STATUS QUO: An open letter to white women in the arts

Sophia Cai, DECEMBER 2018

This piece was first published on Antidote in December 2018. An updated version was published INSITE Magazine for their March - July 2019 issue. The text below is the updated version

There was a palpable moment last year when I realised the limitations of white feminism in the arts. Or rather, there were a series of small but increasingly fraught situations that made this realisation clearer over time.

 The first of these moments was when I was working on an essay commission for a female-only exhibition, and the arts manager told me with no irony to her voice that she believed ‘gender equality’ had been met at her institution. A look at the programming revealed a serious lack of diversity in this supposed ‘equality.’

 The second of these instances was the time I attended a feminist panel presented by a women’s art association. During the question time I raised a query about artists of colour and simultaneously noted how alone I was in that room. How many panels have I attended organised by and for female artists with barely more than a token non-white speaker?

The third time was when I posted the status “white women are not my ally” to my Facebook page and was met with some defensive remarks from my artist peers, who wanted to explain their position–demonstrating both the volatility of this provocation and how uncomfortable this is to talk about.

A special mention goes to the recent announcement of a one-in-a-lifetime fellowship for “female-identifying” artists, and the selection process by an all-white curatorial panel that selected three white “female-identifying” artists from an application pool of more than 300 artists.

How can I talk about this issue without alienating my peers, many of whom are incredible, motivated, intelligent white women? How can I start this conversation without creating further barriers between the work of artists and arts workers who are taking steps to dismantle existing structures of power within the art world as so many are? How can I talk about this without jeopardising my professional opportunities or creating resentment?

If you’re reading this and wondering whether this is about you—it probably is, but that doesn’t mean I don’t value you or your work. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect you or your place. And, it certainly doesn’t mean I don’t want you here.

It means I want you to really think about what agenda you are bringing to the table, to the boardroom, to the programming meetings at your institution. To consider what it means to operate at a certain level of privilege in terms of your visibility and your place within the arts sector. And, to be honest, to own up to the fact that the Australian art world is dominated by you (at least below the board and director positions, which are still dominated by white men). 

White women can too easily preserve the status quo with some white feminism thrown in. A room full of white women isn’t diverse. Don’t let this become the newly accepted status quo, don’t let this be where we stop striving for better.

Because the work isn’t done if we are not open to intersections – for that is where the different voices come from. Intersectional feminism is all good and well, but it needs to be put into practice rather than considered as an after-thought. Diversity is not a ‘theme’ to be curated once a year in your exhibition program, it should be the very foundation from which all arts programming is built from.

Maybe this means that sometimes we need to subscribe to affirmative action, like choosing an artist for an opportunity who may have had less access to experiences that make for an impressive CV. In fact, maybe this means overhauling what standards we use to judge ‘success’ or ‘merit,’ which is still very much based on prescribed narratives created by those who have had the privilege to ascribe what is significant and what is not. Let’s start again.

Being a good ally might also mean realising when you need to hold space for others, and when you also just need to leave the room. Don’t close the door on your way to the top. Don’t play musical chairs with a closed-community of curators and artists who all went to the same art school, studied the same Western philosophers, and have the same ideas of what constitutes exhibition making. Invite others to bring their own chairs to the circle. Or even better, dismantle the table that you are sitting at now, because it is rooted in whiteness as a status quo.