Thoughts on Women's History Month 2018

Numbers matter

In the month of March the US celebrates Women's History Month, recognizing the great contributions of women. In Europe we don't use the theme as prominent but we celebrate March 8 in honor of International Women's Day. In any case, I guess we all agree that it's not just about celebrating one day or month but to actually make every day of the year count. Nevertheless, I really like the thought of giving a month a topic and am joining the celebration of women's history month with a few thoughts here.

As some of you might know, I've been working for quite a while on the topic of Art as Labor and a big part of this work goes into the research of equality in the art world and the gender asymmetry in regard to professional art workers.

The last couple of months I tried to find studies that actually focus on the topic, and I have to say that I was really surprised that there are really just a few comprehensive studies done in the field of art sociology and gender, at least in the German speaking countries. Some of the studies I found were over 10 years old (if you know of good and recent resources send them my way). When I talk about gender I am very aware of non binary, transgender and gender fluid person, that said, the studies I found where using the binary division for the sake of starting at a point, and I hope that in the future more studies will take the different gender varieties into account.

The small amount of actual studies was really unexpected as we can notice without any doubt a higher percentage of female students in the art academies and universities but later on we can notice a gender asymmetry in the professional environment and we see people of color underrepresented in power positions (yes, studies should always keep an intersectional focus, everything else will continue to reproduce an asymmetry) . While we do notice it, numbers rule the world and we need more studies that raise a better awareness and lead eventually to a noticeable change.

It comes as no surprise that gender asymmetry leads to a disbalance of power dynamics which can lead to the misuse of power or to say it with the words of artist Jenny Holzer: the abuse of power comes as no surprise.

It remains to be seen whether a kind of turning point was reached in 2017: It was the year when "Time" made the "Silence Breaker" the person of the year – women who have publicly spoken about their traumatic experiences with sexual violence. We see that the #metoo movement is forcing a dialogue within the art world and everyone of us working in it knows of cases of harassment, discrimination and lack of visibility. I hope that #metoo will be more than a temporary movement in the art world and all of us working here demand more standards, better control systems and safe options for workers to report cases of misuse of power.

Hyperallergic ranked female artists #5 in its 2017 list of the most powerless people in the art world.

2017 has been also the year where in the 16-year old history of the Power 100 list a female artists lead the ranking for the first time: Hito Steyerl.

I reviewed recently the book by Katrin Hassler: "Kunst und Gender. Zur Bedeutung von Geschlecht für die Einnahme von Spitzenpositionen im Kunstfeld" [Art and Gender. The significance of gender in obtaining leadership positions in the art world] that I can really recommend for German speaking folks. It lacks a focus on intersectional feminism but still offers some insightful perspectives in her study. Such as: Of the top 2500 artists ranked on just 25,4% are women. In Germany professors in the area of the arts make up 30,7% (the arts come second with the highest percentage of female professors, just topped by language professors). If we look at the numbers for German graduates in the arts, 65,5% in 2013 were female graduates. Looking at the top 200 museums (the list she refers to is by a German magazine called Kunstkompass and very Western focused) she can show that female museum directors in this list represent 32,4% and all of them are highly educated, half of them has a PhD and all of them do have a relevant degree in art history or architecture. Compared with the male directors on the list where less directors do have a Phd and a higher percentage to come from non-art disciplines such as law or economics. In her chapter on galleries it was interesting to see that positions in the art market are easier for women to obtain.Of the top 200 galleries 39,8% are lead or were founded by women.

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Kindred Spirits

I just finished reading Sara Ahmed's "Living a feminist life" where she talks about having a Killjoy Survival Kit, sort of a feminist toolkit that equips and nourishes us. Another thing that she said that stuck ever since with me is "that we have to quote each other into existence" meaning that we lift each other up in the network and community we are part of and the way we share their thoughts. Here are a few insights into my personal toolkit, there are much more facets to it and many more kindred spirits part of it. I limited the list and tried to find a line that explained why these women are important to me, how they shaped my thinking, but as always with this listicles it is much more complex.

Sara Ahmed
Sara Ahmed gave me language and lots of food for thought around affective economies, feminism and diversity.

Louise Bourgeois
There is so much I admire about Louise Bourgeois, one of them is her resilience in her artistic practice and the truths she shared in her works.

Silvia Federici
There are many reasons why she is listed her. Her book "Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation" [2004] is really important to me and I'm currently revisiting it.

Andrea Fraser
Her works taught me a lot about criticality and discomfort.

Peggy Guggenheim
I did my first internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and apart from working with the brightest colleagues there I was inspired by the unapologetic and passionate ways Peggy Guggenheim chose to merge art and life.

Frida Kahlo
For many reasons. Her artistic practice influenced a lot of my thinking, one of the lessons being to own your story with all its dimensions.

Audre Lorde
Her writings refuse silence against oppression, embrace anger, hope and sadness. 

Ana Mendieta
I feel deeply connected to the work of Ana Mendieta, the sense of displacement and her spiritual connection to nature. You can read some lines I wrote about her here.

Linda Nochlin
Her thoughts and questions brought so much into the discipline of art history. Her work enabled so many of us younger art historians to continue to do the necessary work.

Amanda Palmer
Amanda Palmer was influential in the way I started to approach creative work and money. Her book "The Art of Asking" [2014] tells her personal journey to accept and actually ask for money as an exchange for her creative work.

Maria Popova
I gained so many thoughts and recommendations through brainpickings. Maria Popova's cultivation of curiosity her variety of interests inspire me in so many ways. 

Martha Rosler
I refer frequently to her artistic practice and thoughts. Her book "Culture Class [SternbergPress: 2013] influenced a lot of my thinking.

Lorna Simpson
I gained so many insights through the works of Lorna Simpson, among many things I encountered the concept of "Politics of the (black) Hair" through her images.

Susan Sontag
Ambition, language and writing in the best combination.

Rebecca Solnit
I love the way Rebecca Solnit approaches her topics, her language and the narrative she has created over the years. "Men explaining things to me" has been one of the first things I've read of her, in "Wanderlust: A History of Walking" I fell in love with her writing and visit her works very frequently.

Hito Steyerl
She was influential in how I expanded my believe on what art can think about.

Krista Tippett
I've been listening to the "On being" podcast for a couple of years now and it has nourished my soul in many ways. 

Virginia Woolf
Everybody should read "A room of one's own".

There are many other influential minds not mentioned here who shaped my spirit and nourished my soul. Thank you to all of them.

I'd love to hear about who is Part of your feminist toolkit or what you're working on during this Women's History Month.