Talk with artist Micol Hebron for an hour and your mind will be fully exposed to artistic complexities that you likely missed on previous visits to museums and galleries. The artwork at many of these institutions documents life and history from a largely white male perspective.
Hebron, a graduate of Davis High School and UCLA, will join a panel on women in the arts at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Crocker Art Museum with revered cowgirl artist Donna Howell-Sickles and Sacramento’s Kathrine Lemke Waste, president of the board of the American Women Artists. In many ways, this columnist’s talk with Hebron amplified gender equality issues that Waste addressed in a 2014 Inside Business interview.
The conversation with Hebron began with questions about one of her best-known performance art pieces, titled “Roll Call,” which she has performed in various cities. In each locale, she appeared naked on stage, pulling a scroll from an intimate part of her body. She then read statistics listed on the paper: numbers of the male and female artists represented in the area art galleries. Yes, the imagery was provocative, but it seemed there was no better place to start than “Roll Call.”
Discussing her performance-art piece, Hebron, a professor at Chapman University, began providing a lesson in women’s history that was especially fitting for the month of March. “Roll Call,” she explained, was actually a nod to visual artist Carolee Schneeman, who, in the 1970s, had performed much the same act and had read two different texts pertaining to women in the art world.
“The first and probably most famous of her texts was a list of cautionary words of advice to women artists about what would happen to them when they tried to be in the art world,” Hebron told me. “She said that people would steal their ideas and not give them credit, that they wouldn’t value their time, that they wouldn’t take them seriously, that their trials and tribulations would not be heard, that they would be considered whiners. It’s uncanny how similar things are to now.”
For years, Hebron has been surveying art galleries to see how many women they represent as part of her “(en)Gendered (in)Equity: Gallery Tally Project.” It’s one of several tools that Hebron uses to make people aware that there’s still a lot of work to do to achieve parity.
“I get accused of promoting quotas,” Hebron said. “Gallerists, for example, will push back, saying, ‘No, we don’t select our artists based on quotas,’ but the statistical fact is that they do. It’s just not the kind of quota they want advertised. They do have a quota of 2-to-1. The average representation in galleries across the board, over and over, no matter what data set you look at, is that it is 70 percent male and 30 percent female. That’s a quota. It’s just not an equitable quota.”
So what, Micol? Why does it matter?
“When half of the world is undervalued, we all suffer,” Hebron said. “It’s not just women or people of color who are suffering. The result of this is that our society is less because of it. We’re not exposed to differences. If I go to a museum and I don’t see art by women or art by people of color, that’s an entire aspect of culture and human experience that I don’t get to experience. That’s an entire voice; that’s an entire lifestyle; that’s a whole perspective I don’t get to see.”
This is something that is not solved by giving women a month or a moment, Hebron said.
“People will say things like, ‘Oh, feminism is really having its moment,’ or ‘Feminism is really in right now,’ ” Hebron said. “It’s the same thing right now with women and the arts. People will say, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of attention right now on women in the arts,’ or ‘So-and-so had a show of all women artists,’ and then they go back to doing their regular stuff, which is 70-80 percent male.”
The statistics are even less balanced at many art museums, Hebron said. The 197-year-old Prado Museum in Madrid had its first solo exhibition of a woman artist, Flemish Renaissance artist Clara Peeters, this year. The Prado’s permanent collection holds 5,000 artists, 41 of whom are women. Typically, women’s artwork represents less than 5 percent of the permanent collections at most museums. The Crocker’s chief curator Scott Shields has estimated roughly 15 percent of its collection was produced by women.
There are ways to bring greater equity to selecting talent, Hebron said, noting that a number of elite orchestras began instituting blind auditions in the 1980s to prevent bias. The auditioning performer’s identity was hidden by a screen. Women who auditioned behind a curtain were 50 percent more likely to be selected than before the practice was instituted.
“If we really did believe in the power of creativity through and through and the importance of artistic expression, we would make sure that everyone has a voice,” Hebron said. “It’s a very vicious cycle. Galleries represent mostly men because their work brings higher prices. The museums show new artists based on who’s hot in the galleries, and collectors buy things from the galleries based on what they’re showing and promoting as the next hot thing.”
Women in the Arts
Micol Hebron will join a panel on women in the arts with revered cowgirl artist Donna Howell-Sickles and Sacramento’s Kathrine Lemke Waste, president of the board of the American Women Artists. Actors will present real-life experiences faced by women artists.
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St. in Sacramento
Cost: $10 members; $5 students; $15 nonmembers