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Where is a Young Feminist’s Place in the Arts? (Trick Question. Answer: Anywhere and Everywhere!)

Posted by Ms. Sarah Rucker, Apr 20, 2017 0 comments

The arts have always been a place where I felt like I was on an even playing field. I started dancing when I was three and, with the support of a very creative-minded family, I was shown a whole new world on stage where all eyes and ears were on me for at least a couple of hours. My fascination with this world grew, culminating in the career in arts administration that I’ve been building since college.

However, when I sat down to start writing this article, I initially felt stumped, full of the trepidation that has created the dichotomy to my personality as a confident performer—a destructive voice in my head that says it’s best not to speak up because no one will listen. I found this ironic, considering my intent was to convey the importance of being a young feminist in the arts! But I feel that having a multifaceted mindset and admitting to these contradictory thoughts are signs that it is important to continue my efforts to incorporate feminism into my role in the arts, and in global discussions.

Arts organizations are very often predominantly staffed by women, but unfortunately this does not eradicate the centuries of patriarchal approaches that block us from allowing equity for all. In the broader non-profit sector, executive roles and boards are often filled by male candidates who keep their posts until retirement. “Top-down” leadership and a competitive spirit that rejects collaboration or promotion of others’ achievements are other examples of this obstruction. Feminism and activism are just as important as ever in our current political climate. As I sat to write on this topic, quotes from Gloria Steinem’s recent book My Life on the Road helped bring the strong matriarchal voice back into my head and remind me that it’s okay to speak my mind—especially to my fellow emerging arts leaders.

“When humans are ranked instead of linked, everyone loses.”

First, the sense of competition among community-based organizations and individual artists is a sort of prison that stifles the overall growth of the arts field. Feminism promotes ideas that help combat the aggressive competitive spirit most of us have experienced at one time or another. Examples are mentorship, collaboration, networking, and supporting each other more often. In the arts, this translates to attending each other’s shows, promoting female creators, and constructing new—or perhaps reviving ancient forms—of leadership. The goal in the field of the arts should be to create a community that fosters new levels of innovation.

“…audiences turn into partners if you just listen to them as much as you talk.”

Another action we can all take to set the stage for a more equitable field is to educate and learn from each other. Movements like Art + Feminism work to “improve coverage” of women, art, and feminism on online outlets such as Wikipedia. One can never achieve empathy if one doesn’t observe a lack of equity. Most individuals who identify as feminists are proud to help point out areas lacking equity and start a positive dialogue about ways to improve the situation. The first step for the change-seeker is to listen to the one experiencing this unequal treatment.

“If you find yourself drawn to an event against all logic, go.”

Last November, the day before the election to be exact, I caught wind via social media that Masha Alyokhina from the Russian punk movement and band Pussy Riot would be speaking at a local music venue at 11 p.m. I was already in my pajamas and not even remotely thinking of leaving the house. However, something told me this was an important event to attend. Hearing her stories of imprisonment because of her and others’ art activism was thought-provoking and eye-opening. 

Frequently, activism or even advocacy is not something we spend much time on in arts organizations because we are busy producing the work that serves the mission. However, what end does this serve if we are up against threats such as the defunding of the biggest federal arts granting organizations? Although some of my proudest successes have been in arts programming I’ve contributed to, there were also times I felt I had lost my individual identity in order to better serve the cause. Giving more of your time to others than yourself is a trait often attributed to women as a motherly instinct. However, I would argue that this is another departure of the more matriarchal environment that celebrates intuition and embraces individuality.

Though it is my skill for thinking ahead that has made me a successful producer and arts programmer, let me suggest something to think about now. We do not have to wait for the National Endowment for the Arts to be defunded to save the arts, and we don’t have to wait for the apocalypse to start a matriarchal society again. The community is strongest by us all being our truest selves.

P.S.: Pay it forward and backward. I want to thank my mother for giving me the Gloria Steinem book and serving as a continual beacon of strength in my life.

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