Thursday, September 18, 2014

Jori Finkel: Confronting art world sexism

Micol Hebron started a poster campaign to address gender inequality in the art world. This one by Cara Despain represents the total percentage of female artists from galleries tallied in LA and NY
These numbers, as you might have guessed, reflect the percentages of male versus female artists represented by each gallery. They’re also the impetus for a new internet-driven, open-source feminist art project, Gallery Tally, organised by the Los Angeles artist and educator Micol Hebron.
Last autumn Hebron put out a call online to other artists, inviting them to calculate a gallery’s gender ratio and represent it in a graphic form. Hundreds of artists responded. In April she showed the resulting posters at the small Los Angeles project space ForYourArt.
This summer she is taking the model on the road, asking volunteers to create gender-imbalance posters for galleries in Berlin, London, Tel Aviv and Tokyo as well as other US cities including Miami, Seattle and San Francisco. She anticipates Berlin will be the first city abroad completed, thanks to nearly a dozen volunteers currently in place.
Already, the project has the potential to be the most powerful—and also replicable—feminist art campaign since the Guerrilla Girls first roared onto the scene.
The Los Angeles chapter alone felt explosive. Based on a decade covering art here, I would have guessed that the average male/female ratio in commercial galleries in the city was around 60/40. I was wrong. Try 70/30.
This is surprising considering that Los Angeles generally does not have the high-rent, blue-chip bias of leading Manhattan and London galleries. It’s especially galling in light of another ratio Hebrol is documenting: women easily outnumber men as students enrolled in MFA courses in southern California.
Then there was the graphic punch of the posters. It is one thing to use statistics to raise consciousness about pernicious, or persisting, social or economic disparities: whether the gender gap in wages or the relative lack of minorities in science and engineering fields. It is another to make them colourful and memorable in graphic form, as the best of these posters do.
Some were deliberately cheeky: bananas abound. Others, more subtle and forceful, recalling Sheila de Bretteville’s incisive work as a graphic designer at the Woman’s Building in the 1970s. A poster documenting Cherry and Martin’s disappointing 4:1 male-female ratio shows a large pale-blue sky over a small pink ground. The name Martin (for co-owner Philip Martin) is printed large and rightside up; Cherry (for co-owner Mary Leigh Cherry), miniscule and upside down.
The modified eye chart for Regen Projects shows a string of letters repeating the word “woman” on the bottom row, in a font so tiny that it is nearly invisible, illustrating the fact that women artists make up only 27% of Regen’s roster.
But soon after seeing the Los Angeles posters this spring, I began to wonder if the intensity of my response to the project really mattered. To what extent is the project designed to reach commercial galleries, or is it just preaching to the feminist choir? And does documenting a problem that is so endemic take the pressure off individual galleries to change their sexist ways?
One of the greatest strengths of the Guerilla Girls’ most effective actions is that they were targeted. When they took on the lack of women in the 1985-86 Carnegie International contemporary art show, they plastered posters in the women’s bathrooms at the museum. In 2008, they attacked collector Eli Broad with a letter to him detailing that 97% of the artists shown at his space at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus were white, and 87% male.
And in 2001, when members of the group revisited the lack of diversity in New York galleries such as Leo Castelli, Knoedler and Marian Goodman, they did so with a list titled: “These are the most bigoted galleries in New York.” A footnote read: “After years of our harping on the issue, many important galleries still didn't get it. We had to use the most repugnant word we could think of to condemn them.”
If the gorilla mask was an important (if humorous) form of branding, shaming the art world’s worst offenders was another dramatic attention-getting strategy. Their in-your-face protests and interventions were designed to more or less force a reaction, which often did occur.
Hebron’s project, typical of post-Guerrilla Girls feminist art, is less confrontational and more informational. In this way it resembles recent installations by New York artist Jennifer Dalton, such as “What Does an Artist Look Like?” (a rogue’s gallery of artist portraits published in The New Yorker) and “Cool Guys Like You” (mapping the gender imbalance in talkshow guests of Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow and more). She isn’t staging protests or interventions as much as creating data-rich art objects that live within gallery walls.
Hebron says her long-term objective is “to effect a shift so that the art we see in galleries is more proportionate to the population at large—I think we all lose out if 70% of art is coming from a similar perspective.” Short-term, she noted: “My goal was to put out irrefutable data so that the art world had to respond, one way or another.”
But it’s not clear that this project will force a response on the part of the galleries themselves, who have not made any public statements on the matter. Galleries surveyed for the project were invited to the opening but have not been confronted with the results of her research since then. You will not find these posters plastered near their booths at Art Basel or tacked outside their doors in Chelsea. The polemics are safely contained in a nonprofit space that they can easily avoid.
A final strike: if implicated dealers did go to see the Gallery Tally exhibition, most could leave feeling they’re on the sunny side of diversity because they aren’t off the charts at 90/10 or 80/20 like others.
In this way, one of the great strengths of the project—that it creates a city-wide (or one day, international) portrait of sexism—just might be its Achilles’ heel: its target is too large. By demonstrating the problem’s ubiquity, the project could unwittingly be letting many of its subjects off the hook.
This is the biggest flaw that I see in an otherwise compelling project that addresses sexism where it can actually be changed. Auction houses can’t entirely control the prices achieved by their lots. A museum’s exhibition programme is very rarely under the thumb of just one person. But a gallery’s shows often are. To truly change the mind of a gallery owner is to alter an entire exhibition programme.
Hebron says her next step, along with coordinating the campaigns in new cities, involves publishing the completed posters in book form. She has also expressed interest in tracking numbers for artists of colour on gallery rosters.
I hope she will also think about ways of capturing the attention of gallery owners themselves. I’m not suggesting gorilla masks but maybe some way of designing exhibitions to single out the worst offenders, or positioning the posters in a context that hits closer to home. Or maybe the internet, so important to the project’s origins, will play a larger role in disseminating the project in the future.
And if Hebron’s project itself doesn’t force a response from galleries, the press that follows her from city to city, or country to country, should.
Jori Finkel is the Los Angeles correspondent for The Art Newspaper and a contributor to the New York Times