I interviewed Janice Sands, Executive Director of Pen + Brush at their new space in the Flatiron district. This recently opened new space is a real departure in the best possible sense with a vibrant industrial feel evoking modernism with a sense of history behind it. One feels transported to another dimension that is vast and wide and full of possibilities. Founded in 1893 by Miss Janet C. Lewis, a painter based in New York, she sent letters to other women proposing a new group to be established exclusively for women that were interested in pursuits of both art and literature. Sands, told me “The founders of Pen and Brush planted the seeds of an open and mututally beneficial organization of women artists and writers.
Tell me about the history of your organization and what makes it unique?
Over the last 121 years, Pen and Brush has been there for women writers and visual artists, providing an organization of like-minded colleagues a place to practice their art and bring it to the public. As the only international non-profit organization dedicated to creating a platform for women in literary and visual arts, Pen and Brush exhibits and publishes high-quality, professional work by female artists and writers.
Pen and Brush has been working to increase opportunities for female artists and writers – opportunities that can play a meaningful part in the development of their careers and will work toward combating the under-representation and undervaluation of their work. Our program is based on the idea that Pen and Brush as an entity does not insert itself into the equation. Rather, we assemble professionals from the visual and literary arts worlds whose credentials give their opinions weight and who serve as independent curators. Each is able to review all submissions and is free to select only what they believe in and can advocate for. Each can select work for an exhibition or publication – on its own or with other artists/writers work. They do not need the consensus of any of the other curators reviewing. This model enables us and the curators to showcase high-quality, professional work to the public and a wide variety of influencers including scholars, collectors, curators, gallerists, agents, and publishers.
You have moved to an amazing new space that recently opened. It’s a departure from your previous space. Can you describe the new interior?
In the past, it was difficult to separate Pen and Brush from its original physical space (a brownstone residence that was purchased in 1923, and located on 10th Street in NYC) because the history of the organization was so closely tied to the building. Now, in the new state-of-the-art gallery (located at 29 East 22nd Street) there are virtually no limitations to the scope and scale of the work that can be accommodated. This purpose-built space was created by Pen and Brush to present work in the best possible way, accommodating multimedia installations, monumental work, readings, panel discussions, reading nooks, and just about everything we could envision into the next several decades.
Pen and Brush selected this new location for a number of reasons, including its place in the bustling Flatiron district as well as for the age and industrial architecture of the building itself. It was important to the organization to select a space that had its own history from the 1900’s, when the women of Pen and Brush were organizing themselves – but that also had the possibility to be totally contemporary.
Your current exhibition is called Domesticity Revisited – why?
The show features the works of four contemporary artists who come from very different backgrounds, spanning the globe. Two are originally from South Korea, one is from the United Kingdom, and one is from central Italy. The work from these artists, however different, is in dialog with the domestic space experienced both personally and through the canon of art history. The exhibition was curated by Rick Kinsel, Executive Director of the Vilcek Foundation, who saw the common thread among the artists as they all concern themselves with new contemplations on the objects, ideas, and sensations relating to the domestic realm.
Your logo is brilliant, who designed it?
Brendan Bruce, a brilliant designer that was working with us at the time, immediately saw a vision for the logo that somehow translated everything we were looking to say into this one visual branding element. It captured a modern take on Pen and Brush that could be used across any media, design, or background. Our colors also tell our story, as they’re the colors of the suffrage movement.
You also involve writers in the organization; tell me about your E-books launch?
On October 6, we debuted our new ePublishing platform, available on www.penandbrush.org and through Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook, iBooks, and Kobo.
As part of our programming overhaul, Pen and Brush’s executive team committed to providing outcomes for writers comparable to those we intend to provide for visual artists. We surveyed the evolving art and literary landscapes to adapt best practices from curatorial and publishing models. For the resulting vetting system, discussed above, we were very pleased to secure eleven influencers from the art and publishing worlds to serve as curators. They are able to review work on their own schedules through our custom designed website, www.penandbrush.org.
What are your plans for the future?
We have exciting plans for the future, starting with our next event. At the end of December, the art comes down and words go on the walls – and on the floor, or the ceiling, or the columns. January 25 marks an explosion of words in the New Year when we mount a “Literary Takeover” of our new space, which will include readings, panel discussions, and more. We also plan to form partnerships with other organizations 1) to join forces for greater impact breaking through various glass ceilings and 2) to offer a broader range of educational programming for artists/writers and the public.
Does the outlook for Women Artists continue to look prosperous?
I don’t think most women in the arts would say these are prosperous times and I would bet, most are having a hard time believing their gender will not be a limiting factor in the future. Until women earn equal pay for equal work, generally, they will have difficult decisions to make about family and career. They will get less than a male artist would get for the same work and will not find representation in galleries, collections or museum in anywhere near the same numbers as their male counterparts – talent and merit, notwithstanding. The political climate may or may not be favorable to the arts, and could extend the financial burden of an arts education and finding affordable studio space, and housing, among other factors.
What would you say to any new women artists about breaking into the current art market?
I would recommend women starting a career in the arts develop a strategy consistent with viewing the creation of visual or literary art as a profession for which they need to be prepared. They need to have the proper training (learn the rules first and then break them) and understand this profession has a business side to it. Understand how the marketplace works. Be responsible for your accomplishment, not dependent on the generosity of others. Be attuned to the ways your gender affects your career, and if you are fortunate enough not to have much of a first-hand experience of the bad side of this, don’t deny its reality. After 121 years of working with women artists and writers, Pen and Brush can assure any doubters that gender may be an even greater determining factor than talent when it comes to who in the visual arts will succeed in the secondary marketplace (auctions) as well as the primary one (selling to collectors, getting gallery representation), and for writers, getting an agent and having work published by a first tier publisher who pays an advance.
How has the art world changed and where do you see it headed?
I don’t know that many of the fundamentals have changed. Until women are represented in museums and in collections and their work sells for the same stratospheric sums that art by men does, there is not enough change for us at Pen and Brush. The same goes for the literary world. Check out the stats known as The Count from some very intelligent and committed women at VIDA. The forms of some art have changed and the delivery is now immediate and constant. More is consumed, and it seems there is something for everyone. We still tend to think knowing good work in the visual and literary arts is a lot more objective than many believe, irrespective of the form or genre.
If Pen and Brush can use its resources to have any influence on the future, we should see one significant change in the worlds of art and literature and that would be gender parity in opportunity and recognition based on merit not gender.