Artists ,

Mickalene Thomas 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.


Mickalene Thomas, Racquel #6, 2013.


Born in 1971, lives in New York City

One of the major shifts in the landscape since 1971 is that more women today are in positions of opportunity. We’re able to run businesses, make money, and have careers independently of men. Things have shifted for women in the arts. If you think of Pat Steir’s generation, there were so many fewer women recognized then. Not that things are perfect: if you asked a room of 20 people, maybe eight or ten of them would be able name the top female contemporary artists. And even though women make up a huge part of the art market, their prices aren’t at all comparable to what men make. Still, I’m here as an artist, as a woman able to support myself solely on my art. Could I have done that in 1971? I doubt it.

Many of the disparities between female and male artists today are subtle. I’ve been included in publications where the names of the male artists are in big, bold letters and all of the women’s names are in smaller sizes. With catalogues, usually, if there are two artists, the male artist goes on the front cover and the female artist goes on the back. The medium is the message, and these decisions are loaded with meaning that we respond to intuitively. If you see Jeff Koons in big letters and Kara Walker in a small font, you get a message about who is the more significant artist.

Because things have shifted for women in the arts, maybe we need to start thinking about how to use the positions we’re in to make change. One thing we can change is the conversations we’re having. If we’re only talking about women artists in comparison to male artists, then we aren’t talking about the theoretical, conceptual, and formal aspects of the art women make—the art itself. And when we talk about women in the arts, we need to think about all the sub-categories—women of color, queer women—that create disparities again. Until the conversations change, we really aren’t making progress.

And as women in positions of opportunity, we can think about how to extend opportunity to our peers. I wanted to do this when I put together my curatorial exhibition “Tête-à-Tête,” which presented the work of (mostly women) artists who inspire me. It was a chance to put these artists on the radar of more writers and curators. The same artists are always being shown—even female curators and gallery directors mostly put men in their shows. Very few take risks, move beyond familiar circles, and act as the game-changers they could be. That’s why I have so much respect for Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles—she creates opportunities for women. I first met her when I was working at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and a few years later she thought of me for her first big project at MOCA. She could have gotten anybody, so for me this was very courageous of her.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 58.

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