I’m aware that crimes against women happen globally daily, weekly, hourly, but in the Western world, I can’t help but feel that the headlines this month have been a really darkly ironic window into what it’s like to be a woman. It’s Women’s History Month, which is why I’m writing posts focused on women in art history and museums, but so far some of the most prominent headlines of the month have been the uncontested lack of arrests for Breonna Taylor’s murder, one year later; the disappearance and murder of Sarah Edwards in the UK, and police offering the advice to “not walk at night” to women in the aftermath, and shutting down women’s protests in response; and the murder of eight people at massage parlors across the Atlanta area, six of whom were of Asian descent. All of this comes against the backdrop of social media campaigns like #5womenartists, and elevated prominence of honoring heroic women in history. It’s hard not to feel like we’re just paying lip service to the idea of lauding the achievements of women when we wake up to more toxic, deadly, misogyny every day.
As always, you’re asking, what does this have to do with museums and art history? And as always, representation matters. Despite the proliferation of women artists creating subject matter from a woman’s perspective, we’ve yet to match the length of time that “women in art” mostly referred to women as models and muses. John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing in 1972 – just 50 years ago – “according to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome, the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man…To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. ” (Read the full essay, and book, here.) And as the Guerilla Girls asked in 1989, “Do Women Need to be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?”
It’s important to strike a balance between acknowledging progress and acknowledging history. Representations of women in art have improved dramatically since 1972 and 1989. We continue to keep a hyper-focus on NYC museums and galleries as the epicenter of the art world, when many smaller and/or regional museums are leaps and bounds ahead when it comes to the percentage of women on their walls. All of these things are true, while the fact that there is more to do is true, too.
We’ve belabored the point about representation in art + artists. Let’s consider the representation of who works in the museum. In this month’s earlier post, I mentioned that binary gender representation in the museum field is close to 50-50. This has helped with representation of women artists as curators and directors mount exhibitions and make acquisitions that represent their worldview. Yet, the rise of women working in art museums has not made them a better place for women to work – and the wages of museum work continue to stagnate. Non-profit work not paying well is nothing new, but this white paper published by the Gender Equity in Museums Movement and accompanying brief analysis of it by the American Alliance of Museums in March 2019 bring some gender clarity to the conversation.
The AAM article cites this one that argues that “occupations with a greater share of females pay less than those with a lower share, controlling for education and skill.” However, the infusion of women into a profession does not automatically depress wages. There are many fields in which gender equality has grown, and not affected wages. For example, in the medical field, as of 2019, women made up about 1/3 of practicing medical doctors and a little over half of all medical students. There doesn’t appear to be any stagnation or depression of doctor’s salaries. It’s not an automatic if x = y scenario; if more women enter a field than wages decrease overall; it’s what work we value and devalue as a society. We don’t devalue the work of doctors – but we do devalue the work of teachers, food service, custodial labor, childcare, etc. – labor that has associations with traditional “domestic” work. More on this from Bernie:
GEMM’s white paper, “Museums as a Pink Collar Profession,” brings gender clarity to the situation in museums by pointing out a few key facts. “While the term has little to do with education or training, it has everything to do with long-standing cultural definitions of what constitutes appropriate work for women and men. Across the board, female dominated professions carry with them the economic and social burdens of “women’s work.” They also draw the connection between volunteering and museums and volunteering as traditionally women’s work. As the departments that were traditionally more volunteer-heavy, such as Education and Visitor Services, become more of a focus in museums, those associations leave a hangover of assumptions that such work does not need to be well-paid. Plus, art museums are considered to be a luxury, rather than an integral aspect of a functioning society. Because the arts are seen as a luxury, there’s a persistent perception that only people with significant privilege work in art museums. There’s no urgency to raise wages because museum workers’ parents/generational wealth or spouse will render their museum wages as just walking around money. (Fortunately, this narrative is being challenged now by the proliferation of large museums that are pushing to unionize.)
Even setting wages aside (which is hard to do when you read the statistics: “according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017 a museum worker’s median pay was $48,000/yr. That is significantly below the 2017 median incomes of $60,996, for bachelor’s degree holders, and $72,852, for master’s degree holders.”) what about other benefits to museum work for women? Because women are often still the primary caregivers for children, the elderly and/or other dependents, a fact that has been extremely exaggerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, often pink-collar professions are tied to more flexibility to allow for caregiving duties. In my experience, this is not something a museum career offers. Everyone that I know working in museums works long hours, often without the opportunity to earn overtime pay. Childcare is a constant issue and pits women working in museums against each other. Museum employees typically work a regular 9-5, but also, much of our work falls outside of regular 9-5 hours. In these instances, women working in museums who do have children look to those who don’t to staff that after-hours and weekend work. Working moms resent what they see as a luxury of free time to staff those weekend and evening hours, and feel they’re missing out and falling behind at work. Those without children resent a loss of a personal life because they’re tapped to work the extra hours. This problem could be solved by job-sharing and splitting up responsibilities so that everyone works the same number of hours on the schedule that works for them, but instead, the culture is such that everyone feels their time is in constant demand.
Run for the hills now if you think talking about ~bodies renders women completely baseless, but something I’ve learned recently through the work of my dear friend at her company Watered Grass is that our “cycles” aren’t just about getting periods. If you have a uterus, you have hormone fluctuations throughout the month that give you different superpowers for different types of work; for example, you have days where you’re laser focused and others where your people skills on are point. In the Western world, our work is dominated by a 24 reset clock. You’ll never guess this but – that’s how men’s hormones work, and everyone else just pushes through. This isn’t a museum-only problem, but again, our work in art museums is constant and the hours are long. Imagine if we were able to talk openly about being tired instead of being expected to be on, in the same way, every day?
So – why do we do this to ourselves? Just as we explored in “Can You Name 500 Women Artists,” there’s a desire to maintain a proximity to dominant cis white male culture. We feel that we have to prove that we can operate just like men in order to dominate the field. Women are advancing in museums but for the most part, they’re clinging to the promise that if they do the things men do, they’re going to get paid the way men do. To quote the GEMM white paper again, “a woman-dominated field won’t solve the issues women grapple with every day. In pink collar fields, men are still paid more, and hold the highest paying positions.” Why would women allow men to continue to dominate the way they work when so many women now hold positions of power in art museums? And importantly – if we’re striving to uphold a cis straight white male culture, even when museums are diversified by gender, we’re doing absolutely nothing to focus on racial, ethnic or disability diversity. I loved this meme about academia by @my_phd_experience on Instagram, and made a museum version. I’ll end this by saying that if we can’t manage to pay women in the museums competitively, we’re a very, very very long way off from realizing our dreams of diversifying the museum any further and will continue to lose talent until we go back to looking like the academia version of the meme.
Also, for a fun bonus, please Google “women in the workplace memes” and get ready to feel really weird about what you find.