In Nova Scotia, the tide is turning

PIPAF is emerging quickly in the plein airmovement. But in terms of gender equality, it’s already a leader.
View From Back Street Oil on Panel, by Chantel Julien was the 2017 PIPAF Best in Show winner. (Photo courtesy Parrsboro Creative)
Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival has emerged quickly as an important contender in the plein air scene. It attracts big-name artists, sales are increasing, and visitation is up. But there’s one way in which I hope it remains unchanged: gender equality.
Each year since its inception, the grand prize winner has been a woman artist: Chantel Julien, Nancy Tankersley, and Poppy Balser. (A hat tip to Becky McAndrewsfor noticing this.) And it didn’t stop with the top prizes, either. The lists have been remarkably fair-handed.
At most plein air competitions, top prizes are taken by male artists. Some sponsors have tried to address this by alternating between male and female jurors, but have found that the gender of the juror doesn’t make much difference. Painting is one of the last bastions in western culture where men’s work is perceived as more valuable than women’s work.
Nancy Tankersley was the 2018 PIPAF Best in Show winner. (Photo courtesy Parrsboro Creative)
This imbalance is unfortunately not just for dead artists. A data-mining exercise last year found that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) collection is only 11% women-made. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 18% of the artists are female.
A search of MoMA’s database reveals one painting by Lois Dodd, View through Elliot’s Shack Looking South, which they acquired a few years ago. Meanwhile, there are 86 works on their website for her contemporary and peer, Alex Katz.
Is gender in the eye of the beholder? Identifying cultural attitudes with art auction prices, by Adams, Kräussl, Navone and Verwijmeren, found that women’s art in the secondary market traded at a 47.6% discount. It was worse in misogynistic cultures, and better in western nations. However, the world’s new wealth is being minted in those misogynistic places. That doesn’t bode well for the future of women’s art.
The Romantic ideal of the Cult of Genius underlies much of the misogyny of the modern art world, because Genius was thought to be a male trait. “Underlying the question about woman as artist, then, we find the myth of the Great Artist—subject of a hundred monographs, unique, godlike—bearing within his person since birth a mysterious essence, rather like the golden nugget in Mrs. Grass’s chicken soup, called Genius or Talent, which, like murder, must always out, no matter how unlikely or unpromising the circumstances,” wrote Linda Nochlin in a ground-breaking feminist essay in 1971.
Sunset Glow at the Weir, by Poppy Balser was the 2019 PIPAF Best in Show winner. (Photo courtesy Parrsboro Creative)
The great virtue of plein air painting is that it rejects the Cult of Genius in favor of craftsmanship and hard work. And despite its lack of recognition in the art establishment, it is the first new art movement in decades, and overall one of the greatest in art history.
Adams, et al sought to burst the idea—once and for all—that art prices reflected any difference in quality between male and female painters. They devised two experiments where paintings were assigned arbitrary genders. In both cases, knowledgeable buyers appreciated paintings less when they thought the artist was female. Ouch.
But in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, the tide is turning. I can’t credit Canadian culture for this: two of the three jurors have been American. Nor is it a case of women jurors crediting women painters, because two of the three jurors were male. However it happened, it’s wonderful to see prizes awarded to women painters.

We’re all emerging artists

It’s not really a question of labels, but of who can work his way through the shifting sands of market change.
More work than they bargained for, by Carol L. Douglas
Recently I had the opportunity for a nice chin-wag with a friend. I don’t remember what the subject was, but she told me, “I’m just an emerging artist.”
This is a term that’s annoyed me since it was first coined. Until we’re dead, we’d better be emerging, as part of a process of constant growth. We must restlessly seek better galleries, bigger shows, and more important venues, just as we improve our skills.
But what does that mean to gallerists, who sometimes want to show ‘emerging artists’ and sometimes want to show ‘mid-career’—another meaningless term until we’re dead—or ‘established’ artists? These are terms that are hardening into acceptance, so it behooves us to think about what the people who bandy them around are trying to say.
The terms have nothing to do with age, and everything to do with experience. You may be 15 or fifty, but if you’re just starting out, you’re an emerging artist. You’re working, you’re probably selling, but you haven’t got an inventory of paintings or a settled, consistent practice.
Dinghies, Fish Beach, Monhegan, by Carol L. Douglas
The mid-career artist is someone who’s been doing art for several years, created a body of work, and shown and been recognized. He has had a significant number of solo shows at recognized venues, and been written about in publications. His following is not regional, but national or even global.
A mature artist is one who’s been commodified. His work sells in the secondary market and he has a sales record that supports rising prices.  He is represented in public collections, and by excellent galleries in major metropolitan areas. In short, he is at the pinnacle of career. Sadly, this often means someone with one foot in the grave, as well.
Drying sails, by Carol L. Douglas
The problem with these descriptions is that they’re about success, rather than experience. There are factors involved in success that have nothing to do with skill. Just compare the public recognition of Alex Katz and Lois Dodd. Similar pedigrees, similar experiences, similar skills, and yet he’s far more widely recognized than she. And misogyny is justs one factor that comes to play in determining who’s going to be a star.
The art market is just too vast for anyone to categorize painters in this way. Even the greatest landscape painter on the Maine coast or in Santa Fe may mean nothing to a Manhattan dealer who hunts relentlessly for the next enfant terrible to promote. Would he, for example, have a clue who the quiet, reflective Scottish painter James Morrisonis?

Ask the Manhattanite who’s emerging and who’s established, and you’re going to get a far different answer than if you ask in, say, Houston. Meanwhile, regional landscape art—including plein air—sells like mad.

Spring, by Carol L. Douglas
Anyone who’s been selling paintings for a while also recognizes that the whole marketplace is changing rapidly. What happens in the art markets of New York and London is almost completely irrelevant in the decentralized world of painting sales elsewhere, including on the internet. It’s not really a question of who’s emerging or established, and I’d make no business decisions based on what label you think applies to you. Rather, it’s a question of who can work his way through the shifting sands of the current art market.

Writing or rewriting history

We need to redress the artist gender gap in the here and now, not in museums.
Allegory of Fame, c. 1630–1635, Artemisia Gentileschi

I smiled at a headline that read something like, “Artemisia Gentileschi and eight other woman artists found at the National Gallery.” Gentileschi has only been ‘lost’ to those who don’t know art history.

For those of us who study it, she’s exactly where she should be. Not in the first rank of the Baroque, for she was not the innovator that Caravaggio, Velázquez or Georges de La Tourwere. But a solid, workmanlike painter, on a par with, say, Zurbarán or her own father, Orazio Gentileschi. That’s no small achievement after 450 years of winnowing.
David and Goliath, c. 1605-1607, Orazio Gentileschi, courtesy National Gallery of Ireland. Artemisia Gentileschi’s father was no minor painter.
Rediscovering women painters is all the rage right now. A recent study found that, in our major museums, 87% of artists represented are men. While I take exception to their methodology (crowdsourcing), I think the overall percentages are probably pretty accurate when it comes to the Renaissance and after.
For anything earlier, it’s pure speculation. We have no idea who created most of the pre-Renaissance art in our museums. We can’t assign gender or race to its creators based on our assumptions, since they’re so often wrong. Starting with Minoan culture, the great classical cultures were empires. Empires are, above all, cosmopolitan.
Judith and her Maidservant, 1613–14, Artemisia Gentileschi, courtesy Palazzo Pitti, Florence
Still, western art, from the Renaissance until the middle of the 19th century, was overwhelmingly produced by white men. This is a fact, and there are only two options—accept it and move on, or rewrite the story of western art.
All art criticism is by nature subjective. That doesn’t make it untrue. We respect great painters not just for the superlative canvases they produced, but for the influence they had on later painters. This is true not just for those who were feted in their lifetimes, but for those who lived and worked in relative obscurity, only to be discovered by later generations. Over time, our culture has reached consensus in the recognition of great art.
To change that, to elevate certain painters because of their gender would be to upset that narrative in an historically inaccurate way. Women primarily worked in the home until the late 20th century. Why try to whitewash that fact?
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638–39, Artemisia Gentileschi, courtesy Royal Collection

Where that falls apart is in the modern era, and that’s exactly where we need to redress the gender imbalance. An excellent example is the disparity between the reputations of Lois Dodd and Alex Katz. They’re contemporaries with similar achievements and resumes. But Katz is represented by innumerable top-flight museums worldwide, while Dodd’s first painting was only recently acquired by MoMA.  

Women in the arts, in 2011, earned68¢ for every dollar earned by men. That was far worse than in the broader economy, where women could expect to earn 79¢ for every male-earned dollar. I haven’t seen much change in the last eight years.
Let’s put our efforts where they matter, in the here and now, and leave the art canon to mind itself.