Can you name five women artists? For plenty of people, the answer is no—a fact the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) is actively trying to change. Every March since 2016, the Washington, D.C.-based institution has celebrated Women’s History Month by rolling out its #5WomenArtists campaign, which strives to combat gender inequity in the arts through the power of social media. This year’s showing is especially strong, with 272 museums, gallery spaces and other art-focused mainstays joining forces to rally behind the hashtag’s mission, reports Monica Castillo for Hyperallergic.
A stroll through most of the cultural institutions that dot the Western world is all it takes to underscore the severity of the issue. Though women make up nearly half of visual artists in the United States, they represent a meager 13 percent of artists in the permanent collections of prominent American museums. On average, they also earn 26 percent less than their male colleagues—a disparity exacerbated by advanced age, according to the NMWA website. The numbers are even worse for women artists of color, who comprise just 5.6 percent of creatives featured in galleries, per Hyperallergic.
This gross underrepresentation gives the public “a warped or limited view of our history,” Sydney-based arts consultant John Cruthers told the Guardian’s Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore last year. “By having so few women, you miss out on a big part of the story.”
The male-centric skew isn’t simply a product of history. Despite being barred from academic institutions—and even from studying nude models—for centuries, women artists persevered and produced around the world, only to be written out of textbooks and snubbed by collectors. (Of the 300-plus artists mentioned in Janson’s Basic History of Western Art, a staple in many art history classes, only 8 percent are women, and less than 1 percent are women of color.)
Since opening its doors in 1987, the NMWA has acquired some 4,500 works by more than 1,000 artists spanning centuries and continents. In recent years, the museum has expanded its mission to spotlight other inequities and inequalities facing women in the arts. Its current run of #5WomenArtists centers on socially conscious artworks intended to raise global awareness about such issues as climate change, racial justice and LGBTQ+ rights.
Among those featured is Mexico City-based artist Mónica Mayer, whose pieces have reclaimed the clothesline—a traditionally feminine object linked to domesticity—as a powerful tool to spark discussion about sexual harassment, domestic violence and human trafficking. In 2017, she debuted a temporary NMWA installation called El Tendedero/The Clothesline Project; the display prompted visitors to voice their dislikes about their hometowns on small pink ballots that were then pinned to clotheslines.
Also highlighted on the NMWA website is Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Nation in Montana. She is known for infusing her work with Native American art forms and illustrating the longstanding suppression of native cultures.
With nearly 300 other institutions—including the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the Guggenheim Museum, Museu de Arte Sacra de São Paulo and the Toronto International Film Festival—contributing to this year’s #5WomenArtists campaign, other examples abound online. On Twitter, the hashtag has been attached to figures including Augusta Savage, the only black woman artist to contribute to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and Shi Hui, who has garnered acclaim for her eclectic, fiber-based sculptures.
The goal, perhaps, is to craft a reality in which the hashtag may no longer be necessary. Until then, initiatives like #5WomenArtists will hopefully inspire people to “turn [their] gaze inward,” California dealer Ashara Ekundayo told the Art Newspaper’s Rochelle Spencer last year. After all, she says, “the work that women create, and the institutions we build and steward, are containers for celebration and ceremony.”
And that’s not a thing to waste.