ArtsWest symposium. Guerrilla Girl with Arnold Kemp. Photo by Jan Lundberg (

ArtsWest symposium calls for greater representation of women in the arts

Women artists are dramatically underrepresented at many levels of the art world from art showings to museum management, a Lane Center survey has found. A keynote address by Arnold J. Kemp MFA ’05 and an influential panel of arts insiders shined a light on the survey’s sobering results. The ArtsWest symposium “Women Who Transformed Art in the West” became more than a history lesson for the standing-room-only audience. It was a call to action.

In a collaboration between Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West and the Minnesota Street Project in San Francisco, the ArtsWest public symposium in February celebrated the rise of women artists and art scholars in the West during the 20th century. Click here to watch the video.

Kemp, dean of graduate studies and professor of painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, kicked off the event with his keynote address “Conduct Your Blooming (Artists’ Projects) in the Noise and Whip of the Whirlwind.” The title of the talk refers to a phrase from the poem “The Second Sermon on the Warpland” by Gwendolyn Brooks, which Kemp called an instructional love letter on survival in the face of daily antagonisms. He pointed out that while women and other marginalized communities are finding a place in academia, referring to the fact that 65-70 percent of MFA students are female, the university is a powerful institution that still needs to be questioned. He noted that SAIC has only had one female president in 150 years and said of the academic system, “Women are hired to support male leaders but are often not valued as leaders themselves.”

A discussion followed with symposium panelists Claudia Altman-Siegel, director of Altman Siegel Gallery, Guerrilla Girl Käthe Kollwitz, Hung Liu, artist and professor emerita of art at Mills College, and Renny Pritikin, chief curator of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Claudia Schmuckli, contemporary curator of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, moderated the discussion.

“The intention of this event was to try and move the needle on gender inequality in the fine art world,” said Marc A. Levin, ArtsWest coordinator, “by recognizing the great legacy of women artists who profoundly shaped modern art and by looking forward to institutional approaches to advancing talented Western based women in the arts.”

Panelists frequently called attention to female mentors, museum professionals and academic pioneers who have transformed the arts, including Wanda Corn, the first female chair of the Department of Art at Stanford and one of the first academics to integrate photography and California artists into the history of American art curriculum.

Several women artists who the panelists paid tribute to have had solo exhibitions at the Cantor Arts Center, including Nina Katchadourian, Elizabeth Murray and Carrie Mae Weems.

Also mentioned was artist and activist Judy Chicago, a dominant figure in the art world for five decades and an inspiration to many. She will deliver the Anderson Collection’s McMurtry Lecture on April 23, where she is expected to talk about the power of art as a vehicle for social change and to urge women to engage in the highest levels of art production.

The symposium’s celebration of female talent, intelligence and grit, documented in Stanford sophomore Mac Taylor’s research for the Lane Center, was tempered by the results of a Lane Center survey conducted by program coordinator and Stanford alum Surabhi Balachander ’17 that showed a dramatic underrepresentation of women artists in 12 major museums in the Western United States. The percentage of artists in major museums of the West who are women averages 15 percent. The percentage of solo exhibitions by women artists at those museums in January 2018 was 41 percent. The percentage of key women staff was 65 percent, but only 35 percent of museum directors were women.

The call to action came when the panelists offered individual and institutional strategies for correcting the underrepresentation of women artists in critical reception, commercial appeal and institutional support. Kollwitz reminded the audience that 29 years ago the Guerrilla Girls famously raised the question, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” and then she demanded that men and women oppose the established notions of patriarchy unless they want the history of art to be the history of male wealth and power. She told the audience through her iconic gorilla mask to “speak up, and don’t stop.”

Schmuckli acknowledged that art curators, educators and administrators need to leverage their influence by leading more conversations about feminism within their ranks.

Leading by example, Altman-Siegel talked about intentionally selling art work at different price points and making sure an equal number of male and female artists are represented in her gallery, which is unusual in the commercial art world (see the Guerrilla Girls report card project).

After the symposium, Kemp considered the road ahead and said, “My interest is more in the future and not just a validation of history and a validation of the market. The future has to be identified by institutions such as universities so that we can create the history that we want to see.”

Providing a balm to the abysmal Balachander survey numbers, he noted with optimism, “My talk was speculating that the influential women will be multigenerational and representative of more people of color than one might currently list.”

On May 18, 2018, the ArtsWest series continues with “The Art and Culture on the US-Mexico Border: 2,000 Miles of Imagination that Unite and Divide Us,” a symposium that will examine how art and music is shaping the social, cultural and political identity on the US-Mexico border region. Topics covered will be painting, murals and street art, music and Latino cinema as the chief muses that define border culture and expression.