Art Agencies to the Rescue

by Karen Darricades

When Kelly Thornton became the artistic director of Toronto’s Nightwood Theatre in 2002, she was often asked why there was a need for a women’s theatre company.

When Kelly Thornton became the artistic director of Toronto’s Nightwood Theatre in 2002, she was often asked why there was a need for a women’s theatre company.

In order to explore that question on an ongoing basis, Thornton assembled the National Advisory Committee of Equity in Canadian Theatre, a group that puts gender inequities in Canadian theatre under the microscope and advocates for the improved representation of women artists in theatres affiliated with the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT). Every two years, the committee conducts a poll on the state of the art.

During the nine years since the committee started compiling the biannual polls, Thornton has seen a huge difference in the reactions of her theatre peers when she talks about the underrepresentation of women.

“In 2002, I got defensiveness,” she recalls. “By 2011, people were acknowledging that there is indeed a problem.”

The level of awareness regarding women’s underrepresentation in Canadian theatre has shifted, creating an opportunity for change. In the 2008-2009 season, women accounted for 29 percent of artistic directors, 36 percent of working directors and 29 percent of the produced playwrights in PACT theatres.

“We’re trying to move people from the back of their minds to the front of their minds,” says Thornton. Raising consciousness about women’s representation in theatre programming means looking at the issue from both sides. “They [male directors] are looking for stories that speak to them,” offers Thornton. “This choice is unconscious. So we need to make them conscious about those choices.”

Raising consciousness is also the force behind a handful of women-run art galleries and organizations in Canada. Toronto is home to Women’s Art Resource Centre (WARC), Native Women in the Arts and Nightwood Theatre. Montreal has Studio XX, La Centrale and Groupe Intervention Vidéo, while Winnipeg is the location of Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA).

Each group exhibits, curates, archives and supports women’s art production, and most also advocate to address gender (and also, in the case of Native Women in the Arts, racial) inequities in the arts. The issue of women artists’ representation gained prominence in 1985 when a group of New York artists called the Guerrilla Girls published a cheeky poster of a woman wearing nothing but a gorilla mask with a caption that read, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met?” The poster decried the fact that “less than 3 percent of the artists in the Met Museum are women, yet 83 percent of the nudes are female.”

While the Guerrilla Girls have since had a retrospective of their work exhibited at the Met, the overall visibility of female visual artists has not improved much in the past 30 years. Women’s bodies remain sites of exploration, exploitation and co-optation for content explored by artists of any gender. However, when women choose to explore women’s bodies in ways that stray from traditional norms, their work is often categorized as shock art or as a passé feminist contrivance that has already been done to death.

This is what happened in 2005, when Ontario College of Art & Design sculpture student Deb Wiles made a plaster mould of her vulva. When the project expanded to involve 52 representations of women’s vulvas cast in bronze (52 Ladies to Tea: The Vulva Project), Wiles was trounced. In a 2007 National Post article, “The ‘Art’ of the Disgusting,” Barbara Kay wrote, “More insidious is play-giarizing art, where the artist’s voyeuristic essence is served up in superficially whimsical or jokey forms. Toronto art student Deb Wiles, for example, recently coaxed 52 initially embarrassed, but eventually co-operative women into impressing their vulvas on to a mixture
of Vaseline and powdered alginate for eventual casting in bronze as benignly shell-like sculptures.”

This trivialization of Wiles’ work and the characterization of the process as coercive entirely missed the subversive nature of the work. It also reinforced the links between the shame women are taught to have about their bodies and the shame women are taught to feel about demanding power, space and recognition.

“It’s about power,” says Toronto performance artist and curator Jess Dobkin, whose recent work Lactation
Station: Breast Milk Bar invited audience members to taste the breast milk provided by six new mothers as part of an exploration of this “intimate motherhood rite.” Dobkin’s Lactation Station was trivialized by a
Toronto Star piece thusly: “Mother’s milk may be the healthiest food for babies, but is it art? Yes, according to Jess Dobkin, a lesbian mother and artist who will present her work Lactation Station: Breast Milk Bar at the Ontario College of Art and Design, the institution of higher learning that a few years ago brought you vomiting as performance art.”

Fortunately for Wiles and Dobkin, the enthusiastic response from audiences about how unique each of the vulvas looked in the case of Wiles, and how different each of the breast milks tasted in the case of Dobkin, spoke volumes more than the cheap shots fired off by commentators who didn’t get it.

Nonetheless, Dobkin has found that when she makes her observations of the world around her— which, after all, is what an artist does—she often encounters a backlash.

“There’s still a stigma that if I rant about it I am just angry or bitter. It reminds me of the mentality around trauma, slavery, etcetera—aren’t you past that?’” says Dobkin, wryly.

The desire for women artists for mentorship, fair treatment and recognition is the idea behind MAWA, a 27-year-old feminist organization that matches emerging artists with experienced female artists who can support and critique their art. MAWA exhibits women’s art at its storefront, located on Main Street in Winnipeg’s core area, and hosts workshops on issues such as how to apply for grants. MAWA’s much-needed support and the practical training it provides help women to participate in cultural industries that, according to
MAWA, contribute more than $40 billion per year to Canada’s GDP.

“Women in the visual arts still do not have equal opportunities,” MAWA Co-Executive Director Shawna Dempsey explains. “Women’s artworks comprise lower numbers than men’s in public art gallery collections. Women fill fewer of the top executive positions within large public galleries nationally. Women hold fewer tenured positions within university art departments—even though there are greater numbers of women students than men.”

Dempsey adds that traditional gender roles still often limit the time women have for their art.

“Women do the lion’s share of caregiving for children and the elderly, and that takes away from [their] work time and earning capacity. Women also tend to negotiate less aggressively for compensation.”

Even when women do take themselves seriously as artists, others often subtly question them, as film director Ruba Nadda has observed.
“There is an assumption that we must somehow be living off the financial stability of our male partners, and that isn’t that great he’s so supportive of your work,” says Nadda, who received the best director award at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival for her film Cairo Time. “It’s all very 1950s!”

In 2009, Hill Strategies Research Inc. published a report funded by the Canada Council for the
Arts, Canadian Heritage and the Ontario Arts Council. Based on 2006 census information, the report, titled A Statistical Profile of Artists in Canada, concluded that “artists’ earnings are very low with average earnings of $22,700,” which represented 62 per cent of the average Canadian worker’s earnings of $36,300. Female artists, the report further noted, earned significantly less than their male counterparts—28 per cent less, or just $19,200 on average. Among visual artists, female average earnings were a paltry $11,421, compared to male visual artists’ lean average of $17, 271.

The report also found that Aboriginal and visible-minority artists had even lower earnings.
Aboriginal artists’ average earnings were $15,900, while artists who were members of a visible minority earned an average of $18,800.

Women not only receive less remuneration than their male counterparts, they also receive less critical attention. A recent article by author Eileen Myles posted on The AWL, which bills itself as “a New York City-based web concern created to encourage daily discussion of the issues of the day,” commented on the fact that The New York Review of Books in 2010 reviewed men’s books nearly twice as often as women’s books. “Now that there’s less money to go around in book publishing and the surrounding media, it seems like what’s getting shoved
out is women,” Myles observed.
Because women’s art continues to be undersupported, under-funded, under-collected, under-celebrated and under-recognized, women artists still work double-time, creating their art and working for recognition. For all of these reasons, women’s art organizations are crucial to developing women’s art and for preserving women’s art history.
And yet, as Dempsey says, “We often have to justify ‘why women?’ We need to remind folks that, like Aboriginal arts organizations or other culturally based arts organizations, we are redressing historical and present-day inequities.”

In the end, Dempsey believes, it makes the entire arts community healthier to be more fair and inclusive.
In order to create greater equity and diversity in the arts, more research is needed. There is no ongoing surveillance of disparities in the income, recognition and representation of male and female artists (or between artists of different racial backgrounds) in Canada. There is also a need for national organizations to establish committees to increase awareness of issues of disparity within the arts community, including funding agencies.

Even seemingly small improvements in funding policies can lead directly to improvements for women artists. Over the past 10 years, new categories have emerged for art forms and mediums that had previously been marginalized by their association with women’s work. Craft, arts education and community arts, for instance, have become categories for which artists can pursue funding from major arts councils—something that didn’t necessarily happen in the past.

Another positive outcome of raising the consciousness of producers, consumers, funders, collectors and writers is that more artists are having a chance to explore their artistic practice.
“We’re growing,” Thornton boasts about Nightwood Theatre. “We’ve doubled our budget, increased our public and private funding and we’re out there, known as the Canada’s women’s theatre.”

Dempsey is equally excited about the momentum of mentorship happening at MAWA.“Mentorship shares community history with the next generation. It’s an ongoing legacy of learning. Past MAWA mentees have gone on to mentor, either formally or informally. It has a web-like, far-reaching effect, impacting more than the individuals directly involved,” she enthuses. “We’re starting the fourth generation!”

Ultimately, working collectively strengthens female artists by reinforcing their value.

“We need to work in the communities with which we identify and [that] nurture us,” says Dobkin,
adding, “The discussion is not over.”