By Nancy Gebhart
On October 22, 2015, four artists participated in an inspiring conversation moderated by Assistant Professor of French and Women’s and gender Studies, Michèle A. Schaal. The panelists spoke candidly and vulnerably to the crowd in the Christian Petersen Art Museum. Answering questions from why they chose to be an artist to questions related to stereotypes and challenges of being a “woman artist.” The panelists’ range of experiences and opinions came together to create a cohesive message. Priscilla Sage, Larassa Kabel, Letitia Kennemer, and Stephanie Brunia consider themselves “just” artists: They absorb the world around them and reflect it back through their textile sculptures, paintings, assemblages, and photographs. Choosing to be an artist was not an option for these women. As Larassa put it, “You don’t choose to be an artist; you choose not to be an artist.”
One of the last questions turned out to be one of the most difficult ones to answer: How do you price your work? All of the panelists fumbled with this question, because no easy answer may be provided. Most artists do not punch a clock to track their time spent on their work and capturing the time taken to formulate an idea is virtually impossible. As a museum professional, I see this obsession with dollar value all the time. People associate high prices for art pieces with quality. Yet, the quality of a work of art lies in its cultural, educational, historical, and emotional values – things that are not necessarily quantifiable. So how do you know a work of art has value? It will make you feel something; that is how you will know.
The consensus of the panel was that a shift in public perception of women artists and the language used to describe their art is necessary. An artist is an artist, and the specificity of gender is not relevant. Exhibitions solely focused on women artists continue to marginalize them, but a Catch 22 exists. If exhibitions of women artists are not presented, will they continue to be excluded from other exhibitions? When you ask the question, what will it take to create equality for women artists, there is no single answer. But discussions like this are certainly a great start.
This panel discussion was the first of three free public programs planned to coincide with the current exhibition (Re)discovering S(h)elves in the Christian Petersen Art Museum. The exhibition was an interdisciplinary effort and has been successful in reaching students across academic disciplines and engaging them in meaningful conversations about identity, stereotypes, society, politics, and art. I have spoken with more than 1,500 students in the exhibition since it opened at the start of the semester, and I have learned something from each and every interaction. I look forward to all that I will gain throughout the run of the exhibition and providing more students with a meaningful learning experience in which they will see that art is powerful.