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
, 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.