A New and Necessary Normal

For almost 20 years, I have worked as a curator of contemporary art. I have helped artists realize their most ambitious dreams, commissioning new art, creating exhibitions and performances, and building museum collections at the Henry Art Gallery and the Frye Art Museum. Many of the artists I’ve worked with are under-recognized women from Seattle and around the world, women who possess enormous talent and drive but have struggled to have their voices heard.

Gender bias is less obvious in today’s art world than in the past, but contemporary women artists still face significant disparities. According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, only one-third of artists with gallery representation are women, although women earn more than half of the MFAs in the United States. Only 5 percent of the art on display in U.S. museums is made by women, although 51 percent of U.S. visual artists today are women. In the current edition of H.W. Janson’s textbook, History of Art, only 27 women are represented—that’s up from zero in the 1980s. As American artists and activists the Guerilla Girls point out, less than three percent of the artists in the Modern Art section of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, but 83 percent of the museum’s nudes are female.

Gender equity—locally and globally—is among the most important social justice issues of our day. If art is a reflection of our society and if the artistic landscape neglects women, what does that say about society as a whole? And what can we do about it, now, in 2012? We can educate and mentor girls and young women. We can recognize and advocate for them. We can change what’s considered normal.

For centuries, social conventions limited the training available to women artists, their subjects and the ways they could market to patrons, especially in the traditional forms of painting and sculpture. This partially explains why women artists have long flocked to “new media,” technological frontiers where the expectations of history and male privilege are less burdensome. In my curatorial career I have exhibited many women artists working in emerging art forms, including performance, multimedia installations, robotics, digital filmmaking, artificial intelligence, transgenic creatures and trans-disciplinary forms for which we do not yet have names.

Women working in new media led me to become executive director of Reel Grrls, the nation’s first media arts center for girls. Reel Grrls is modeling the future we want to see by empowering young women to realize their talent and influence through media production. Through our programs and apprenticeships, female media professionals provide hands-on, year-round immersive mentorships, which are crucial to young women when they’re just beginning to imagine themselves as artists and what they make as art.

Reel Grrls positions young women artists at the leading edge of emerging media, encouraging them to experiment at the boundaries of expectation. In doing so, we are helping to lead the way to a day when there are so many women in top roles across all creative disciplines that we no longer use the qualifier “woman” to describe world-class artists.

This fall, Seattle’s major museums are championing a new and necessary normal, offering a critical mass of compelling artwork—both historical and contemporary—by women.

Historical work by women artists continues to have impact and relevance in our contemporary landscape, sometimes more now than at the moment of the artwork’s making. This is one of the core values of Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris (on view at the Seattle Art Museum and the Henry Art Gallery), which showcases 130 works of art by 75 international women artists, created from 1907 to 2007. The exhibition is an ambitious, respectable survey from a world-renowned collection of art by important makers such as Frida Kahlo, Dora Maar, Diane Arbus, Marina Abramovic, Atsuko Tanaka, Cindy Sherman and many more.

Of course, it’s disappointing that it’s still necessary to generate corrective, affirmative-action exhibitions like this. (It’s inconceivable that any museum would create an exhibition entitled Hommes: Men Artists from…) Elles makes a point about the importance of art by women, but the art loses some of its power because it’s presented in isolation from other important art of its time—works created by their male peers.

Running concurrently with Elles is the Frye Art Museum’s exhibition Mw [Moment Magnitude], a survey of Seattle artists generated by a Seattle team of artists and curators. Mw’s “radical localism” is pitched against Elles’ internationalism; its gender inclusivity is pitched against Elles’ gender exclusivity. Its unusual title refers neither to fixed time nor place but rather to energy released in the seismic rupture of an earthquake. This title sets the right tone for an exhibition in which the work of women artists is neither isolated nor underscored. In this show, women’s work matters deeply and equally.

Elles reminds us where we have been, how women artists have been marginalized and underrepresented. This is important for us, and especially for young female artists, to see and remember. Mw shows us the ideal we must strive for—the new normal, where men and women makers work solo and in conscious collaboration across platforms and disciplines, creating in new and exciting ways.

Robin Held is executive director of Reel Grrls.