An Ego of One's Own

Even by the most generous calculations, only 8 percent of the work that the Museum of Modern Art exhibits is by women (though most other art-world institutions don't fare much better). Only about 23 percent of solo gallery shows at top New York sites feature pieces by female artists. And there's nothing close to parity on the annual "power lists" in the art world (Artforum's, Art + Auction's, and ArtReview's), with consistently only 15 percent of names belonging to women.

Why isn't there more gender equality in the art world?

Last week at a panel, art critic Ben Davis spoke about rereading Virginia Woolf's seminal essay and thinking about how we no longer need "a room of one's own," so much as "room in the head of one's own." In a culture of 24/7 news, ubiquitous advertising, and exhausting schedules, we all strain to hear the muffled call of our own creative voices. Given that women continue to do the majority of caretaking and coordinating in most families, it stands to reason that their information overload is, indeed, measurably more self-annihilating than men's.

But if we're going to get really practical here, and we must, it's more than headspace that women require. A contemporary woman artist still needs a room of one's own and, as Woolf also urged, financial security, in order to make great art, but she also needs "an ego of one's own," and "a network of one's own." If her art is to get out into the world -- written about, represented by galleries, and anointed by museums and art collectors as worthy -- she has to be able to talk her work up, have somebody powerful willing to listen when she does, and not face gender stereotypes that she is transgressing social norms by doing so.

The debate about the endangered existence of the female ego has been raging for some time, but it mostly boils down to this: Women still aren't socialized to own their expertise publicly or negotiate on their own behalf. Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, co-authors of Women Don't Ask, have studied this phenomenon and concluded that "women are much less likely than men to ask for what they want and to use negotiation as a tool to promote their own ambitions or desires." In fact, the authors attest, "men use negotiation to get ahead and get what they want between two and nine times as often as women do."

This is no small problem when you consider the nature of the art profession --sometimes described as the biggest informal market in the world. Work traffics through relationships. It trades off hype. An artist's most labored-over creative work lives or dies (at least publicly) based on the interest of a very small and elite group of tastemakers -- curators, collectors, and critics. If a male artist is nine times more likely to advocate for his own work, imagine the countercultural ferocity it takes for a woman artist to repeatedly face rejection and go after relationships, recognition, and representation in this male-dominated sphere.

It's no secret that the social world that constitutes the contemporary art scene is elite and cliquish. If a female artist is to garner a network of one's own, she must have gone to the right schools, met the right people, been vocal but nonchalant about her work (this, of course, is the double bind of the female ego in such a context -- one must represent one's work while playing it cool and not appearing too eager). Even in an age of exploding social networks, to be invited to the gatherings where these powerbrokers drink and talk about the latest, hottest shows is still impossible for many dedicated artists.

Barring a desire or a capacity to get into the "old boys' club" or even the "new boys' club," a young female artist might gravitate toward an organization such as ArtTable, which supports women's leadership in the visual arts. Organizations like this are critical for new artists without the access or the cultural capital necessary to decode the art scene, but their effectiveness is also limited. Many women have tried to create their own "old girls' clubs" to counter the male equivalents. Practically, though, these groups create an institutionally sanctioned second-class social circle for women in an otherwise unchanged world. It's simply too difficult to shore up the resources and the influence necessary to counter centuries of formal and informal discrimination against women artists.

This is why the feminist art movement of the 1970s was culturally explosive, changing the consciousness of so many women artists then and now, but did little to alter dominant institutions or economic dynamics within the art world. It positioned itself as outside of the mainstream, so it stayed on the margins (though one may reasonably argue that it pushed some fundamental changes at the edges). The Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum is the first and only home for feminist art housed within a major art museum (and anointing the audacious, community-oriented Brooklyn Museum "mainstream" is a bit of a stretch).

So what do female artists need? They need space, literally and metaphorically, money, the capacity to advocate for their own work, and the networks necessary to make artistic effort lead to opportunities. Within that context, no wonder women dressed in monkey suits, however brave and playful, haven't influenced institutions much in the last 30 years. No wonder statistics, however shocking, don't seem to jolt art-world powerbrokers into behavior change. No wonder visual culture is still largely created by only one half of the potential artist population.