From The Boardroom to the Gallery, Women Shut Out

Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in his recent New York Times “Twitter, Women and Power”, that, on the eve of Twitter’s IPO, it has become abundantly clear that the organization’s board suffers from a huge gender imbalance. Not a single woman sits on Twitter’s board — an all too familiar trend, as Kristof points out, as women comprise only 18 percent of board seats among Fortune 500 companies. This scarcity is often attributed to many misconceptions, says Kristof, including, arguably, the most pernicious of all: that there simply aren’t enough qualified women to fill these spots. What’s more, the widespread imbalance discussed by Kristof has parallels in nearly every industry. Case in point: the art world.

A recent article on The Huffington Post, for instance, highlighted how the art world has once again relegated female artists to the background. In Gagosian Gallery’s new exhibition, “The Show Is Over,” of the 35 artists featured, just one is female; a staggering reminder of how much work there is left to be done in furthering gender equity within the arts. For the past 15 years, I have served as Executive Director of Pen and Brush, an arts organization for women that is accustomed to battling the underrepresentation of talented women in museums, galleries and collections, as well as the under valuing of their work in the marketplace. Unfortunately, the scarcity myth persists in these arenas, too.

In fact, there is a plethora of professional work by women available — the issue is more about access and visibility than anything else. As quoted by Kristof, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, notes that those on corporate boards look to “replicate themselves.” As boards are overwhelmingly male-dominated, women face a difficult obstacle to surmount. In the arts, women have slowly found some place among the “old masters” and their male successors, but have not been able to produce a cultural shift large enough to create room at the top for greater numbers.

So, what’s the solution?

We recognize that gender-based inequality in the arts marketplace has a much larger historic societal context. But we also recognize that the best chance of aiding the cause for gender equity is by concentrating our resources within our sphere of influence. Pen and Brush is about to open a state-of-the-art, 5,500 square foot facility in New York’s Flatiron District early next Spring. Here we will refocus our mission to see that women seeking careers as professional artists and writers have the opportunity to do so on equal footing with their male counterparts. We will present to collectors, curators, editors, agents, publishers and the public, work by women reflecting the diversity of content and media found in the work of men — and we will present a lot of it, debunking the notion that there simply aren’t enough women consistently producing good, compelling work.

What’s needed is critical mass: that is, sufficient empirical evidence that there are far more women producing strong diverse work than the deniers have claimed. While we’re pleased to see those few women who make it to the upper echelons of the visual or literary art worlds achieve recognition, we agree with the logic evidenced in the research Kristof cites — which demonstrates, for instance, that the appearance of ONE woman on Twitter’s board, is not enough to realize the benefits of diversity. Any chance of real gender parity in the arts, similarly, will not be achieved by one or two or three or even a “handful” of women.

We do not subscribe to the idea that the few will lift the greater number. Rather, we believe lifting the greater number will lift each individual woman artist. While recently heralded some noteworthy statistics about women and the art market, the fact remains that the career trajectory of artists like Yayoi Kusama and Cindy Sherman represents the exception, and not the rule. Until we shift the spectrum of thinking that has “every woman for herself” on one end, and affirmative action as a remedy on the other, great art by women will continue to go unnoticed.