Women in the Arts: Rhona Hoffman

‘Women’s salaries are less than men’s, even though they occupy the same jobs’

For this series celebrating women in the arts, Rhona Hoffman, the owner of Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago, discusses why the gallery is one of the most intresting places to work as a woman and how #Metoo could change the course of history. 

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

I moved to Chicago from New York when I married, and in the late 1960s was asked to serve on the Women’s Board of the Art Institute of Chicago and the brand-new Museum of Contemporary Art. At the MCA, the Trustees were charged to raise money, and the Women’s Board worked to create multiple programmes for the public. We created and ran a docent program, hired a woman to run the education and performance department, organized benefit auctions and other events. The following year the trustees asked me and Helyn Goldenberg to create and operate a museum store. They had such little faith in our ability to be successful than an architect was hired to design and build a museum on wheels that could be stored in a closet. The store was a great success. All of the above was accomplished by multiple generations of women, collaborating and mentoring each other. There was no other person available to show us the ‘ropes’.

Grace Hokin was my mentor when she hired me for my first professional gallery job as director of her Chicago gallery across the street from the MCA. In less than an hour she explained how the gallery ‘worked’ and what she expected of me. Her belief in my ability to do the job was founded on the following: that I was an art history major at an elite East Coast women’s college, that I knew most of the Chicago collectors and that I had run the museum store for many years. Then she left Chicago for Bal Harbour, where she owned another gallery. I was to have no mentor for this new job. Instead I became the mentor to several women and one male employee.

The 1990s saw more women opening successful galleries and most of the personnel at galleries were women. I don’t know whether they had been mentored in previous jobs, or not mentored at all.  There were women-run organizations formed for many reasons, among them to provide women with places to network and mentor each other. In New York there was and still is ART TABLE. In Chicago, there is The Chicago Newtork, but it was not specific to the art world and mostly beneficial to corporate and medical work. These and other organizations have always been cross-generational.

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Rhona Hoffman. Courtesy: Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago

Rhona Hoffman. Courtesy: Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago

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

The gallery was, in 1976 and still to this day, one of the most interesting and best places to work as a woman, but definitely not a great place to work if you want to earn a good salary. When Donald Young and I opened our gallery, I may have experienced relatively few difficulties as an owner because I had a male partner. Women artists, on the other hand, experienced many difficulties. Many galleries showed no women artists. Work by women sold for less money than work by men. In general, that has changed. However, there were and still are more male museum directors than female directors. There are more male directors of movies than women. There are more white men and women directors than directors of colour, proving that gender is not the only issue.

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

Our country was founded by Europeans who had been persecuted and exiled. Once in America, many found it relatively easy to persecute others. Our Southern economy flourished because of slavery. We still live in a country of violence and disgraceful racial discrimination. War, movies and video games glorify war, and we train people to use weapons to kill people. 

Women’s salaries are less than men’s, even though they occupy the same jobs. Women are disrespected. They are raped and often told they are to blame. Women having to have sex with or being groped by male bosses in order to succeed in the work place is a fact. On and on and on.

The Women’s March on January 21, 2017 was the largest gathering in the history of our country and has changed everything. Citizens found their voice and realized their power. Women, men and children have finally said ENOUGH! We are fed up and are going to change this country. The bravery, intelligence and tenacity of the teenagers from Florida is beyond inspiring and they will not go away.

The #Metoo movement is important and hopefully will change the course of our history. I myself feel a part of it.

Rhona Hoffman is the founder and owner of Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, USA. Founded originally as Young Hoffman Gallery in 1976, it was one of the first galleries to offer exhibitions to women artists such as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Jenny Holzer. 

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