New Funding Behind a Long Push for Gender Equity in the Visual Arts

photo:   Monkey Business Images /shutterstock

photo:  Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

Concern among arts funders about equity and social justice issues have been rising lately, but are hardly new. Some donors have focused on systematic disparities for decades.

Consider the following quote from California business professional and arts philanthropist Madeleine Rast:

The achievements of women artists of the past have generally been overlooked and ignored, yet many women persisted, developing their talents and producing magnificent works of art. Today’s artist still faces the same set of problems.

Pretty timely, right? Well, yes and no. Rast made this observation in 1993. That was when Rast announced a future bequest for the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, D.C. 

Fast forward to 2017. Rast passed away in January at 92 and in June, her estate announced the full scope of the bequest. At $9 million, it tops a $5 million gift from Helen Walton to kick off the museum's endowment campaign in 1999 and represents the largest single gift in the museum’s 30-year history.

Rast's sentiments may be close to 25 years old, but with arts donors' predilection for socially-conscious giving showing no signs of abating, everything old is new again. What's more, these donors want results, which is why the NMWA's involvement here is particularly telling. Less than two years ago, it launched a new program to find solutions to remedy gender inequality in the visual arts world.

I'll dive a bit deeper into these themes in a moment. But first, a quick summary of Rast's philanthropy is in order.

Rast was born in Zurich and moved to California as a young woman, eventually finding professional success in the accounting world. She was a founding member of the NMWA, which opened its doors in 1987, as well as an annual donor and member of its advisory board. She established the bequest, then valued at $2 million, in 1986. With Rast's $9 million bequest, the fund now stands at $59 million.

“She loved the arts. She had an energy and sparkle when she spoke about the arts," said Susan Fisher Sterling, the museum’s director.

I'd also argue that by promoting female artists since Ronald Reagan's second term, she was way ahead of the arts philanthropy curve.

Scan Inside Philanthropy's Visual Arts vertical and you'll see a steady stream of gifts earmarked for women artists. Support comes from a diverse pool of funders including the Seattle Trust, the Barbara Lee Foundation, and collectors like Francie Bishop Good and David Horvitz.

It's easy to take this support for granted, but things were much different back in the early 1980s when NMWA’s founders, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and Wallace F. Holladay, looked around and asked: "Where are all the women artists?"

The NMWA has also been prescient in terms of more recent trends in the visual arts space. Back in 2015, just before the "Artist as Activist" trend reached critical mass, it launched “Women, Arts and Social Change.”

With support from the Swartz Foundation, the Bernstein Family Foundation, and the Reva and David Logan Foundation (among others), the multi-year effort gathers women leaders in arts, business, education, and technology for panel discussions on the intersection of art and social activism.

"Museums have always been seen as being carriers of truth, platforms for saying important things. We wanted to re-imagine how we could be relevant and responsive to world issues," Sterling said.

A generation after Rast weighed in on the status of female artists, much more work needs to be done. According to the NMWA's web site:

  • Fifty-one percent of visual artists today are women; on average, they earn 81¢ for every dollar made by male artists.
  • Work by women artists makes up only 3–5% of major permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe. 
  • Of 590 major exhibitions by nearly 70 institutions in the U.S. from 2007–2013, only 27% were devoted to women artists.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the arts philanthropy world has caught up to Rast's vision. Slowly but surely, things have improved since the days of Top Gun and the Iran-Contra hearings. 

Upon receiving 43 works by female artists from collector Barbara Lee, Jill Medvedow, the director of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, said women artists' representation has "greatly improved [in the art world], but it’s still not excellent."

That's an unsatisfactory assessment, but with a growing number of funders fixated on remedying inequality in the arts world, "excellent" increasingly seems within reach.