How to Create Gender Equality in the Arts, According to Four Female Museum Directors

  • Photo © Lucea Spinelli.

Earlier this week, four female museum directors gazed up at an image of a woman sporting the all-caps slogan “The Future is Female.” They were gathered to discuss the dearth of women in art-world leadership roles—and what it takes to get there. “I hope that the future is female—at least balanced female, male, and they,” mused Anne Pasternak, who recently became the first female director of the Brooklyn Museum. “But we have a long way to go, very clearly.”  

While the phrase “The Future is Female” is by no means a new one (it originated as a slogan on a 1970s t-shirt for the first women’s bookstore in New York City), it’s a battle cry for gender equity that’s remained frustratingly relevant—and gone viral across Instagram in recent months, as the possibility of appointing a female POTUS approaches. It’s also been adopted by the art world to combat what many see as the marginalization of women in both museum collections and leadership roles. Historically, big-name institutions—especially those with long histories, central locations, and large coffers—have favored not only male artists, but also male directors.

“The women gathered here today are all directors of museums in the boroughs or upper reaches of Manhattan—not necessarily in Museum Mile or Midtown Manhattan,” explained Martha Schwendener, an art critic moderating the panel, which included Pasternak; the Bronx Museum’s Holly Block; the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Thelma Golden; and the Queens Museum’s Laura Raicovich. A surreptitious Google search during the talk—on the history of the Met, arguably New York’s crown-jewel museum and the nexus of Museum Mile—bolstered Schwendener’s statement. Its timeline of directors includes not a single woman, raising questions about why, exactly, women have had a harder time getting to the top of the proverbial ladder at major museums than men.

Thelma Golden Reflects on 10 Years at the Helm of the Studio Museum, and Harlem’s Changing Face

“There’s something significant at play here,” explained Golden. “And that is that we still exist in a cultural world with a certain stereotype of who a museum director is.” Schwendener cocked her head to the side. “Do you mean a Philippe de Montebello-type thing?” she quipped, referring to the storied, stately, and some might say elitist captain of the Met for 31 years, from 1977 to 2008. “Well you could plug about 10 different names in there,” Golden responded. “But personally, whenever I say, in the public realm, that I work at a museum, there are usually about five roles people guess before they get to director.” Golden, it’s important to note, has helmed the Studio Museum for 11 years and counting.

“I do think that the stereotype of the museum director is certainly changing, in terms of one that’s more collaborative, externally focused, and consensus-building,” Pasternak chimed in, gesturing to her colleagues on stage—like-minded women leading the charge. “But I also recognize that when my appointment was announced a little over a year ago, that people made a big deal about the fact that I’m a woman. My daughter felt like, ‘Wow, this is great for women of my generation—it means that women can be directors of big buildings of treasuries of art.’”

While Pasternak is the first female director of the Brooklyn Museum, she is far from being the first female director to run an influential museum. As the conversation progressed, she, Golden, Block, and Raicovich all cited female directors who came before them as indispensable to the development of their careers. “Many of us were deeply, deeply nurtured in this field by women who were true pioneers,” explained Golden. “I began at the Studio Museum working with Mary Schmidt Campbell, who was the pioneering director of the museum in the 1970s and ’80s. And she was part of a group of women—Marcia Tucker, Vishakha Desai, Susana Torruella Leval—who were really, in every single room they were in, ‘the first’ and ‘the only.’”

  • Photo © Lucea Spinelli.

But why, then, considering this group of pioneering female predecessors (who nonetheless number only a fraction of their historical male counterparts, it should be pointed out), do people continue to make a fuss when women are appointed to leadership positions? The answer is wrapped up in a complex history of gender inequality. But a poignant question from a member of the audience began to unpack it: “We’re talking about it as if we’re at a place where the future is women, but the past is women, too,” posed Andrea Geyer, an artist and professor at The New School.

She reminded the audience that Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded the Whitney, Juliana Force was its first director, Hilla von Rebay was the first director of the Guggenheim Museum, and the Hewitt sisters founded the Cooper Hewitt. “How do we disrupt this fact that even though museums and culture in this country are based on women’s work, and work of other represented communities, they’re not remembered for it?,” she continued. “What are you doing in your leadership roles, right now, to prevent this kind of collective forgetting from being perpetuated?”

It’s not an easy question, but Golden turned it over: “I think what you’re saying is that this constant forgetting is intentional. It’s the power of the patriarchy,” she proposed. “So it feels like this collective forgetting has to be attacked with constant visibility: the speaking of the names, the acknowledgment of the work, and the institutionalizing of those contributions,” she continued. “And the normalizing,” Geyer chimed in. “As women, we’re considered outside the mainstream, even though we are the mainstream—we’re continually put in this place to justify, to re-narrate, to be the native informant. I’m continually asking myself, ‘How do we disrupt these pre-prescribed roles that we’re continually asked to perform in?’”

Block, Golden, Pasternak, and Raicovich are disrupting these pre-prescribed roles, along with other women museum directors around the world. But they also recognize that simply getting to the top isn’t enough. “Every bit of the institution has to be truly diverse, otherwise we can’t tell true or multiple stories of history. Without having diverse collections, diverse histories being told, diverse staff, and diverse boards, our lens is too limited. What good are we doing?” explained Pasternak. “And it’s about more than the people you count on your full-time equivalent roster and what they look like or what language they speak,” Raicovich chimed in. “This has to be part of a more robust conversation we’re having out loud.”

And that conversation, as was pointed out numerous times throughout the panel, needs to include men, too. “I personally have found that when we’re trying to get to this kind of fundamental cultural change, that we have to be in cross-gender dialogue,” Golden explained. “And in this moment, when we’re promoting much more of an idea of women’s leadership in the field, we have to be doing that in concert with a wider conversation with our male peers, so that we’re not just looking for parity, but a new kind of equity. That also means that we have to be willing to call out unconscious bias all the time. We have to be willing to say that there are certain codes, totally accepted within the field that have operated for a long time that create all kinds of exclusions: class exclusions, race, gender, etc. And while it’s super comfortable to have these conversations amongst ourselves in our quarters, the only way change happens is when we open them up.”

As the panel rounded to a close, Golden looked up at the audience. The theater, at The New School’s Vera List Center for Art and Politics, was almost full to capacity. The demographic breakdown, however, hovered somewhere around 90% women to 10% men. Yes, as Pasternak said, there’s still a long way to go. But luckily, with these boundary-pushing women leading the way, a future that’s truly female doesn’t feel quite as far off. 


—Alexxa Gotthardt

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