The Motherload: Burdens Women-Artists Bear in the Art World

Artist Tanya Aguiñiga with her child, Io | Still from KCET Artbound's "Artist and Mother" Mother AB s9

Would you say that motherhood is valued in our society?

We don’t often talk overtly about the hierarchy of values that capitalism fosters. By now most people have become more familiar with phrases like “wage gap” and “affirmative action,” “maternity leave,” “diversity initiative” and “inclusion rider.”  But it nonetheless seems to be difficult for us to be truly transparent about the value hierarchy we place on women — especially in the art world, which remains one of the last unregulated markets in the developed world.

Do you know what your colleagues’ annual salaries are? Or what their artwork sells for, if it sells? There is an unwritten code that we are not supposed to talk about what we make. And please don’t ask anyone what they make — It’s considered rude. For me what’s really rude is the overt undervaluing of women, women of color, and especially those who are mothers, particularly in the art world.  Based on gallery sales, museum exhibitions, auction records and publications, we can easily deduce that the most valued producer in the art world is the white male (and usually a painter). If you’re a female-identified artist, you can expect to have, at best, a 30 percent chance of representation at a major gallery[1]. You would most likely earn between 4 and 11 cents to the male dollar at auction, and will likely have to wait until you are at least 70 before you have a solo exhibition at a major museum. And if you want to be mentioned in history books — well, don’t hold your breath. The simple fact is that women artists are not perceived to be as “valuable,” their work not as good of an investment. And if a woman artists becomes pregnant, her very ability to make art at all will be called into question — as if it is anyone’s place to speculate about her artistic career qualifications in the first place.

Extreme, stereotypical gender roles still exist in most contemporary cultures. Those who identify as women are expected and encouraged to be wives, mothers, caretakers, homemakers. At first glance, one might believe that such roles are valued. But, alas, significant wage gaps remain, the Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified to our constitution, North American businesses rarely provide childcare, the government does not support childcare and domestic labor is not unionized. Sure, there are more women in the workplace than ever — but more than two-thirds of the low wage jobs ($10/hour or less) are held by women, and only six percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. In the workplace, the technical designation for Maternity Leave is actually categorized as “Disability Leave” when reported on Human Resources documents. This last point gets closer to the subconscious consideration of the maternal body in society, and especially in the art world. In her book and exhibition, “New Maternalisms,” artist Natalie Loveless made the revolutionary point: women artists should be valued more when they become mothers, for the added depth of life experience could only make their work more complex and interesting.

Female-identified bodies are constantly policed, told by society they are too fat, too thin, too old, too flat, too lumpy,  too loud, too quiet, too quirky, too slutty, too uptight, too, too, too…. #metoo. Female identified nipples — even fake ones — are censored from Instagram and Facebook (how DO those algorithms know our gender by looking at a pic?) while male nips are fine. Objectifying images of women’s bodies are often paraded across advertisements and business feeds to sell products, but images from The Empowered Birth Project have been censored repeatedly. Showing birth is a radical act.

Milk Truck by Jill Miller | Courtesy of the artist
Milk Truck by Jill Miller | Courtesy of the artist

Women’s breasts are considered obscene, too — unless they are being used to sell a product. Breasts in bikinis or low-cut shirts are “sexy,” but breastfeeding in public is considered to be problematic, unsightly, and “gross.” It’s possible to see medieval and Renaissance paintings of women breastfeeding in a museum, but modern-day women are frequently not permitted to actually breastfeed in those same museums (Nurse-ins have been staged in protest in museums, stores and even online).  And while we’re at it, please feel free to chime in on how long you think a woman should breastfeed. Artist Jill Miller has been a lactation supershero with her project Milk Truck, which arrives on-call, like an ambulance, on the scene of places where people are prohibited from breastfeeding.  The challenges of breastfeeding or breast-pumping in the workplace have been addressed in performances and sculptures by artists such as Annina Rüst, Kasey Jones and the organization Make The Breastpump Not Suck , which has initiated a semi-annual hackathon designed to improve the breast pump (and while we’re at it, it would be awesome to have another form of mammogram!)

Kasey Jones, "Working Mother Suit" | Courtesy of the artist
Kasey Jones, "Working Mother Suit" | Courtesy of the artist

Women who are mothers face no shortage of double standards — the pregnant body becomes public domain as strangers’ hands reach out to touch a protruding belly, give unsolicited maternity advice and ask predetermining questions about the gender of the unborn child (when people are really asking about the fetus’s biological sex), and yet a woman artist who is pregnant suddenly becomes invisible in the art world.

The double standards extend to the family structure as well. There is preferential bias for the cis-hetero, binaristic marriage — a “man and a woman,” and it is generally, if not implicitly, expected that if both parties are artists, it will be the woman who gives up her art career to raise the child. No one ever asks a male artist “how will you manage your time in the studio” when they become a new parent. When a woman artist who is a new parent goes to evening gallery openings, she is often met with surprised expressions as people wonder how she escaped maternity jail, and ask “Where is your baby?” or “Who is taking care of the kid?,” making implications that she might be a bad mother for leaving her child in the care of another. Assumptions are made about how childcare is divided, how one manages their time, how it will affect their practice.

For years I have heard countless stories of what happens to women artists when they become pregnant or declare that they are starting a family: galleries drop them from their rosters, refusing to continue to represent them; exhibitions get postponed or canceled; the integrity of their work and work ethic gets publicly questioned. Their artwork is then considered to be ‘risky’ (not in a good way) because it might become about “mommy art”; their studio practice is put into question, as if becoming a mother simply replaces “being an artist.” While it may be true that these are some — SOME! — of the things that may change or be affected by becoming a parent — NONE of these things are brought into question with regard to the male parent artists. They do not get asked “How will this affect your work?.” And if we were inclined to shift our thinking about a male artist for being a parent, it would be to assume that his work would get better. When men bring their babies around to openings, people commend them for being such good, involved fathers. When women bring their kids to openings, they are pitied for not having been able to find a sitter or for being too “frazzled”, for not being able to “juggle." In the studio, if a woman has her children during a visit with a curator or collector, she is chided for being unprofessional and the child lamented as a distraction. If a male artist has his child present, it’s amusing, and he is lauded for being a “good, involved father.”

Given that so much art is about the human experience, perception, and condition, I wonder why there are still so many biases against artist-mothers and mother art. Why isn’t there culture-wide interest, admiration and support for artist-mothers? Art history has heralded the ejaculatory paintings of the abstract expressionists and has dismissed work that is inherently about the female experience.

Southern California has a strong history of art ‘schools’ in various senses: a school of thought, an institutionalized art school and a group of people. Many people know about The Cool School — but fewer people know about the Feminist Art Program; the Women’s Building (which recently became a historic monument!) or the amazing (and still working) collective Mother Art. Why are “schools” of surfing, smoking, sneering dudes cool, but the Mother Art collective is decidedly ‘uncool’? What will it take to shift our biases? We have a long way to go. But there are many great artists and collectives working in Southern California to change the conversation around mother artists and their creative practice. Things are starting to change — as evidenced by the sample of artists and curators in KCET Artbound's documentary, "Artist and Mother" and those listed in this resource page.

The next time you go to a museum or a gallery, instead of asking to see the most famous painting by a male artist, ask them to direct you to the works by artist-mothers.


[1] This figure is a summary of the Gallery Tally findings. After tallying over 500 galleries, the average percentage of women remains at between 30 and 32 percent and taking into consideration that 65 percent of students in MFA programs are women. One's chance of being picked up by a gallery is less if they are female (statistically). It is also interesting to note that the biggest galleries (Gagosian, Regen, Pace, etc) have the lowest percentages of women. It's more like 10 to 20 percent women in their rosters.

Top Image: Artist Tanya Aguiñiga with her child, Io | Still from KCET Artbound's "Artist and Mother"

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