Women's Art Agencies to the Rescue!

Article excerpt

WOMEN'S ART AGENCIES DO MORE THAN SHOW WOMEN'S ART. THEY MUST ALSO DEFEND IT.

When Kelly Thornton became the artistic director of Toronto's Nightwood Theatre in 2002, she was often asked why there was a need for a women's theatre company.

In order to explore that question on an ongoing basis, Thornton assembled the National Advisory Committee of Equity in Canadian Theatre, a group that puts gender inequities in Canadian theatre under the microscope and advocates for the improved representation of women artists in theatres affiliated with the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT). Every two years, the committee conducts a poll on the state of the art.

During the nine years since the committee started compiling the biannual polls, Thornton has seen a huge difference in the reactions of her theatre peers when she talks about the underrepresentation of women.

"In 2002, I got defensiveness," she recalls. "By 2011, people were acknowledging that there is indeed a problem."

The level of awareness regarding women's underrepresentation in Canadian theatre has shifted, creating an opportunity for change. In the 20082009 season, women accounted for 29 percent of artistic directors, 36 percent of working directors and 29 percent of the produced playwrights in PACT theatres.

"We're trying to move people from the back of their minds to the front of their minds," says Thornton.

Raising consciousness about women's representation in theatre programming means looking at the issue from both sides.

"They [male directors] are looking for stories that speak to them," offers Thornton. "This choice is unconscious. So we need to make them conscious about those choices."

Raising consciousness is also the force behind a handful of women-run art galleries and organizations in Canada. Toronto is home to Women's Art Resource Centre (WARC), Native Women in the Arts and Nightwood Theatre. Montreal has Studio XX, La Centrale and Groupe Intervention Vidéo, while Winnipeg is the location of Mentoring Artists for Women's Art (MAWA). Each group exhibits, curates, archives and supports women's art production, and most also advocate to address gender (and also, in the case of Native Women in the Arts, racial) inequities in the arts.

The issue of women artists' representation gained prominence in 1985 when a group of New York artists called the Guerrilla Girls published a cheeky poster of a woman wearing nothing but a gorilla mask with a caption that read, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met?" The poster decried the fact that "less than 3 percent of the artists in the Met Museum are women, yet 83 percent of the nudes are female."

While the Guerrilla Girls have since had a retrospective of their work exhibited at the Met, the overall visibility of female visual artists has not improved much in the past 30 years. Women's bodies remain sites of exploration, exploitation and co-optation for content explored by artists of any gender. However, when women choose to explore women's bodies in ways that stray from traditional norms, their work is often categorized as shock art or as a passé feminist contrivance that has already been done to death.

This is what happened in 2005, when Ontario College of Art &. Design sculpture student Deb Wiles made a plaster mould of her vulva. When the project expanded to involve 52 representations of women's vulvas cast in bronze (52 Ladies to Tea: The Vulva Project), Wiles was trounced. In a 2007 National Post article, "The 'Art' of the Disgusting," Barbara Kay wrote, "More insidious is/>/«y-giarizing art, where the artist's voyeuristic essence is served up in superficially whimsical or jokey forms. Toronto art student Deb Wiles, for example, recently coaxed 52 initially embarrassed, but eventually co-operative women into impressing their vulvas on to a mixture of Vaseline and powdered alginate for eventual casting in bronze as benignly shell-like sculptures. …