Female Art Writers Open Up About Sexism in Publishing: Part One

by Corinna Kirsch on August 12, 2015 AFC Reports

pompeii female writerNobody is born sexist: one becomes one. If this is the case, those sexist—or racist, genderist, classist, or ageist—layers can be pulled back, revealing deeply entrenched disparities. In the arts, to talk of sexism is to acknowledge that, in contrast to their female counterparts, male artists garner higher auction prices, male museum directors earn higher salaries, and male artists put on more solo exhibitions at museums. Even the Guerrilla Girls, lauded in the New York Times for the collective’s 30th anniversary, celebrated a retrospective exhibition this spring—not at any major institution, but with a small exhibition, mostly of posters, at the Abrons Art Center in the Lower East Side.

Yes, sexism exists. Journalists should take stock of not just how sexism affects the artists, administrators, and professors we surround ourselves with—but how it plays out for writers, too. Are we so concerned with objectivity, or focusing on the field we’re covering, that we ignore ourselves?

I sure hope not.

With that in mind, I wanted to find out how other female critics and journalists encounter inequality in the workplace. Though the sample group was small, all writers surveyed received the following three questions; they could answer all three or none, anonymously or not:

  1. Does sexism exist in art criticism and journalism?
  2. How have you experienced sexism on a daily basis?
  3. What can be done to achieve greater parity between the sexes in journalism?

Throughout the week, we’re publishing essays concerning issues surrounding sexism in art writing. Today’s edition concerns how sexism can exist in a female-friendly field.

How Does Sexism Exist in a Field Full of Women?

Sexism—both its latent and obvious manifestations—is unfortunately still present in culture as a whole. Art writing is no exception.

I come up against it [sexism] every day in my job as a journalist. The problem is that most men (and some women) don’t see it as sexism.

Making judgement calls about what is and isn’t appropriate content for a specific sex isn’t really something I’m totally comfortable with, since a binary understanding of sex isn’t realistic in the slightest.

Sexism is alive and well. Just look at Ken Johnson.

— anonymous quotes from survey

We can look at the stats, or look around us, to see that women are very much a part of the art and journalism field. But numbers alone do not take into account who receives or has the freedom to take on choice assignments, negotiate favorable freelance and salary payment rates, or pursue outside-of-work speaking engagements and panel assignments.

“Almost every top editor I’ve ever worked for has been male,” says Shane Ferro, formerly an art market reporter at ArtInfo, and now at the Huffington Post, “despite having a more equal gender distribution down below.”

That observation was reiterated by comments from others, who question that having a largely female staff does not remedy ongoing issues regarding gaps in seniority and salary:

How many female critics hold senior roles at any national or regional newspaper?  

At a previous job I earned half as much as a male colleague of mine, despite the fact that we shared the same job title and I had almost two years seniority on him.

Of course, some female critics do not see the numbers game as an issue. “In my current job, the staff is split 50/50 in terms of gender,” wrote one staff writer, “and I don’t necessarily feel opportunities are closed to me because of my gender.”

One anonymous editor said: “As a staff editor at a large magazine, my colleagues were pretty evenly divided between men and women, or women outweighed men. As the editor of a small publication, most of the freelancers I work with are women, and my staff and interns are currently all women. I haven’t ever felt that this was the result of sexism. I would actually like to have more men writing for me (not more than women, just more than I have).”

But smaller publications often do not have the resources to pay writers as well as those backed by deep-pocketed funders; perhaps the greater willingness for females to stick with low-paying jobs is, in itself, another form of latent sexism?

Though, without the advent of online publications, blogs, and local publications, we might not even have the number of female critics we do today. (Myself included, having taken a detour from museum curating to go the art crit/blogging/journalism route.)

“Small publications,” writes Kara Q. Smith, editor-in-chief at Art Practical, “hold so much promise in supporting writers (esp. emerging female critics) and thinking about new models for criticism that are more inclusive generally, but are not getting the type of fiduciary support as larger magazines.”

Though women may be winning the numbers game, filling staff rooms at publications both small and large, there still seems to be the belief that for women to make it as critics, they must go above and beyond just writing. In order to be taken seriously as authoritative and commanding voices, they must have degrees and curate.

“While there are several influential and respected female art critics and journalists, anecdotally, I’ve noticed a tendency where women feel an imperative to legitimize their activities within institutions, particularly museums or academia,” says Chloe Wyma, freelance writer, editor at the Brooklyn Rail, and PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. “Curatorial and art history programs overwhelmingly skew female, while the ‘independent critic’ remains a predominantly male trope.”

The takeaway? While an increasing number of art writers tend to be female, their male counterparts continue to fill senior positions. Women cite a lack of equal pay and the need to be “more than a writer” in order to be taken seriously.

In the next edition, we’re going to focus on everyday sexism, from female-reporting topics to out-and-out harassment, and conclude with suggestions for moving forward in order to provide solutions for achieving some semblance of equity in the field of art writing.

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