Tallying Inequality in the Art World

Final Fantasy installation by Micol Hebron, 2007

Recent studies show that only 30% of artists represented by galleries are female. In this series, The Sisterhood aims to shed light on this staggering gender disparity. We will be interviewing different female artists, in order discuss the way they navigate gender, sexuality, religion, family, and politics in their life and work.

Micol Hebron has no problem speaking out against the patriarchy. And in her latest art project, Gallery Tally, that is exactly what she is doing. But, this time, she the numbers to prove it.

Gallery Tally, which began in 2013, is a collaborative art project that invites artists all over the world to calculate and visualize the gender ratios at top contemporary art galleries. As of this point, over 300 artists have been involved and roughly 500 art posters — each one spotlighting the statistics at a specific art gallery — have been made. The poster for L.A.’s Blum and Poe Gallery features a detailed pencil drawing of Miley Cyrus twerking against Robin Thicke, with the caption “89% men.” Mark Moore Gallery’s poster is a collaged fruit stand, where bananas represent men and peaches represent women. There are 23 bananas and 8 peaches. These posters speak for the main message of the project: when it comes to the art world, there isn’t much space for women.

According to Gallery Tally’s research, approximately 80% of BA and BFA graduates are female, and approximately 60% of MFA graduates are female. Yet, only 30% of artists represented by galleries are female. According to further data collected by Hebron, between the years of 2011 and 2014, women’s artwork at the nation’s top auction houses was sold at 12 cents to the dollar, as compared to men’s work.

No stranger at poking fun at herself, Hebron has been channeling her frustrations about gender inequities into her art for over a decade. Whether she is doing this through a series of fifty glitter paintings, or taking portraits of people chewing bubble gum, depends on the day, and the project. When she speaks, her voice sparkles with authority — commanding attention and respect both while cracking jokes and waxing philosophical.

Over the course of two afternoons, Micol Hebron and I talked at length about her experiences with sexism in the Fine Arts World, the wild fire success of Gallery Tally, and how feminism can be more than just a social media trend.

Hannah Rubin: How did you come to art?

Micol Hebron: I had hippie parents who were really liberal in their lifestyle and approach to the world — they were both young kids who came to California in the late 60s to live in San Francisco. We lived in a tent in the woods in Mendocino for a few years. I never really had structured ideas of social norms or protocols; my upbringing was very open-minded in terms of sexuality and politics. And the idea of creativity in everyday living was ever-present for me growing up. My father was certainly a little bit of a combative, anti-establishment kind of guy, so I think I inherited that rebelliousness from him. But for him, it wasn’t really targeted per say. And neither was mine. Teenagers just love to say “Fuck You” to authority — the challenge is how to channel and structure that. Art became a way to structure that rebelliousness and anti-establishment feeling.

HR: When did you first become aware of yourself as a “female” artist?

MH: I’ve always made work about the things that disturb and compel me most. The female body, as an instrument of power and vulnerability, is something that has always been ever-present in my life. I grew up with Crohn’s disease, a chronic autoimmune disease that really affected my body internally, but not externally. I was always sick, on the inside, but I never looked sick. Because of this, I always had an interesting relationship to the experience of my body — what I could see and what others could see. This was compacted in high school, when I had really enormous boobs. I had this period of time where that really defined me. People gave my boobs nicknames, gestured to them constantly. My sexuality was considered public property because my boobs were so big; I was a sexually prudent virgin but was pegged as sexual by default. And then my mother died of breast cancer when I was twenty. So I spend a lot of time thinking about the female body in public — the line between public, private, personal, and universal, and how that affects ownership over one’s body.

HR: When did your awareness, about the way gender plays a role in the art world, start to happen?

MH: A few years out of grad school, as I started to think about gallery representation, I began thinking about the different performance artists that I had been shown throughout my life. That’s when I realized that they were all men. And that I had internalized this notion that I had to perform and behave like these male authors that I had been shown as predecessors. My head was full of thousands and thousands of images, the hallmarks of art history — all of which has been made by men. This has a huge bearing on the confidence that women artists have, as well as on the impression that collectors have about the competence of women’s work.

HR: It fascinates me how women can never be neutral—from what they wear, to how they act in public, it seems that women are always doing either too little or too much. This is a phenomenon that doesn’t seem to apply to men.

MH: Absolutely. You see this kind of lack of physical neutrality all the time in studio visits — when you invite different curators from various galleries to come to your studio and look at your work, in the hopes that they will take you on as an artist. When I started having these visits, after graduate school, I was shocked to see how sexually charged they all were. The implications or expectations for sex were gross. I had so many visits that were outright sexist that I had to stop doing them. I felt that, if this is the game I have to play in order to be successful in this world, I don’t want to do it. I’m going to do something else. Or I need to make my own world. 

HR: So what did you do?

MH: It all went into my work. I made videos about gender politics and power struggles in the art world and did a bunch of performances with fellow artists. In 2004 I got together with a bunch of female artist friends. This eventually became the L.A. Art Girls, which is, as far as I know, the largest and longest running women’s art collective in the city. We did all kinds of stuff together — projects, books, performances, meetings, salons. We had studio visits every three weeks. I wanted it to be really non-hierarchical, so once it was underway, it became an incredibly fluid group where anybody could call a meeting or make a proposal. I think it was really important to model alternative structural forms than the ones that we saw in academic and corporate institutions. And now it has become this crazy family where everyone is growing up and getting married and getting divorced and having babies — like a Lifetime movie or something.

HR: You use unicorns a lot in your work. Why?

MH: Because the unicorns are the patriarchy! They only appear in folklore, and they only appear to virgins. They represent an interesting, unattainable, yet desired form of perfection and evasiveness, and I think that’s unconsciously how we think about capitalism and patriarchy (which are the same in my mind). Why do you think all these little girls are taught to lust after the unicorn—a muscular white animal with a giant phallus on its head?

HR: What are your thoughts on the cultural conversation that is happening around Feminism, and the word Feminism?

MH: I think it’s really important to look at who is saying these things—it’s all pop media. Academics and artists who have dedicated their lives to these causes aren’t having these arguments. It’s Buzzfeed having these arguments about Beyonce and Lena Dunham. I think that Americans get really hung up on this idea of using rhetoric and diction as an ideological platform — it’s as frustrating as asking whether something is art or not. Having that shallow debate keeps us from having any real kind of conversation.

HR: What would you like the conversation to be about?

MH: A lot of early Feminism was really transphobic — they didn’t understand the gender binary, and how oppressive it is. They were working on getting the right to vote, legal abortions, body politics. But now we have such a good opportunity to expand the definition of Feminism. Social media gives space for multiple Feminisms to exist, for a plurality of voices to be heard simultaneously.

I only hope that Feminism, as it is cited in pop culture, transcends its trendiness. That it becomes more than just a hashtag or a meme that circulates the internet. But it’s a good first step. Trans and Queer issues are the Civil Rights movement of our time, and Feminism has to help move the conversation forward, to a non-binaristic model of gender. I hope that, in twenty years, we’ll be laughing about how there used to be male and female bathrooms and how crazy that was.

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