By : Jenn Stanley
3 min read
Ten years ago, a billboard made its way around Boston and parked outside the Museum of Fine Arts: “Do women have to be naked to get into Boston museums?” it asked, citing the MFA’s own statistic at the time that, despite their prominence as nude subjects, women accounted for only 11 percent of the artists featured in the museum. The billboard was the work of The Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group that’s been calling out gender disparity in the art world since the 1980s. It would seem that the situation has to have improved since then, given the institutional and corporate messaging on the subject of equity, but the data suggest that progress toward equity is unsuccessful or unattempted entirely.
While the MFA has not responded to the Boston Compass’ inquiry regarding the most up-to-date numbers, women created only 4 percent of the 90,000 artworks that the museum acquired between 2008 and 2018, according to a 2019 New York Times article on female representation in the arts. Despite this dismal statistic, or perhaps because of it, for the next two years, the museum had on display a show called “Women Take the Floor,” celebrating under-recognized 20th-century female artists.
Major institutions make public gestures toward diversity and inclusion, but the pervasive biases of the cultural elites who run them has not changed. A 2020 Oxford study found that affluent people who visit art galleries, especially men, rate art as less compelling when they believe it was a woman’s work. The researchers displayed computer-generated art and lied to the volunteers saying either a man or a woman created it. The wealthy art buyers didn’t like the women-labeled works. There was just something about them; every time women’s names were attached,
the paintings became less appealing.
Women-made artworks are valued at 42 percent of those by their comparable male peers, according to the Oxford researchers. It’s not the quality of the work or the talent or intelligence of the person making it. The liability is in the designation “woman” or “female.” Institutions could do more by simply featuring and celebrating a diverse array of voices without patting themselves on the back as they other and infantilize their honorees.
This is pervasive in all aspects of existence under the patriarchy, not just the art world. Take, for instance, President Joe Biden’s pledge to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court. He could have nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson because she was the best for the job. His preemptive pledge served only to goad the rich powerful conservatives and appease the rich powerful liberals who believe they’re on the good side of gluttony.
Women and femmes deserve more than a cyclical eternity of being treated like blank canvases on which the gate-keepers and their manchild geniuses jerk off. Our creativity is innate, our perspective is valuable, and our anger is justified. It’s time for institutions to stop placating artists from underrepresented groups and identities and start respecting their contributions.
Originally published in-print in Boston Compass Newspaper #146 May 2022
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