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Betty Tompkins Responds

The following is a response to Maura Reilly’s article “Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures, and Fixes” about the current statistics of Women in the Art World. Our coverage begins with our Editor’s Letter.


Betty Tompkins, Kiss Painting #8, 2014.


Born in 1945, lives in New York City and Pleasant Mount, Pennsylvania

When I first came to New York in the late ’60s, I was in my mid-20s. I would go around to galleries and talk to the dealers, or the person manning the front desk, and they would say, “Come back in ten years when you’ve found your own voice.” But actually quite a lot of the dealers would say, “Even ten years from now, when you have your own voice, don’t come back, because we don’t show women.”

Later, New York State passed a law that made it illegal for employers to ask a prospective employee what his or her thoughts were about having a family. I would have dealers to my studio, and this was clearly still something they wanted to know. And it was interesting to see them dance around the question, because they could no longer directly say, “What are your plans for a family?”

These days, we take it for granted that there are more women in the galleries and in museums, but when you look at the actual numbers, there has been little improvement. When I look at the numbers, I shake my head. Where is the “leaning in”? To me, “separate but equal” doesn’t work, and you can see it in the statistics. We are still a qualified group—“women artists,” “black artists,” “artists of color.” And that makes it lesser. But we can’t just look at individual numbers or charts. We need to look at the big picture for any given artist. Where am I getting to show? Who’s getting to look at my work? Who’s writing about it? Who’s buying it? You also can’t just concentrate on how much money I am making.

My work is owned by one museum, the Centre Pompidou in Paris. I have never been in a show in a U.S. museum. I never know how much to attribute this to the fact that I’m a woman and how much to attribute to my subject matter, which presents a challenge for dealers. Luckily, I now have two terrific dealers—Gavlak in Los Angeles and Palm Beach and Rodolphe Janssen in Brussels—who are courageous and who like to have conversations about controversial work.

A couple of years ago, I reread a book called The Art Dealers, which originally came out in the early ’70s. The authors, Laura de Coppet and Alan Jones, talked to top dealers over a two- or three-year period. I was more than halfway through before any dealer mentioned a woman artist. I think it was either Louise Nevelson or Louise Bourgeois. I was three-quarters through before one dealer said that when she developed her gallery, she knew she wanted to show a significant number of women and could develop a market for that. In the context of this book, and of the time, the word “artist” meant “male artist,” and predominantly “white male artist.” This morning, I reread Linda Nochlin’s essay from 1971, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (I’ve always thought of it as one half of a double feature with Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.”) And it’s exactly what Nochlin was saying, that in the general culture the word “artist” means “white man.” I don’t know how much of that has actually changed. Right now, we are in an age of rediscovery of certain artists. Why that is, I really can’t say, but I am grateful for the attention I am getting. I feel appreciated for what I do and what I’ve done, but when I look at the big picture I still see a lot of tokenism.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 59.

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