Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here: http://bit.ly/132VchD. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.
Recently I was invited to join an artists’ group that meets about once a month. These meetings have no particular agenda outside of socializing and conversation, and so I didn’t think much of the fact that they seemed to be attended only by men. However, this trend has continued, and it’s beginning to feel as if the gender makeup of the group is a matter of policy rather than happenstance. Additionally, there has been talk of putting together a group exhibition of work with these guys, and I am uncomfortable participating in an art exhibition founded on a group that might be excluding women categorically. Where does one draw the line between social activity and professional activity in the arts? And what responsibility does an artist have to hold his or her social contacts to the same standards as their professional ones? And, lastly, what should I say to these fellows?
Dear Sir, thank you for your question. I’m glad you’re both aware of and uncomfortable with participating in an exclusionary group. Welcome to 2014, where people of all genders can make extraordinary contributions to society! Of course, not everyone has caught on to this revolutionary notion yet, and often the opportunity to address these systematic evils can be found on the small scale, in our own houses—or studios, as the case may be.
To answer your first question, a social group of professional artists is also, by default, a professional group of social artists; good luck finding the exact place where mere entertaining turns into career networking. In many professions, including the arts, social groups are how ideas are generated, work gets made, people are hired, and commodities are sold. The art world runs on the same casual nepotism as many fields, and quite a few folks prefer—unconsciously I’m sure—to work with people that they have met. Your particular social club is organizing an exhibition, and that’s a professional activity, so there’s your answer.
As for holding your social contacts to the same standards as your professional ones, that can be tricky; it depends on how close the relationship is and how strict you are with your ethics. If this group is like family to you, you might be tempted to forgive flaws that you wouldn’t be willing to overlook in casual acquaintances. Conversely, you might feel more comfortable calling out this behavior in people close to you, because the dynamics of your relationship have already been established. Under either circumstance, you should never participate in an activity that makes you feel uncomfortable, or that would make you feel defensive later. Imagine yourself answering questions from a (female) friend about why there are no women in this group or in the exhibition. What would you tell her? Can it be that these men don’t know any artists who are also women? Will you be comfortable taking responsibility for your complicity?
What you should say to these dudes is very simple: Why aren’t there any women here? If that seems too earnest and direct, try making a joke out of it: Mind if I open a window? Because this place reeks of sausage. Maybe you’ll find that other members have similar concerns and the group can change in a non-forced, organic fashion. Alternatively, you might ask to invite another artist to come with you to the next meeting—and that artist might just happen to be a woman (warn her first!). If she’s treated coldly or disrespectfully, you’ll know where these gentlemen stand.
Addressing sexism head-on can feel risky, and if you end up having a general discussion, you might find yourself accused of being a “white knight” or some other nonsense. If that’s the case, you probably don’t want to be friends with this group of bros, no matter what the professional opportunities might be. Remember that old gem, “Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are”? We are judged by the company we keep, so keep company that you respect and others will judge you as respectable by those same standards. With any luck, you’ll be able to gently introduce some gender diversity to this group, enlarging and enriching it for everyone.
If you’re interested in learning more about gender inequality in the arts, you can check out work by The Guerilla Girls, Brainstormers!, and the artists who recently worked with Micol Hebron to produce this show. And after you’ve gotten comfortable with challenging sexism, I hope your next question will be: Why is this room full of white people? Good luck!