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Helen Molesworth on gender inequality and the art world


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For the Art Newspaper, Julia Halperin interviews LA MoCA Chief Curator Helen Molesworth, who is refreshingly candid. She reflects on systemic tendencies that perpetuate white male dominance in the art world and beyond. Most interesting is her take on the role of the artist; that s/he must be “impassioned” yet speak to a universal subjecthood, two attributes more conventionally associated with men. Read the interview in full via the Art Newspaper.

Recent studies in both the UK and the US found that women get around 25% of the solo shows at major museums. Why do you think this disparity still persists today?

Helen Molesworth: People always stay “still today” as if something happened to change the patriarchal system that we live under. As far as I can tell, the patriarchal system is still firmly in place. Since the movement in the early 20th century to get the right to vote, we haven’t had that long a battle in terms of changing the institutions that shape our culture. That’s why the percentages are the way they are—in the Senate and the House of Representatives and Fortune 500 companies. I don’t think the art world has any special purchase on patriarchy.

But people talk about the art world being progressive, a place for ideas—as if it should be ahead of other institutions.

It is a place for ideas and we are a progressive and liberal community, but that doesn’t set us apart from the larger cultural forces at play, which have for the past several hundred years promoted the idea that genius and men and power and money are all very intertwined with one another. Unravelling centuries’ worth of discrimination doesn’t happen overnight, or even within decades.

Can museums improve their statistics independently of the art market, where there is arguably an even greater gender gap in terms of prices? Both entities are fuelled by people in power; it seems like one can’t get better without the other.

Most people buy art that in some way reflects their version of the world. Most men—and I hate to take this generalisation—but most men think that men make universal statements and women talk about women. You think you’re a universal subject—that is white male privilege. Since the market and the museums are largely still operating under the idea that art needs to communicate universally, this takes a super-powerful toll. When Mary Heilmann makes an abstraction invested in the sphere of the domestic, that’s not a woman thing; that’s everybody. Everybody goes home and stares at a towel. We have a lot of work still to do to show that work by men is just as specific to their concerns and may not be universal. And, contra, that work by Lorna Simpson, for example, is just as universal as work by a white man. Most market conversations don’t really allow for that much complexity.

**Image of Helen Molesworth via Boston.com