San Diego’s Arts Scene Has More Leading Ladies Than Ever

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Women in San Diego are shattering the arts world’s glass ceiling.

Last fall, Kathryn Kanjo stepped into her new role as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, joining the growing ranks of women leading major arts organizations across the city.

There are now more women leading major arts organizations here than ever. For many of the institutions, it’s just the first or second time a woman has been at the helm.

Here’s a quick survey: In the visual arts world, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, San Diego Museum of Art, Oceanside Museum of Art, New Children’s Museum, Timken Museum of Art and San Diego Art Institute are all women-led. In classical music: The San Diego Symphony and the La Jolla Music Society are under female directorship. In dance, women like Jean Isaacs, Robin Morgan and Maxine Mahon have long been in leadership roles. In theater, men still dominate, but aside from the female-focused Moxie Theatre, Intrepid Theatre Company has a woman at the top. The two leading posts at the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture are held by women.

The Los Angeles Times recently declared 2016 “the year of the woman,” in the classical music world. In San Diego, while many of the women arts leaders have been in their positions for years now, the city seems to have finally reached a tipping point, and 2016 could comfortably be declared as the year of the woman across the board when it comes to the arts.

Ginger Shulick Porcella, executive director of the San Diego Art Institute
Ginger Shulick Porcella is executive director of the San Diego Art Institute.  | Photo: Vito Di Stefano

“The shift is definitely happening,” said Ginger Shulick Porcella, executive director of the San Diego Art Institute in Balboa Park.

She said with women at the top, she’s seeing gender diversity quickly trickling down through the rest of the arts organizations and the programming they produce.

“We have a group show up right now, for example, and way more than half of the artists in it are women,” she said. “Half of our staff are women, and we just finished the strategic plan and really made it a focus to represent women and artists of color.”

The gender gap is, of course, still alive and well in the national arts world, especially when it comes to the world’s top art museums. A 2014 study, for instance, found that less than 50 percent of museum directors across North America are women. A study published this month found that women who work in the arts earn about $20,000 less per year than their male counterparts. In visual arts, while there are just as many women artists as men, it’s still far more common to find a majority of work by male artists in the permanent collections of the country’s top museums and galleries. And on average, men still bring in a lot more money for their art than women.

San Diego is ahead of the gender curve when you look at the international landscape. Roxana Velásquez, San Diego Museum of Art’s executive director, said she thinks being an urban center on the West Coast, a progressive stronghold, is part of what’s driving the faster change. But more importantly, she said she thinks arts organizations in San Diego are simply hiring the most qualified candidates, and they just happen to be women.

“We’re at the border of another country and close to Los Angeles, which allows for this kind of open perspective,” she said. “But my thought is that these are great leaders, no matter their gender.”

Lisa Johnson, the general manager of the NTC Arts & Culture District at Liberty Station, said she thinks San Diegans can expect to see some changes at local arts organizations now that so many women are in charge. She said aside from a bigger push for diversity and inclusion throughout local arts organizations and the programming they produce, there will likely be more collaborations between arts groups.

“A woman heading an organization always brings a unique perspective,” she said. “I think we’re naturally an inclusive bunch. That’s been the biggest change in our organization. I’m very intentionally collaborative and inclusive and always looking to partner.”

Kathryn Kanjo, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
Kathryn Kanjo is the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.   | Photo: Stacy Keck

Judy Forrester at the New Children’s Museum said she’s never felt like she’s been treated differently or had any barriers to overcome because of her gender. Others like Shulick Porcella, however, said she’s dealt with some challenges that could, in part, be more attributed to gender.

Shulick Porcella changed things so quickly and dramatically at the institution she heads that she saw a lot of pushback from longtime members and supporters of the San Diego Art Institute.

“The people who were coming in and complaining were certainly men of a certain age — white, middle-aged men who thought they could come in and yell at me and get me to see things their way,” she said. “But I was like, no, the whole world has been seeing things your way for a long time, it’s time for you to start seeing things my way.”

While the San Diego arts scene has made huge strides, it still has some distance to go before it can declare the gender gap completely crushed to smithereens.

Kanjo, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s director, said no matter how many women are in leadership positions at arts organizations or represented in shows and exhibits, it’s important to continue doing self-assessments so as not to become complacent.

“I think we have to be vigilant about it,” she said. “We have to check ourselves all the time to see, what am I doing to tip the numbers?”

Christy Yael-Cox, CEO of Intrepid Theatre Company, said arts groups’ boards of directors are one area where older white men still tend to outnumber women, people of color and young people.

“People don’t think the arts are a place where gender is still an issue, because it’s supposed to be a field that’s more progressive than that,” she said. “But we obviously need to still be talking about it.”

This article was originally published on Voice of San Diego.

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