Equality in the Arts: Where is Our Blue Wave?
By Robin Bernat
With the midterm elections, we’ve witnessed a sea change in American politics and culture as more women were elected to national and state legislatures. How is this tilt back toward equality reflected in opportunities for artists in Atlanta?
The national organization Artadia announced its 2018 awardees from Atlanta: Krista Clark and William Downs, Clark also a Working Artist Project awardee from MOCA-GA, along with Myra Greene and Cosmo Whyte. Half of the artists featured in The Contemporary’s upcoming Atlanta Biennial are women.
Several years ago, the High Museum of Art made a public announcement that its collecting practice would be focused on the works of Ellsworth Kelly, Anselm Kiefer, Gerhardt Richter, and Alex Katz. The High could not have conceived of a program more rooted in the Western canon with, obviously, works by white men dominating that pantheon. Since Michael Rooks entered the scene in 2010 as the Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, he has made a genuine effort toward widening that vision. Many recent acquisitions are works by women of color most notably a large scale cut-paper work by Kara Walker and works by Julie Mehretu and Jaye Rhee.
Last month the High Museum, the preeminent venue for visual arts in the southeast, reinstalled its permanent collection with a mind toward inclusion. Whole sections of the museum were closed from view from May until October when the reinstallation was revealed to great fanfare with a posh $1000 per person gala.
“A museum collection is dynamic — always growing and evolving — so this opportunity has allowed us to thoughtfully revisit our existing presentations to reinstall the works in ways that resonate anew with our audiences, ” said Kevin W. Tucker, the High’s chief curator. “From design to interpretation, these new presentations will embrace equity, diversity, and approachability throughout.”
While the reinstallation of the Modern and Contemporary galleries exhibit an undeniable handsomeness with careful adjacencies in content or composition, of the 59 artists with works on view, only 16 of them are women. To be more plain, 25% of the works are by women. During such a turbulent time, both socially and politically, when equal pay and the #metoo movement remain at top of mind, and a blue wave surging, it seems reasonable that the High Museum might lean toward an over-correction in favor of women artists especially when it claims to be prioritizing inclusion.
Of local artists with works presently on view in the Modern and Contemporary galleries, there are only two: Radcliffe Bailey and Medford Johnson. During Rooks’ tenure at the High, he has presented solo or duo exhibitions of local artists Radcliffe Bailey, Medford Johnson, Jim Waters, Fahamu Pecou, Alejandro Aguilera, Paul Stephen Benjamin, and Susan Cofer.
If women artists are overlooked for inclusion in the programs of the most visible arts institutions in our city, local women artists are overlooked to a disproportionate degree. Nationally-exhibiting women artists live and work right here in Atlanta, Georgia and, they deserve to be promoted by those institutions to the broader, national art world. If we are bothered by a lack of fairness in the larger world, and in the communities where we live and work, it is only appropriate that we challenge institutions, intended to serve our community, to model fairness toward our community.
Robin Bernat is a visual artist and writer, and also the owner of Poem 88 gallery representing emerging and established artists and presenting thoughtful and innovative explorations in a new artistic frontier. She serves on the Steering Committee for United Arts Front, an arts advocacy group formed in 2016.
Featured image (top): Skylevel Gallery at the High Museum featuring newly reinstalled works by Michael Heizer, Robert Mangold, and Ellsworth Kelly.