We at frieze have watched as questions surrounding the role and experiences of women in the workplace, the arts and beyond have evolved quickly. Alongside our ongoing sensitivity to representation within our regular editorial coverage, our new online series, ‘Women in the Arts’, highlights the crucial roles that women have played in shaping the artistic fields as we know them today.
As you were starting out in the arts, what were the possibilities for mentorship, collaboration and cross-generational engagement among women?
Reading a recent New Yorker, there was a story about a men’s group formed in opposition to toxic masculinity. It struck me that they asked themselves, ‘Who among us?’ Who among them were guilty of the kind of behaviour that puts women often on the defence for their peace of mind, over their bodies, and for their livelihoods? I like the question: Who among us? Often it is not the men asking themselves these questions, who present us with the problem. It is the men who harass women, assault women and those whose refusal of empathy creates a permissive environment for these crimes. To be fair, aren’t we also sometimes made aware of women perpetuating, aiding and abetting aggressive behaviour? That this conduct persists shows how interwoven it is into our societal fabric. It is patriarchy as a mother’s milk; it is what we’ve been weaned on. Our discomfort discussing this so often lies in these grey areas. We all need to ask the question ‘Who among us?’ When frieze asks me about female mentorship in the arts, of course women were instrumental in my development, but this is a separate issue from a culture that allows sexual violence to perpetuate primarily against women.
Women were a key part of my arts education, from Alice DeLana at Miss Porter’s School to my college professors – in particular, Mary Bergstein – at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Bergstein was the Chair of the Art History Department, and she encouraged me to do graduate work every time we had lunch. Her position was an important one, given how few women were and are in arts leadership positions despite representing an overwhelming majority in the field. But I also had many male mentors, from my advisor David Joselit at the CUNY Graduate Center to Alexander Nemerov at Stanford, among others. With regard to specific women’s issues, I’ve admired and discussed with Laurie Simmons her work with Time’s Up. Marilyn Minter and I have fundraised for Planned Parenthood and the ACLU through our co-curated project, Anger Management, at the Brooklyn Museum. Now we’ve moved some of the merchandise to Downtown for Democracy to raise money for women’s causes through collaborations with artists. Of course, my cohort in the #NotSurprised group are very impressive. Ultimately, I have found Simone Leigh and the collective she founded, Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter, to be heartening in their dedication to ending ‘inhumane institutionalized violence against black lives.’ Attending a performance of theirs at the Brooklyn Museum’s ‘We Wanted a Revolution’ exhibition, I stood awestruck by their contralto repetition of those words: ‘We Wanted a Revolution’.
What, if any, were the difficulties of embarking on a career in the arts as a woman?
The difficulties are those which remain invisible. These statistics came out of a workshop at the New Museum:
– 75% of workplace sexual harassment victims experienced retaliation when they spoke up
– 57% of HR professionals believe that unreported sexual harassment occurs in their organization
– 1 in 3 women between 18 and 34 have been sexually harassed at work
– 75% of victims do not talk about their sexual harassment experience
– The most common type of harassment allegation (87%) is verbal harassment
– In 2015, 83% of the sexual harassment allegations filed with the EEOC were made by women
– In 2016, the EEOC investigated 26,934 cases of sexual harassment allegations across the USA
– In 2016, 60% of women in the tech industry were sexually harassed
What specific experiences have you had that shaped your understanding of gender in the workplace, the media and the arts?
I’ve been pretty lucky avoiding sexual harassment in my day-to-day experiences. Because I work from the library or home, I’ve avoided this kind of contact in the workplace in the last decade. I’m a freelancer, so when I have encountered unsavoury people, I may choose to not work with them. However, all of us are privy to examples in our interactions with others in their workplaces. As an undergraduate and graduate student, I have experienced harassment or been aware of other students’s problems. I can’t speak about most of these experiences because many are confidential.
What has changed today?
I was recently speaking with an older friend, and she was quite clear that the level of transparency now is admirable. However, she stressed that we have to understand how the culture has changed. When she was younger, ‘Desirable men, wealthy and famous, were expected to flirt with women and women were supposed to be flattered. If they were not, they had to hide their disdain.’ And while speaking with the artist Sara Greenberger Rafferty, she noted that, in the 30 years between my friend’s experience and our own adolescence at RISD not much changed. We were told to carry condoms in case we were raped so we didn’t contract AIDS. That was the extent of the sensitivity to rape culture and sexual harassment in the late 1990s. Today there is so much more discussion and training for professors, students and for arts professionals. When I was growing up, I hung around with large groups of adolescent boys, then in primarily homosocial communities of women, and then with young men. At my most relaxed, I have the mouth of a sailor. It took me a long time to realize that some people are uncomfortable hearing every dirty pun that meanders through my thoughts. So much of what we are discussing comes back to understanding how power works and to consent. Then again I would never have dreamed about asking my students about their sex life as some of my professors did then.
What are your thoughts about #MeToo and other initiatives to call attention to sexual harassment?
If, with the #MeToo movement, we could enact the kind of monumental societal shifts we saw during the civil rights movement, in the LGBTQ social movements, if we could continue the nascent fourth-wave feminist movement, then we could oppose the apathy that allows for a patriarchal attitude in both men and women. Maybe in 20 years this won’t need to be a point on the agenda.
Main image: Andrianna Campbell. Photograph: Matthew Placek