This morning Suzanne Lee wrote, “In a recent group exhibition in which I 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 quality 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-that-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 exclusive 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 stuff. 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.
PS: “Remember, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)
Esoterica: I’m laptopping you from a room overlooking Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies. My daughter, Sara, and I are on our way to Lake O’Hara for a week of mountain madness. We’re just in time for the turning larches and some crispy evenings, and look forward to our time together — to paint, to think and to share ideas. During the seven hours of dialogue from Vancouver to here, 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.”
Gifted female artists
by Brett Busang, Washington, DC, USA
In the face of any rank injustice, the truly gifted artist of either sex picks him or herself up and goes on. The whiners — particularly about sex and race — are generally the ones who don’t measure up artistically and have found a politically expedient sort of way to air their grievances. And get a lot of attention into the bargain. The talented women artists I know are vigorous and versatile people. When I think about who they are and what they’ve done, I feel somewhat ineffectual. They’ve overcome whatever they’ve needed to and do very well in every aspect of their lives. And I have never heard any of them complain (the way I do) about dealers, curators, and artistic mediocrities. They’re too busy doing what they’re good at — not to mention prevailing over injustices and obstacles that are, for the most part, not gender-oriented.
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Women in an aggressive industry
by Jennie Rosenbaum, Springvale, Australia
I think Sara is spot on. Unfortunately, as women, we are often taught to stay in the background, to be self-effacing and to see to other’s needs first. Men are taught to go after what they want, to pursue it and capture it at whatever cost. I sometimes feel that the emphasis for women is to go after whatever man they want and to hunt him with the same tenacity. When something as personal as art is on the line, it is even harder to put ourselves forward. Women artists explore themselves through their work and that introspection leads us to associate ourselves with our pieces. When rejection hits, it is more personal, and when success hits, it is slightly embarrassing. This is an aggressive industry and it requires strength of character, of mind and of vision to succeed. We must not be afraid to put ourselves forward, to strive ahead and face our fears.
Men taken more seriously
by Pnina Granirer, Canada
Suzanne Lee is right and so is your daughter. This is a very complex issue. We all know by now that when women are showing confidence and letting people know that they are important, they are accused of being aggressive, although sometimes, rarely, they do get away with it.
However, when one looks at the numbers, one sees a disproportionate number of men in Museums and Public Galleries. It is better than it was 30 years ago, but there is still a lot to do about the issue of men being taken more seriously.
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No evidence of sexism in gallery
by Peter John Reid, Chatsworth, ON, Canada
It has not been my experience that it matters one iota whether the painter is male or female. In fact, the gallery where I am, one of the top artists is female and there are several women who sell as well or better, and for more, than I do. I have done exhibition painting at the Loft Gallery in Ontario with these women and found it quite humbling. The public are drawn to their work first, whether they are standing there or not. I do not and I have never seen anyone who judges an artist’s work by their sex. I’m sure it does happen, but ignorance has a way of settling for less.
Core essence of what we do
by Carole Dwinell, Martinez, CA, USA
I find it interesting — this talk about sales, prices, respect, who is taken seriously and who is less so. I have to say that first one must take one’s self seriously and while this has been my best year ever, it is not the sales that invigorate the passion that I have for doing what I do. I agree wholeheartedly with your daughter, Sara. Though I would go one step further. I would take out the self-esteem part too… along with the subjugation, the feminist perspective. It is when I am in the middle of any of my art, whether it’s clay, wax for bronzes, or paint, when my fingers are wet with it, those are the moments that define why I do it. I think sales, galleries and so forth are only embellishments on the core essence of what we do. “If you ask me what I can do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.” (Emile Zola)
Entrenched in patriarchal culture
by Maggie Parker, Middlesbrough, UK
Suzanne needs to read Old Mistresses by Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, who also have other feminist writings to find out exactly how long the artworld has been like this and how entrenched we are in patriarchal culture. I also agree with you that sole exhibitions are not the way forward, but, sometimes, they have to be curated to support other women’s self-esteem knocked by our perceived maternal submissive in life.
by Kim Fancher Lordier, San Francisco, CA, USA
Being on the estrogen side of things in this global community of artists, I believe very strongly that respect comes from within. Self-confidence, an inner drive, and a good work ethic play a large part in how our work is perceived, whether male or female. I feel very strongly that when one’s work starts to get passed by, it is time to look inward and push to the next level. I have just gone through several months of negative dialog floating around in my head, making mental excuses for my work, and realized, yet again, that it comes down to time at the easel. That is not a female-only phenomenon. I am not saying that a “glass ceiling” does not exist… (I don’t think the playing field will ever be level, simply because the genders are DIFFERENT and our cultural expectations of gender roles are slow to change)… but I choose to not let the concept enter into my creative and professional path.
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Reinforcing our positive human selves
by Keith Cameron, Sierra Madre, CA, USA
Dear Suzanne, please feel wholly supported by me, and I am sure many male artists who face similar adverse situations in different forms. I look forward to the day when an issue like yours is looked upon as a human issue without the separation into gender, or race. Your feelings are very real, and you deserve to be treated fairly. By separation into categories of race, or gender, the argument of whether or not something took place can take precedence over the offending event. The immediate power we have against injustice is to deal with it while it is right in front of us. This, in my humble opinion, makes for a healthier human environment with a communication of ideas that should include all in dignity. The transgressions take place across gender and race, and when we deal with these issues positively without separation we reinforce our positive human selves.
by Larry Andrews, Soquel, CA, USA
While I agree with most of what you wrote, I disagree strongly with one piece. I do not believe that jurors are at all as nearly impartial as you suggest. If you look at the art groups you cite with 4:1 ratio of women to men, you will probably find a strong bias in the subjects they choose, at least in many cases. But if you look at what gets into competitions and what gets prizes, it seems to me to be a strong bias toward the subjects and methods that are emphasized by men. The level playing field needs to be sought, but there are lots of unconscious attitudes still to be uncovered.
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Prejudice due to economic interests?
by Bertram Lewis, NY, USA
In the New York area I have noticed quite a few organizations that promote women artists and have often wondered why I never encountered one that did the same for men. My impression is that there are many more women attending schools and workshops than men and that (in this area at least) women are not being underestimated (or under-priced) as artists. But your mention of jurors bending over “to get it right” brings to mind another matter I have oft wondered about. Most organizations that sponsor juried shows charge a commission on work that is sold. To what extent is a juror influenced by what is salable, rather than what is good? For example, a “good” piece comes in that is priced high, making it unlikely to sell at that particular show. The economic interest of the sponsoring organization suggests that the piece not be included in the show. Can the juror be unaware of that? Can the judging be conducted “blind” so that the juror is unaware of the asking price? To what extent should a sponsor be required to disclose any criteria that will be used by a juror, other than pure artistic accomplishment? I’d love to get some feedback from jurors and sponsoring organizations on this.
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by Joe Faith, PA, USA
Identifying the root cause of your survey results can be more revealing than looking for blame. Now, don’t get me wrong that anyone should get paid more or less for equal work. But when has any original piece of fine art been equal to another?
Value — Value is arbitrary and subjective to the people willing to pay a given amount. So is there any reason why a gallery owner would ever ask or accept less for a work then he/she could get? That is their job right? To get the most that they can for the artist as well as themselves. Or could it be market forces?? Too many women producing too much art?
A glut is pushing prices down until a women’s coalition can limit the number of pieces on the market? Ha.
Biology — Could it be that the physiology of testosterone makes for creating more desirable art? (Sorry, just thought I’d throw it out there.)
To come perfectly clean, I do not subscribe to gender-based pricing. That would be just stupid. And buying based on a name can be just as dubious. Quality, success level, personal connection are valid reasons to up value; the stuff that makes fine art Fine.
There is no such thing as a level playing field. As artists our fight is always uphill and with our aesthetics. Not with each other.
Women, keep up the good work. Men, keep up the good work.
The chicken or the egg?
by Mary Ann Pals, Chesterton, IN, USA
In my mind, Suzanne’s AND your daughter Sara’s statements are both valid. But they beg the chicken-and-egg question: Which came first, the substandard public view of women’s art, or the lower self-esteem by women of their own abilities and the artwork they produce? Gender double standards are alive and well in the art world, just as they are in many other areas of life. And until that attitude changes dramatically, young emerging female artists like Sara will have to fight hard to not let that poison lower their own high level of professionalism and self-esteem. Discrimination can be debilitating, no matter where it rears its ugly head, in the gallery or in one’s own psyche. I think art exhibits that showcase the work of only women are a REACTION to that discrimination, not just a headstrong feminist move. Once the playing field gets closer to being level, there will be no need for such exhibits. Their purpose will have been defused. Let’s hope we see that come to pass very soon.
by David R. Darrow, Oceanside, CA, USA
Regarding Charlotte Whitten’s quote, you wrote, “That’s the spirit women need.” Sounds like a put-down to men: “Luckily, this is not difficult.” There are other factors that I believe have something to do with where women are in art, which I will address.
Women who use paint and also join art clubs outnumber men 4 to 1. Men and women are very different in their motivations. It is generally true that men are competitive by nature. More men are concerned with being the best, reaching the top, learning the hell out of a skill than women. Men do not join clubs because the only purpose for clubs, to me, is to promote their work, show it, and compete.
Women on the other hand are very relational. They join clubs for the relationships and to show their art. While there are a number of women who are better than some of the very good men, it is generally true that women do not have the same internal motivations for painting well, and what drives men — however offensive to women it may be — makes, probably, the biggest difference. The number of competent women painters does NOT outnumber men 4 to 1. If anything the reverse is probably true.
Women, who express their emotions in a number of ways and by many means, “get it out” — Men find a way on the canvas. A man may not know he is sad or happy, or angry or embarrassed, but he does feel something, even if it’s suppressed, and when it comes out, there is a booster-rocket of drive, aggression, competition, perfectionism supporting their next painting, this being the last resort for such men to express themselves the way they want.
There are other unspoken inequalities: There is no similarity when one gender paints a nude of the other gender; nor when one gender paints a nude of the same gender. What people think about such situations is not the utopian “level playing field.”
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Sexism in Western Art
by Diane Edwards, Fort Collins, CO, USA
As I read this article it occurred to me that the value of women’s art vs. men’s art changes depending on the part of the country or world in which you are showing your art. For instance, I live in Colorado, and the artists here are somehow expected to be male due to the “western” aspect of art here in the West. I have many women friends who are fantastic artists, have signature memberships and sell well in galleries and yet, they are rarely, if ever, INVITED into any of the big shows here in Denver or the Governor’s Show, etc. Sometimes a male artist moves into this state and is invited to participate in one of the big shows that very year! A show well-known women have been petitioning to get into for years. It just boggles the mind. And, believe me, any amount of positive thinking isn’t going to change that. I think Sara is wrong, it IS a feminist issue. And, I also feel you are wrong, sometimes women MUST put on their own shows just to get seen at all in this very, very, sexist higher level invitational show circuit.
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Prejudice in the art field
by Joe Rosenblatt, Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada
It depends on what gallery a woman artist is with, as gender discrimination, subtle or blatant varies in the art game, and what a game it is. Suffice it to say, sexism exists as does ageism — an experience I now find disconcerting. I think it would be very interesting if some academic conducted a survey on sexism in the art field. It is a sad fact in life that people in positions of power, whether it is the sphere of private, or public galleries, hold sexist prejudices. I would advise Suzanne to soldier on, try not to get bent out of shape when confronted by this bigotry, and do what she likes best, produce art. She will prevail.
by Pam Craig, Memphis, TN, USA
I used to sign my paintings with my full name starting with Pamela, middle name, maiden name and then married name, very pretentious I am sure most would think. I just wanted to cover all my work from youth to later age. I shortly decided that it was too long to place every single time on each and every painting I produced, so I shortened it to the initials PAKC. I didn’t think of this signature as a generic name; nor one that did not produce any gender or age-related concepts, it was just simply my initials. The difference in my sales was immediate, though nothing else had changed. When the sales were handled by the gallery there was never a mention of “she” but always “the” artist. I guess it allowed them lead way in how to market my work. I didn’t mind, I just liked the revenue coming in. I did mind, though, when I was introduced to clients who would look disappointed and often say, “OH, I thought you would be a man,” or when some would laugh and say, “PAKC is a woman?” That particular reaction made me feel as if the general public does have the misconception that only men can produce powerful works or passionate works, and here I stood as a woman, through default, proving their ideas incorrect.
Women do need to fight this uneven playing field, starting with the gallery curators, the media critics, and then finally with our male counterparts who want to protect their domain but should stand up with us and support our efforts.
Evolution of our species
by Margot Hattingh, South Africa
I agree that the art world is not a level playing field — what world is? Human society, world wide, is riddled with discrimination against sex, colour, religion, political beliefs, nationalities, age, and anything else you can think of.
To go on my soapbox a bit — it astonishes me that despite all our awesome technological/ intellectual advances, our general inter-personal relationships, reactions and emotions are stuck in the Stone Age. Fundamentally, we haven’t really evolved at all. Even the teachings of Buddha, Christ, Mohammed etc have been distorted to create more discrimination. Intensely competitive, we seem to be completely, genetically programmed, to turn everybody (and every other living thing) into ‘Them or Us.’
The fact is that we, the super predators, right at the very, very top of the food chain, together with all other living creatures, live on a tiny, luscious, covetable ball of matter suspended in an immeasurably huge inhospitable universe. This really should turn every human as well as every other living creature into ‘Us.’
Off the soapbox and back to the art and gender topic. To deliberately try and subvert the gender thing, I only use my surname to sign my work. However, in this country, my surname immediately puts me into a certain cultural and racial group, which I also object to. I’m thinking of signing my work with an X and a thumbprint. If Zorro can do it, why can’t I?
Women in charge
by BJ Wright, Tunnel Hill, GA, USA
My husband started using my initials instead of my name long before I began painting seriously. I sign my paintings, business letters — everything using my initials. I’ve found it curious that while coordinating paint-outs, art fairs and other events, when someone calls the posted phone number (mine) and find they’re talking to a woman — there’s sometimes a long pause. But in the conversation they find that, yes indeed, a woman is in charge AND she’s an artist AND, yes she knows what she’s doing. I sometimes smile as I sense the change in attitude. It just takes some people longer than others to accept that women are planners, organizers, artists… and we’re good at what we do.
The art, not artist’s gender, should take the prize
by Louise Francke, NC, USA
I’d like to tell you about an exhibit of NC Artists at a DC notable gallery. During this period of my life, I created extremely strong lithographs which pertained to women and our feelings when we have been extracted from a marriage. These lithographs received a lot of press attention and they even landed in an exhibit at SECCA where it isn’t easy to get exhibited. At the opening, a man came in and reviewed the art work; then, he wanted to meet the gentleman who had created the lithographs. The Director pointed me out and said “She is standing over there.” He couldn’t fathom that a woman could emote such emotions, my question is don’t we feel things just as strongly, or more so than the male gender. I believe that an art work should stand on its own. The gender of the creator is irrelevant. What is important is that it is a strong piece of art, the subject is handled well, and that it holds its place on the wall. That is all anyone can ask. As life rolls by, I still exhibit these works but my imagination has taken me beyond the pain into different themes and different causes which need our attention more than our gender. It is not the resume, the gender, but the ART.
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plein air oil painting
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Jeanine Fondacaro of Orange, CA, USA who wrote, “I love the visual I got from what your daughter said. I literally am going to write out an eviction notice to the squatter I recently discovered hanging out in my head. The little bugger was hiding well, but will be given no safe-haven any longer.”
And also Katherine Spencer Harris who wrote, “For your next show, Suzanne, send a husband, brother, or some male representative to man your booth. If anyone asks “Are you the artist?” have him reply “No, the artist (NOT “she”) couldn’t be here,” or “No, I represent the artist.” Sign your paintings S. Lee if possible. If you’re showing in a town where you aren’t known it’s worth a few days of subterfuge, isn’t it?”
And also David Glover of West Hollywood, CA, USA who wrote, “Just look at a Berthe Morisot or Emily Carr. Try and rationalize that theirs is not great art no matter the gender.”
And also Tinker Bachant who wrote, “Sara’s statement is not just about artists. This is a very insightful statement and should be posted on the wall and burned in the brain of every female, artist or not.”
And also Ed Pointer who wrote, “E. Charlton Fortune was a California woman who painted some very nice pieces but used her first name initial rather than her first name — Suzanne might try that, it can be quite successful. Meantime, Suzanne, keep working, most artists are more talented than they think they are and you’re probably one of them.”
And also Kate Jackson of Merced, CA, USA who wrote, “You wrote, “I don’t think painters should be standing there at all.” Ouch. I rarely disagree with you Robert! I just had a lovely artist’s reception last night in which people were excited and interested to meet me, the artist, talk about the art with me and seemed grateful I was taking the time to be there to meet THEM, the appreciators!”
And also Norman Ridenour of Prague, Czech Republic who wrote, “My daughter is on my case, not because I told her she could not do things, but because I did not especially tell her she could do them. Small town boys like me do not have the social skills of a city-born middle class upbringing. Sex, color, social class; one takes the cards one is given and plays the hand… ”
And also Jeannie Kwasnycia of AB, Canada who wrote, “While I appreciate the message that perhaps there is a double standard in the art world, was it really necessary to take a shot at the Catholic Church with the Nun / Pope comment? And speaking of leveling the playing field, why did you choose the oft-attacked religion of Christianity and not some other religion to make your point?”
And also Jim Cowan of New Westminster, BC, Canada who wrote, “Dare I say it? Could it be in this instance that the art that was produced by artists who were, yes, male… was considered better just because it was considered better? And the four to one ratio. Not sure it counts. Look at the field of horse-riding (pun intended). Men are hugely outnumbered and yet do disproportionately well when it comes to events. Not saying there isn’t any prejudice. Just think it’s dangerous to think there always is.”
And also Joy Hanser of Vancouver, BC, Canada who wrote, “Yay! Every word of that is true! As women artists, our work takes no back seat, rather we shine and let it show, regardless of old school attitudes, which we tend, because of the very qualities you mentioned, to unconsciously internalize from early days on. Thanks for your succinct analysis and above all, for taking some responsibility to end outmoded ways of thinking yourself. Sara’s comment showed good insight on the part that’s it’s an “inside job,” never to be underestimated!”