No Answers from Artist Trust on Demographic Diversity, and How I Act on a Panel
by Jen Graves
on Tue, Oct 1, 2013 at 1:11 PM
Since I reported last week that 7 of 8 finalists were men for the biggest annual arts award in the region—the Artist Trust Arts Innovator Award for $25,000 each to two individuals per year—several artists have asked the natural follow-up question:
Lila Hurwitz, spokeswoman for Artist Trust, was one of the people to Like that comment.
After more than a week of requesting more information from Hurwitz and Artist Trust executive director Margit Rankin, Hurwitz finally responded this morning to say that Artist Trust didn't ask the 113 applicants to the Arts Innovator Award to mark their gender on the forms, so the information is unavailable.
Rankin said it would be impossible for Artist Trust to determine the gender breakdown of the 113 applicants because Artist Trust is too busy with other tasks to count. Artist Trust said the forms are confidential, so no one else is allowed to count, either.
To any women artists looking for advice, I am not sure I can help.
Rankin's take is that, essentially, this is just how the cookie crumbles sometimes. Panels prioritize quality, and then after that are balancing issues of diversity that include medium and stylistic diversity, geographic diversity (AT covers all of Washington state), and demographic diversity. The 7-of-8 thing this year is a fluke, Rankin said. She emphasized that four of six recipients of the Arts Innovator Award in its three years of existence have been women.
When I pointed out this didn't seem like a particularly large data set, she said Artist Trust has traditionally not asked for gender or socioeconomic data, so has no way to compare it to a larger body of information. Of the finalists whose names have been released over the years—I can't find names of finalists released from the award's first year, in 2010—17 have been men, and 7 have been women.
That's not nearly as good a ratio, and combined with the historical sexism of the arts—which everybody and their freaking aunt, uncle, and cousins has documented and talked about from the 1960s until last year's Elles extravaganza across Seattle—and the fact that all three of this year's Betty Bowen Award winners are men and no woman has ever won a Contemporary Northwest Art Award from Portland Art Museum, well, yeah, why not talk about it?
Rankin agreed in principle, and said these historical demographics have caused a change at Artist Trust in recent years. Artist Trust has begun to collect demographic data in the last few years, she added.
"We have started to try to think about issues of [demographic] diversity," Rankin continued. "We have changed, and are trying to keep more [information] about that. We've always simply asked artists to submit their applications and we've not historically, until the past few years, asked artists to submit a gender in their application."
This morning, Hurwitz said Rankin had gotten that wrong, and that the Arts Innovator Award applications do not collect gender data. Hurwitz said she was too busy to continue the conversation today.
There are two issues here.
One, does this year's Arts Innovator Award reflect quantifiable bias that matters in the larger scheme of the way the available funding for artists is doled out in the Seattle area?
I can't ask the panelists their thoughts yet. Artist Trust does not release their names until the recipients are announced. I would love to hear from them. Maybe they will appear in comments here to share, or email me.
To be clear: I do not know whether this is a fluke. It certainly feels ridiculous and horrible. It certainly seems to tie into trends that see many male artists in big spotlights while female artists linger on sidelines. It's happening this season in New York at major museums. It's happened forever. Several of Jennifer Dalton's data-driven pieces are worth considering in this light, but you can click particularly on "This Is Not News." It happened in 2011 at Seattle Art Museum, a place driven by women, none of whom appeared to notice that its gender-"neutral" exhibition of local artists interested in landscape and represented in the SAM collection was completely dominated by men. Men are still the norm, and women are still relegated to the special status conferred by something like Elles.
And, as I've written before, gender is only the tip of the identity iceberg. The numbers on race and major awards and spotlights in Seattle art are far worse.
Which brings me to the bigger question in all of this: Artist Trust's apparent discomfort in talking about demographics reflects a broader attitude that's understandable but unsupportable. Yes, it's weird to be on a panel balancing everything all at once in art terms, and then to say, well, but we want to think about demographic diversity, too.
BUT PLEASE LET US DO THAT ANYWAY, and please let us be reflective and accountable for it. Let's not just say, "Yeah, we care about that, but we don't care enough to measure our performance on it."
When I wrote last week, commenters were quick to quiz me about the Genius Awards, which were held this past weekend. Yay for this comparison because the Genius Awards are a case where I can personally relate to being a panelist, having been on the selection panel for Genius for several years.
For the Genius Awards, we do talk about demographics. The immediate panicky response to this assertion is usually, "But our first priority is quality!"
This response is revealing, in that it indicates that quality will have to be sacrificed if the artists are not white men. This is simply not borne out.
And in fact, reassessing the validity of your supposedly objective aesthetics may be in order when you realize that quality "just happens" to equal art made predominantly or even entirely by white men.
The Genius Awards are a great case in point. In the eight years since I've been involved with picking Geniuses—this is not to say the Genius Awards are perfect but rather to be accountable for my personal experience with judging awards—the award has gone to 5 men and 4 women (there are nine because Lead Pencil Studio is a man and a woman).
No, I have not used "quotas," and there has been no need to resort to tokenism because great artists are right there to be considered. Yes, using my limited power to create some small corner of relative equity in an unequal world matters to me, so the rhythm of the choices is pretty natural. (And in the last two years, we haven't picked the actual winners internally, we've only selected the finalists: 3 men, 3 women.)
We're not perfect but we try to be accountable, and will continue to try to be accountable on all kinds of scores—and I'm sure you can think of some areas where we're not succeeding, and hey, thanks for thinking of that because we might be blind to it.
I guess that's all I would say about the panelists for these awards this year for the Betty Bowen and the Arts Innovator Awards, and for the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards in Portland: Do you really not stop and look at your lists for parity of this kind? And do you really expect not to be asked to answer for lists like these?