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Do Lists About Women in the Arts Gloss Over the Problems?

The following is a companion essay to Maura Reilly’s examination of the status of Women in the Art World, “Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures, and Fixes.” Our coverage begins with our Editor’s Letter.

In March 2014, The New York Times ran the article “Study Finds a Gender Gap at the Top Museums.” Noting that women “run just a quarter of the biggest art museums in the United States and Canada, and they earn about a third less than their male counterparts,” The Times confirmed what many working in the contemporary art field had long known, but had seldom seen publicly validated. Most of my female colleagues and I share our encounters with sexism in strict confidence, acknowledging that there is nothing worse than being perceived as female and complaining. Regardless, it seems safe to say that in the contemporary art world, women and women’s issues are now objects of interest—or so it would seem judging from all the recent lists promoting them.

While investigative articles such as that in The Times are infrequent, lists and rankings are abundant. Top women, women to watch, women artists and curators you need to know—you may not yet know these women, but you get the message: there are women working in the art world and some might be considered worthy of attention. They may even be powerful. Where notions of gender and success are concerned, the list, by virtue of its very format, embodies the crux of the problem: a litany of names and capsule bios, peppered with personal anecdotes and external endorsements, in lieu of analysis of enduring inequities and systemic biases.

To be clear, I have nothing against publicizing women’s accomplishments. Yes, please publicize women. The more people who are made aware that there are many great women working in art the better. However, the biggest problem with lists is the most obvious one: an absence of nuance. And inclusion on them, especially the ranked ones, conforms to mostly patriarchal-defined notions of success. Would it be possible to make a list of “the most fulfilled artists you need to know”? Fulfillment is inherently subjective and based on individual values, while definitively presented lists of the powerful and up-and-coming alike act as authoritative assessments. Equity is essential, but the idea of being at the top, or of being on your way there, is flawed. As a feminist, I don’t see power and domination as personal goals. And I don’t identify my ambitions with “the top,” firstly, because the top doesn’t actually exist, and secondly, because I don’t feel aligned with how this myth is constructed today. Perhaps we could identify standards of success differently in the art world, especially as women.

Since we are increasingly inundated with gender-based lists and profiles, a question to ask is, Do they do anything? Do they have any tangible effect? Do they translate into deserved promotions and fair salaries? Or better, exhibition opportunities and press attention? Do they gloss over problems or bring them into focus? I am wary of lists in general. They conform to an oversimplified assessment, creating arbitrary inventories. And when based on gender, the crudeness of the list is even more glaring. You can browse the “100 Most Powerful Women in the Art World,” or you can browse ArtReview magazine’s “Power 100,” ostensibly a list of the 100 most powerful people in the global art world. In 2014, only three of the top ten on ArtReview’s list were women, revealing that, when tallying people, the numbers often just don’t add up.

Recently, I have been included in a few female-focused lists and profiles. Looking at these, I feel a mix of happiness and embarrassment. I’m thankful that someone was thinking of me and noticing my work. But I cringe at the unintentional, subtly infantilizing tone. When evaluated in the context of gender, even when praised, it’s difficult to ignore the subtext. I have encouraged and participated in female-oriented conversations, including the current one in this issue of ARTnews. It’s important to carve out these spaces of discussion, where we aren’t ashamed to talk about gender inequity in contemporary art. We do need more in-depth discussion. This very need is made evident through the current acceptability, and vogue, of listing women as a separate category of artist, curator, director, or collector. However, these disparities are a serious matter affecting people’s daily lives. In contrast to this reality, the superficiality and trendiness of the gender-based shout-out leaves me uneasy.

I wonder, are we more interested in women working in art as an abstract concept, or as complex individuals? And why are women being listed now? What do these news items say about the current state of gender relations? We might be ranking women, but are we hiring them, listening to them, promoting them, paying them fairly, encouraging them, exhibiting them, and recommending them? Are we supporting them? Are these lists indicative of change? Or is this just a passing trend?

Ruba Katrib is curator at SculptureCenter in New York.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 68 under the title “Listing Women.”

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