By Patrizia Dander
‘No one is born a feminist but, if nothing else makes us so beforehand, our working environments will’

The curator at the Museum Brandhorst in Munich shares her experience of working in the arts, and her thoughts on where we are now in overturning the structural problems that create and allow for gender disparity. 

As you were starting out in the arts, what were the possibilities for mentorship, collaboration and cross-generational engagement among women?

What I’m doing today would be unthinkable without the support of my first boss, Rita Kersting, who offered me an internship at Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Düsseldorf, although I came from an entirely different discipline (psychology), bringing with me little more than a curiosity and enthusiasm for contemporary art. To this day, I’m still learning from her integrity and her insatiable interest in art and artists. Everything followed on from Rita’s initial leap of faith, so yes, there was extraordinary support amongst women, and there still is.

What, if any, were the difficulties of embarking on a career in the arts as a woman?

It’s not easy to say. My difficulties were more closely connected with my being from a different background and therefore having to find a place for myself within an unfamiliar discipline. But I have always felt very privileged to have been allowed to switch careers in such a way, and in the various positions that I have held since been supported by men and women in equal measure. The difference between my own career and a man’s career probably lies in the causal logic. It took a long time before I was sure that my career path was based on the fact that I do good work – and the same applies to many of my female colleagues. The fact that the same work doesn’t necessarily result in the same salary was also part of my reality.

What specific experiences have you had that shaped your understanding of gender in the workplace, the media and the arts?

No one is born a feminist but, if nothing else makes us so beforehand, our working environments will. I’m something of a late bloomer in this respect, and maybe that makes me a good example. I began my career at a Kunstverein where all the staff were women and many women artists exhibited. But in spite of that, the majority of solo shows were still awarded to men. I took this for granted to such an extent that I didn’t even think about it. I thought about it even less in 2007 when I moved to Haus der Kunst in Munich, which ran an exhibition programme that, for me, was downright ‘canonical’. At that time, it had staged a grand total of two solo shows by women artists.

It was my work with various collections that finally brought the realities of the gender imbalance home. The collection of Ingvild Goetz, for instance, who from the outset supported male and female artists equally, and did so without claiming it to be programmatic, was a real eye-opener. In terms of my own work, my main influences have been my female colleagues – artists, curators, theorists – and without their support, and without our conversations about the structural problems of the complex as a whole, it would not have become such a firmly established theme for me. It’s astonishing that even such a simple thing as the use of grammatically female language, which luckily exists in German and allows us to address female artists as well as our female audience in their own right (and not just as via a gender-based specification, as is necessary in English), still has to be justified, which goes to show how far we still have to travel.

What has changed today?

The biggest difference is probably the fact that broad sections of society are now aware of gender disparity. It’s almost a stroke of luck that a number of the central disadvantages faced by women can be broken down into facts and figures and referred to in very concrete terms, which is also why the statistics often referenced in responses to this questionnaire are so important. The social class is yet another segregating force, and one that is likely of equal measure, but is far more difficult to grasp.

When it comes to exhibitions by women artists, this past decade has seen galleries and institutions trying to catch up. (I, myself, have been part of this logic of ‘atonement’ – as has this questionnaire series.) But regardless of what caused it, this is a positive development. I just hope that the momentum is not lost amidst the current conservative backlash. The question that is yet to be answered is what this means for the way in which art history is written. Ultimately, the gender-based expansion of the ‘canon’, one engendered by a belated ‘granting entry’ to women, simply confirms an art history as it has been written by (and for) men. Moreover, this process of retroactive reparation cannot make up for the omissions that have resulted from the structural disadvantaging of women artists, who were deprived of elementary opportunities for artistic development at the time when they were working. Acknowledging this fact and actively working to remedy it is a central task for art historians and curators today.

It is widely known that institutions still have work to do, in structural terms, and Munich is clearly below-standard in this respect. In this city, with its impressive range of art institutions, not a single venue for contemporary art is run by a woman, and the same applies, incidentally, to major theatres and concert houses. There is still much to be done, for everyone’s sake. It can only make our work better and our institutions more relevant.

What are your thoughts about #MeToo and other initiatives to call attention to sexual harassment?

Absolutely essential. Every single voice. But, as always when there is something at stake, the situation is complicated, and therefore, the definitions of abuse of power and sexual harassment, like those proposed by We Are Not Surprised, are crucial for a constructive debate. In general terms, I have a problem with the essentialist way that questions of identity politics have been approached in recent times. My wish would be for far more people – both men and women – to declare solidarity with these initiatives, regardless of whether or not they are directly affected.

Main image: Frank Stolle, Portrait of Patrizia Dander, 2018, photograph. Courtesy: Frank Stolle