work chosen?” in the times when it isn’t.  But when you add the vector of gender, you have an additional question: “Was it because I’m a woman?”  Add to that the many other vectors of identity — race, orientation, etc. — and you can find yourself wondering a lot, except of course, when you aren’t, and it’s obvious.  The self-doubt will have one asking: Should I have “leaned in” more?  Worked harder?

It’s enough to make you think you’re imagining it, sometimes, except the evidence that you aren’t is ample and documented.

And not just documented, but done so creatively, by women artists, again and again.  In 1985 the Guerrilla Girls pointed out that the top galleries only showed 10% or less women artists. One would think it might have gotten better in that time, but their reprisal poster in 2014 merely scratched out the “10%” and replaced it with “20%”.

CVA's focus on Colorado women in abstract art, was partnered with DAM's national show. Image provided by CVA.
CVA’s focus on Colorado women in abstract art, was partnered with DAM’s national show. Image provided by CVA.

Artist Micol Hebron has picked up where they left off with her cathartic “Gallery Tally” project, which invites women artists to create posters with powerful graphics showing the percentage of male to female artists in a gallery.  The posters have now traveled the world, adding the representation numbers to a Google Doc of city after city, holding a much-needed mirror to the art world, but also delivering kudos where they are due for equal representation.  And still it continues: with upcoming 2017 exhibitions in Los Angeles and Santa Fe.  (Full disclosure: I was a part of this project.)  On average, however, despite some galleries doing equal gender representation well, according to the tally thus far, the average nationwide is roughly 30% of artists in commercial galleries are women.  That’s a slight improvement, but it only speaks to representation, and as unequal as it is, it is still a better number than auction totals, museum collections, art fairs, biennials and all the rest of the opportunities that make up an artist’s career.  Critic Jerry Saltz has been famous for holding MoMA’s feet to the fire on their female representation, and his last published count, in 2012 at their reopening, tallied a whopping 8% of women artists —  which yes, actually counts as a sad improvement.

But in 2016, a year of “blockbuster women’s shows,” isn’t it getting better?  Doesn’t it matter that both the Denver Art Museum and the Center for Visual Arts in Denver produced high-profile exhibits of female abstractionists. I guess one might think so — if the “year of the woman” hadn’t come and gone, with little change, so many times before. The fact is, the “blockbuster women’s show” seems to be on a 10-year cycle.  Are we still suckers enough to fall for it? At a certain point in my career, after taking part in too many women’s art shows, I decided it was counter-productive to continue inhabiting the ghetto.  What’s the point?  Is my work not good enough to hang next to a man’s?  One might ask” “Do we still, after all this time, need to be making up for inequity with a female-only show as opposed to permanently fixing what is a simple problem to solve?”  And what’s worse is that no one could argue that the problem is a shortage of women artists. Art departments nationwide are filled with over 60% women.

Deborah Remington's 1953 Apropos was included in the Denver Art Museum's Women of Abstract Expressionism last summer. Image provided by DAM.
Deborah Remington’s 1953 Apropos was included in the Denver Art Museum’s Women of Abstract Expressionism last summer. Image provided by DAM.

No, the argument, typically, is that we aren’t good enough, a proposal reiterated since Linda Nochlin first asked the question Why Are There No Great Women Artists in 1971.  And lest you think that the proliferation of great women artists since makes its own case, and this silly notion has become antiquated, I give you only last year, Georg Baselitz (arguably one of the worst painters in history) making the regressive statement that “women painters don’t paint very well,”  a theory proffered as fact by someone who outlived his relevance years ago.  Of course, we don’t ignore old cranks like that, as we should. Instead, more ink was spilled by the art press in mock outrage than any woman artist has probably seen without dying first.

The fact is, each generation of women artists has told themselves that it’s getting better, it has to be, while burying themselves in their work and trying 10 times as hard as any man does to get half as far.  But the snails’ pace of improvement isn’t satisfying, and can’t be enough.

Is it just sour grapes?  Or are we thinking about the next generation of girls and their aspirations, their talents?  Are we creating a self-perpetuating problem?

I was one of the lucky ones, raised by an artist mother with ample encouragement and access to professional-quality supplies, yet despite that, despite watching my Mother bent over her canvasses on the kitchen table and attending her openings in braids at places I would later show my own work, like the Foothills Art Center, still with all that, I didn’t view being an artist as a viable career path as a young girl.  I tried to convince myself that graphic design or illustration might be the thing, more practical, more able to get a job.

The Center for Visual Arts last summer.
The Center for Visual Arts last summer.

But the real problem wasn’t practicality: it was that I had very few models besides my own mother to look to and mold myself after while growing up in 1970’s Denver.  I remember it was a revelation seeing Judy Pfaff’s sprawling installation on the roof of the Denver Art Museum in the “Landscape as Metaphor” show and realizing that perhaps, it was possible, I could be a real artist.  If I had all those advantages, what must it feel like for girls with no exposure to these things at all to imagine that path, which is consistently portrayed as male in any representation they’ve probably seen?

So in the end, does it suck being a woman artist?

You might be surprised, after all that, when I insist the answer is no.  Every day I am still an artist — regardless of what flavor — is a gift and a responsibility.  And one of those responsibilities is to fight — for a day when I won’t suffer flashbacks from younger women’s mistreatment.

There are many ways in which it sucks being a woman – but being a woman artist is no different from being a woman anything else, which, in the era of Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief, isn’t great.  There is no magical profession free of discrimination; in that, the art world isn’t special.  But I’d rather be a woman artist than a woman fishmonger, secretary, truck driver or anything else. It’s who i am. There’s nothing to do but embrace the challenge and fight for the world to be better, fight for a day when Linda Nochlin’s question sounds as patently absurd as it is.

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy is an artist, curator and teacher, and a frequent and audacious contributor to the dialogue about art in the West and beyond.  Check out her work and bio at laurilynnxemurphy.com.

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