Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Danforth "Juried" Art Show Problem

I haven't submitted any work to the Danforth Museum in Massachusetts for a number of years now. They have an annual "juried" show that is local enough that it caught my interest and so, a few years ago, I submitted a piece and waited for the selection sheet.  My work wasn't chosen - fair enough.

But what caught my attention was the incredible volume disparity of women's work to men's work. The difference was staggering - something like 2 to 1 in favor of women's pieces.  And to put that number in perspective, at around that time I was doing a contract in Pittsfield, MA and had attended an artist talk at the Leslie Ferrin Gallery.  The artist was a woman who taught Fine Art at one of the local Universities and was represented in a New York gallery.

The talk involved women's representation in galleries.  The speaker said she had had few problems in her career with outright discrimination and really had little trouble finding gallery representation. Leslie Ferrin added that while she made every effort to promote women's work, two factors affected the proportion of exhibited women's work in her experience.

First, most of the artists walking through the door were men.

Second, women's art, despite the quality, simply didn't sell as well. Selling is what keeps the doors open.

That talk provided a much needed context a few years later in reading The Gorilla Girls criticism of women's representation in "the Art World".  The implicit reasoning might be that a 50 - 50 representation would be fair based on population estimates.

But would galleries be unfair if 70% (an arbitrary guesstimate) of the artists walking through the door were men and they dedicated 50% of their space to women?  Maybe not.  But it would be equally understandable if the split was, in fact 70% men over time - all things being equal.  And yes, there would be exceptions in all kinds of ways for any given event... but over time who walks through the door and who sells would likely be representative of the cohort.

Arithmetic and not statistics (per se) is all that's required to make sense of these things.

This then brings us back to the astonishing disproportion of women's art being "juried" into a museum show in 2016.  That's right, 2016.  While I didn't submit work to Danforth, I do get their emails and they wisely advertise who got into the juried show - great advertising. So who got in?

Yet again, two thirds of the accepted work was by women (70% to be more precise).  So I looked up a few more catalogs.  In 2011, almost exactly 67% were women.  In 2013, approximately 65%. In these cases I just grouped obvious men an women's names and put dubious gender under men.  The number is close enough for scrutiny.  My guess is that the arithmetic will hold throughout the run of shows.

Going back to an earlier point, that percentage would legitimize itself if 70% of the Danforth entries every year were consistently from women.  But that is hard to imagine.

Furthermore you may be thinking there's a feminist purity principle involved.  Of the men's work juried into the show, many ran galleries or had prestigious local credentials.  No one obviously important had their toes stepped on.

So the net effect is that of the 33% men's representation, far less than that was representative of new, young, or unknown men.

It's not unfair to say that this subverts the intent of juried exhibitions in aesthetic, political, legal, and social ways - none of the consequences good.

Every artist has a tight budget so submitting work to shows costs money, time, and alternative opportunity cost. The (maybe worse than) reverse discriminatory empirical evidence means that artists who apply in goodwill with an assumption that their work will be judged fairly wasn't and isn't. Any artist can tell you that they can live with rejection but not with suspicion of a rigged system.

As for the definition of "juried" show, I don't think anyone imagines a situation where every year men's art and women's art is separated into two unequal groups - cherry picked for influence on the men's side and another criteria applied to the women's group.

As I look at this, I wonder how widespread this practice is and will become - it's not healthy at all.
IMO, such shows should provide some easy numbers; how many applied and how many of each gender. It's not an absolute metric and all art shows will have wild deviations.  But over time these deviations will balance themselves far differently than those at the Danforth.