Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Pen and Brush: Supporting Women and the Arts

I recently talked with Janice Sands, Executive Director of Pen and Brush, a NYC non-profit that supports the work of women artists. I spoke at length to her about the mission of Pen and Brush and its 120 year history. A new website promoting the organization, the work that it does, and the artists it supports has been recently launched. Sands spoke in detail on a variety of topics, particularly on the subject of its feminist identity. 

KC: When did you first identity as a feminist? Do you remember the circumstances and story behind it?

JS: I don’t remember a time that I wasn’t feminist in my views and attitudes.  All of the women in my immediate family - mother, grandmothers - were very accomplished and worked at professional jobs.  My mother graduated from Case Western Reserve University with combined BA and RN degrees – before WWII.  I was always encouraged to believe that women were strong and capable, intelligent and masters of their lives.

When I went to college in the 60’s, I found very activist communities. It was barely 3 years since the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama, the rise of student activism and Mario Savio’s iconic free speech oration. It was also the beginning of the full-fledged women’s movement, the publication of Women and Their Bodies – later changed to Our Bodies Ourselves, making the clear case that women should know about their bodies, be able to express themselves with their doctors and have the right to make decisions about birth control and abortion.

It was exciting, and to use an overused word, empowering.  Angela Davis was on campus and spoke articulately and passionately about civil – human – rights. This was a time when the emotional and intellectual worlds of women came together and crystalized into the modern day tenets of, I think both the second and third wave of feminism, self-determination, equal opportunity – equal rights.

KC: Third Wave Feminists have often felt excluded from the larger discourse, or believe themselves to be little more than tokens in larger feminist movements. Specifically, they do not always feel welcome in gatherings or initiatives comprised mostly of women a generation above them. Is this desire for inclusion reflected in what you bring to light with the art you display?

JS: We believe that our program – the presentation of art and literary fiction by women – is democratic and entirely merit-based. We are an organization for women in the arts, but our approach is not based on affirmative action which we think perpetuates the idea that women’s accomplishments only stand up if they are not compared to men’s accomplishments.  Our view is actually the opposite, and works to address the misconceptions that have persisted about women and what they have to say, visually or in words.  

The important aspects always present in good art and writing are honesty, proficiency and the capacity to understand and comment on the world, culture and society. So, the perspectives of women from the second or third wave are treated equally. As an organization, we don’t use the creative work of women to express any aspect of feminism. The work, itself, is a signifier of feminism. Providing a platform for women to have opportunities for the unconstrained expression of ideas, experiences, aspirations, or accomplishments is a feminist action.

KC: How do you establish gender parity in the art world?

JS: First, our credibility comes from having accomplished professionals from the visual and literary art worlds be our curators, selecting work we can present to influencers: collectors, gallerists, publishers, agents. Second, we think we can have a real impact on the careers of women with a program designed to counter misconceptions and stereotyping of women in the visual arts and literature, stereotypes that have been used as reasons or excuses for not including work by women and under- or devaluing their work.

Third, we choose to present only work by women because it is a very compelling way to let the numbers - the volume of work –show the diversity and talent. It’s hard to ignore or dismiss a great deal of work deemed exceptional by panels of well-respected professionals. And fourth, it’s our aim to seek parity for any individual woman in the arts, by working for parity for all women in the arts. We think it will take time to penetrate the status quo but we have the means and resources to elevate the status and worth of work by women, with the goal of increasing their numbers in collections and galleries and in publication lists. In a world where parity exists, women in art will have their work recognized and valued according to its merit, and not the gender of its maker.

KC: Why have women always been underrepresented in the arts? How do you convince people that gender inequality still exists, even when many believe otherwise?

JS: Women have been underrepresented in the arts for the same reasons they are underrepresented in many professions.  They were historically denied the ability to acquire necessary skills.  Among the examples of this are the fact that women could not attend life drawing classes because it was deemed inappropriate and only certain subjects were acceptable, such as women, mothers and children.  What’s more, finding patrons or being taken on by agents or galleries was deemed unseemly for both the women and the patrons and agents.  
There is a theory that professions dominated by women – or as some think, “colonized” by women – experience a devaluation of the skills used, with an accompanying lowering of the monetary value of those skills.  That’s why we think it’s critical to have a platform for the work of many women, showing how ill-conceived these beliefs are.  
There are many organizations, groups, and gender equity institutes providing credible research and statistics showing that women are underrepresented, paid less, and have fewer opportunities than their male counterparts.  It’s certainly a good thing that some women don’t feel disadvantaged because of their gender, but survey after survey, study after study irrefutably demonstrates that the majority of women in the arts experience gender-based inequality.

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