You Were Right

Lack of Female Representation in Art Galleries and Museums

You know, you were right,” one of my male friends says from behind me. I turn around for the first time since leaving the table. There is a serious expression on my friend’s face that I have never seen before. I am surprised to see concern and anger in his eyes considering the events that had occurred seconds before. I had been sitting at a table with a group of my male friends, a normal occurrence for me, when a heated debate began. My male friends were attempting to argue with me about how long it takes for the AIDS virus to show up on a test and, even though I knew I was right, they continued to mansplain and talk over me. After multiple attempts to make them hear my perspective, I realized it was a losing battle and decided to simply walk away. I was so frustrated from the argument that I almost didn’t hear one of my male friends calling for me as he followed in my wake. After acquiring my attention and admitting that I was right the whole time, he told me that I needed to stand up for myself, to not back down simply because I wasn’t being heard. This blunt statement opened my eyes. I realized that it was not enough to get angry and give up, I had to find the confidence to make my voice heard. I took this lesson with me for the rest of my career, especially when it came to fighting for my work to be seen, a task that is extremely difficult as a woman.

According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, of the 3,050 galleries in the Artsy database, ten percent don’t represent a single female artist, while almost half represent 25 percent or fewer women. In my opinion, this is primarily due to the fact that majority of gallery owners are men who have been influential in the art world for a long time. These individuals have been programmed from a young age to view the work of women in every occupation, not just art, as less valuable than that of their male coworkers. As a result of this lifelong programming, gallery owners and museum curators tend to associate money with men and failure with women. They don’t see it as profitable to invest in the work of female artists and subsequently block these women from gaining entry to spaces to display their creations. Without access to galleries and museums, women have an extremely difficult time supporting themselves through their art and it begins to feel like no more than an expensive hobby.

Recently, I have been struggling immensely with this concept. I am beginning to believe that I may not be able to truly make a living from my art until I am dead. I have expensive ideas and dreams, but not enough money to make them happen. No matter how desperately I wish to escape the “starving artist” paradigm and step into my own power, my position as a female artist restricts me. In fact, it has become so difficult to make a living from my art that I have been forced to work another full-time job in order to survive. With this additional commitment in my life, it is often difficult to find the time and energy to build my craft. In this way, I have sacrificed a lot for my art. Not only do I spend all my extra money on it, but also all my spare time. As a result, I am rarely free to focus on my personal life and have difficulty maintaining relationships, especially with a romantic partner. Despite my desire to someday build a family of my own, being an artist has made this goal seem nearly impossible. At this point, it feels as if I must choose between my hope for a family and my dream of being a renowned artist. Unfortunately, this reality is common among artists, especially those who identify as female.

In recent years, success in the arts has become guarded by privilege. Without money, it is now nearly impossible to make a name for yourself. For example, while Instagram used to be a viable option for artists to grow their following for free, you now can’t accomplish this without spending money. The system is rigged, even your own followers won’t see your work unless you pay for it. Thus, the arts favor privilege. Without access to representation in galleries or on social media, it is nearly impossible for female artists to obtain recognition and support for their artwork.

In addition to financial barriers, women face other obstacles to success, such as judgement surrounding their appearance. If you are a beautiful woman in the art world, it is much easier for men to justify representing you. Male museum curators and gallery owners tend to prey on women who are the most conventionally attractive. With this, to become a successful artist as a woman, you must also be a model and an influencer. It is interesting to consider the way in which women’s appearance factors into everything we do. Beauty seems to be a prerequisite to success in that it has become an indicator of how valuable a woman is. This societal programming encourages men to judge a woman’s abilities based on her physical appearance and creates significant barriers for women attempting to make it in the arts. Because of this attitude, when galleries do actually show work from women, they tend to only show the pieces that are the easiest to sexualize. Thus, male gallery owners and curators often take art that is meant to represent female empowerment and skew it to fit their desire for beauty and sex. As a result, gaining access to galleries that will respect their work for its true intentions is a major obstacle for female artists.

When I first started practicing photography in my twenties, I was frequently the only woman in galleries that were dominated by middle-aged white men. At the time, this was an exciting concept to me because I felt it made me stand out. However, I now realize how disappointing the lack of female representation truly is. Thankfully, the makeup of galleries and museums has been starting to shift in recent years. It wasn’t until the last ten years or so that I wasn’t the only female photographer present in these spaces. Although these women are not necessarily obtaining any more financial success than their predecessors, they have at least begun to break into galleries and museums that were formerly exclusively male. The art industry is changing rapidly as white women are gaining more representation, but there is still low support for women of color and Indigenous women as well as a lack of money for female artists all around. In this way, despite the adversity I have faced as a female artist, including my existence as an orphan and complications from chronic health complications, it is nothing compared to the struggles of women of color and Indigenous women in the arts. In addition to the inequalities forced on them due to their gender, they face constant discrimination based on their race or ethnicity. So, shoutout to all the women of color and Indigenous women who never give up on their craft and are working so hard to simply be seen. You are truly an inspiration to me. You prove to everyone that despite the odds, it is women’s time to be seen and heard. There is a lot of change that needs to happen, but the efforts of women everywhere fighting for their art is a significant beginning.

As women, we need to stand up for ourselves in the arts. We make unique work and should be proud of it. This process starts with us being confident in our own value as female artists. We must begin to dismantle the idea that simply because of our gender, our work is inherently less valuable. I have personally been battling this notion within myself and my friend group for a long time. It takes a lot of effort to dismantle perspectives that have been programmed in us from the beginning, but I believe it is possible. Change can happen, it just takes time. Whether it takes ten, twenty or even fifty years to accomplish, you must be patient. Change can begin with a single person but will require teamwork to be significant and permanent in the end. With this, gallery owners and museum curators need to be aware of the current gender inequalities that exist within their institutions so that they can help women fight them. They need to help fight for women and their right to sell their work for as much money as men. With the support of these gatekeepers and other allies, I believe real change can happen. With unwavering faith and tenacity, women will step into their value as artists.

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Join me here on Wednesdays at 12pm to learn more about my personal journey and begin an exploration of your own. If there are specific topics or issues you would like me to respond to, feel free to reach out to me on Instagram at @teresaflowersphotography or @nakedanddreaming. Or tune into my weekly Instagram Live stream on @teresaflowersphotography where I will be discussing these topics in more depth and answering your questions!

Thank you all for your support and encouragement over the years. I am excited to continue this journey with you!

Teresa Flowers is an internationally recognized multimedia artist based in Portland, OR. She is also the founder of Alien Mermaid Cove and Altered States.