Sue Scott on women artists getting into museums, feminism and her new book
By Kyle Harris
July 29, 2014
For decades, feminists have challenged the art world to open up galleries and museums to women artists. While nominal progress has been made, many major institutions still show a disproportionate amount of work by male artists. This disparity is one of many reasons critics Eleanor Heartney and Nancy Princenthal and curators Helaine Posner and Sue Scott co-authored The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium, a profile of 24 artists that some have described as a new canon -- a term the writers resist.
In advance of their appearance at Anderson Ranch, Westword talked with Scott about the book, the state of feminism and the struggles and successes of women in the art world.
See also: Favianna Rodriguez talks sexual liberation, immigration, racial justice and art
Westword: Talk about what you're going to be doing at Anderson Ranch?
Sue Scott: I'm coming there with three of my colleagues. It's for the second book that we've written. This one is called The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium. This is our second time to Anderson Ranch. We came for the first time with our first book: After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art. That came out in 2008, and this book came out last September.
Talk about the book?
This book looks at 24 women artists born after 1960. We've divided them into categories of our making--not something that they necessarily say they fit in. We looked at four seminal exhibitions or occurrences or works from the feminist movement. Each of us wrote about that section, and we all divided the artists up and wrote about them, regardless of which section they were in.
For instance, Helaine Posner wrote "History Lessons," and her take off of Nancy Spero. Mine is "Domestic Disturbances," and my take off is Womanhouse in 1972, in Chicago, with Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. The section called "Spellbound" was written by Nancy Princenthal, and has a take off of Louise Bourgeois. And then "Bad Girls," which was written by Eleanor Heartney, is a take off the famous Linda Benglis ad in Art Forum.
What are the differences between the two books? What do you mean by artists of the new millennium?
We had met for a couple of years to talk about the format of the book. We knew it was coming out in the Year of Feminism, so we wanted it to be something a little bit different. With the help of our editor, we brought the first book down to 12 artists, each of which represented a particular aspect of work as important women artists. For instance, we included Elizabeth Murray, which we used for painting. But it maybe could have been Susan Rothenberg or it could have been Jennifer Bartlett. We included Marina Abramovic. We included Louise Bourgeois, Judy Pfaff, who we feel led the way for installation work, cultural installation.
That's the framework of the first book. We were also looking at position and aspects of power in the art world. One section of it looks at how much women are represented in galleries and monographs and museums. We looked from 1972 to about early 2000. The numbers go up from the 70s to 2000, but women have the opportunity for solo shows at roughly 20-24%. In the 70s, the number of solo shows that women had in galleries was something like 14%. In the 80s, it went up a little bit. In the 90s, it was at 23%. In the 2000s, it goes back down. We look at it decade by decade.
Art historian Linda Nochlin wrote the forward. The take off of this book came from her famous 1972 essay, which asked: Why are there no great women artists? The short answer is because there is not the institutional support, which is why we then looked at the institutional support of the artists, which varied from 17% to 24% solo shows.
Talk about the 2000s? Why did the number go down?
We have a theory. We didn't put it in the book, because it's just speculation. In the 90s, women solo shows went up. In the 90s, especially the mid-90s, the market was terrible. It seems like when there's a booming market, men have more opportunities in galleries. The 2000s, that decade was a huge boom in the market. But I don't want to focus too much on that.
Sometimes we show these charts and people get all revved up and jazzed about it, because it's something really tangible. You could sit around all day long and speculate about the equality of women in the art world today. When you look at the facts, you can see that it's not 50-50.
In the new book, we also look at the number of MFA students graduating. For instance, Yale has pretty much worked its way up now. Most of the schools have. It changes year to year, but on the average, 50% are female graduates and 50% are male graduates. Yet when they get out into the commercial world, women have a 20% chance of a solo show.
Where do art collectives fit within your analysis? Groups like the Guerrilla Girls?
We haven't looked into it. We contacted the Guerilla Girls early on about statistics, and they didn't have them. We're looking to our third book and are trying to figure out what the themes will be. Collectives might be a good thing to look at.
Let's go back to the second book.
We came up with these categories that tied the work of the artist back to these seminal themes of feminism. We put the artists in these categories. Some of them could have gone into a number of categories, but we happened to put them in the one. Just because we put somebody in one category doesn't mean they may or may not agree with it. Kate Gilmore is in "Domestic Disturbances," for instance, and that departure is Womanhouse. She wasn't even born when Womanhouse was done. She's been on the panel with us and talks about the influence of feminism, because her mother was of the age of Womanhouse and feminism.
In some of our early panels, we got criticized by some artists, because we chose to include women artists who didn't necessarily have feminism as their focus. But we were looking at the influence of these women artists. For instance, Judy Pfaff's, with sculptural abstraction, she said to us: "I was never included in any of these early feminist shows because I did abstract art." We were interested in looking not only at content, but looking at what the legacy of these various artists is.
With the second book, it was how these young women artists took this legacy and made it their own. I would say that's the connection between the two books.
Talk about how feminism has evolved or shifted and some of the tensions within what that term means?
I would hate to be quoted on any of that, because I might be skewered, but I would say for us--I'll just elaborate what I said earlier--is that we were much more interested in looking at these things in the bigger art world and not just artists that were focused particularly on feminist content. For instance, Marina Abramovic was raised in a communist country. She was in art school, and she didn't know about the feminist movement. She was raised by parents in the army. She was raised in a much more equal country, with a sense of equality back then. Her work is about something else. It's about pushing the body and the limits. It's not about questions of male and female. We were interested in including her because she is a performance artist.
You know Vito Acconci and Chris Burden. She's of their generation, but she's the only one still doing performance and doing very rigorous, painful performances, which is interesting. We feel this is what sets our book apart. We're not trying to answer or even define notions of feminism. We're looking at women's place, women's influence, and women's access to power in the art world.
Talk about those institutional dialogs around feminism? Have they shifted since the 90s?
People are becoming more aware of them, but you just need to look at our charts. Institutions are still at 24% for solo shows for women. I say, MOMA has given these two women artists retrospectives, but overall, they're pretty pathetic on how much they show women. We need to continue to be aware and point it out. I was just at the Yale Art Gallery. I walked in. I walked through. I thought it was really terrific. I got to the end of it and thought: Oh, from what I can remember, they had four women artists there.
To me, it is an awareness. We have not reached that place. We're certainly on par with the Senate. It's 20% female, so we're on par with that. But to me, the really telling disparity is that 50% of people coming out of MFA programs, give or take, are female. Then they go into the professional world and their chances are cut in half.
That's horrifying. I'm interested in a question around region. So many of the institutions you are talking about are the big, New York players. Do you get a sense that in the Midwest or the West or even LA or San Francisco that those numbers are different?
I can't speak to that. Maybe on the panel, Cathie Opie will talk about how it is in California. One of the schools we looked at was UCLA. From early on, they had as many women as men. Our speculation is that Mary Kelly ran that program from early on. It gets back to this thing: Let's just be aware of it. Let's just look at the numbers.
Until you look at what the curators are doing, I think it starts to get a little personal. One writer, who was in our audience and also teaches, she said an interesting thing would be to look at who got written about in the Whitney Biennial and who were the writers and where was the writing done? There are a lot of places to look at and threads to see who is being written about, who is doing the writing and where is the writing showing up.
I don't want too much focus on these statistics, because it's a small segment of our book. Most of our book is looking at these 24 artists.
What do the discussions of the individual artists look like?
Each of us did 6 essays. I wrote about Kate Gilmore. She's been in the Whitney Biennial and done things for Creative Time and gotten all kinds of awards. She currently doesn't have a gallery in New York. There is some writing, but there is no monograph on her. So, I interviewed her so there could be a primary source in this book. In some cases we didn't.
For us, it was a mix of biographical and critical and tying them into these themes and the ideas of what we're doing. Kate, for instance, does have a relationship to notions of feminism. She is a performance artist/video artist. She sets up challenges for herself, like kicking her way out of a box and climbing up this panel type thing that she did for the Whitney. She does it in high heels and a tea dress, playing with these ideas of fashion and limitations imposed on women.
Everybody has their own style. Nancy and Eleanor are critics. Helaine and I are curators. The first time we started writing, Helaine and I were used to writing a little bit different way. Like, oh, can you really say that? It's important to all of us not to get caught up in art speak and write clearly and convey an understanding of what the artist is doing and trying to do.
Over the decades you cover, there have been such huge shifts in terms of institutional support for the arts. How has the function of art shifted over these decades?
I don't know. I can only talk about my own experience. I came across a letter right after I moved to New York City in 1992. The Guggenheim had reopened, and the Guggenheim was something that the Guerilla Girls and WAC had really gone after. They were so male dominated and pro-male. I remember, I went up to the opening. I couldn't believe how few women were represented. It was shocking. I went home and wrote an essay and sent it off to the New York Times, and it got printed as an Op-Ed. I just reread it. I'd kind of forgotten about it over the decades. It's disappointing in a way that I was railing about the same things in 1992 that we are now. I don't want to say we're railing about them, but that we're aware of.
To me, that's the most important thing--that we're continually having the awareness, until we integrate that awareness into all the upper echelons, into the curators and directors. There is a curator in England who is saying that maybe they should instigate a quota system. Certainly, we wouldn't want to do that, but I think it gets back to awareness, if that makes sense.
What we want to focus on in these books are the accomplishments of these women. When we first came out with this book, it was selected as one of the top art books of the year. Even the word canon was used; here is a list of these artists. We were in no way trying to make a canon of the top 24 young women artists working today. We were trying to work internationally. We were trying to work across media and styles and give a whole range and spectrum. To me, that's the strength of the book. These other things give it a framework, but we're looking at what these artists are doing and how important they are.
This free panel takes place July 30 at 12:30 p.m. at Anderson Ranch. Wait list tickets will be available at the door.