Why Do We Make It So Hard for Artist Moms to Flourish?
Many artists feel pressure to choose between a professional career and motherhood. But for those who do have kids, the boundaries between life and art can blur — and that can be a good thing.,
“There are good artists who have children. Of course there are. They are called men.”
— The artist Tracey Emin, in a 2014 interview
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Before the pandemic, Reut Asimini was careful to keep her art career and domestic life separate. She exhibited her work — like a solo show of painted ceramic plates inspired by Italian Majolica of the 15th-17th centuries — and she had a consistent routine working three days a week in her studio while her daughter, Mia, attended day care.
But when the first coronavirus lockdown was announced last March, Ms. Asimini found herself looking after Mia, then 18 months, in their tiny apartment. Mia held a pencil for the first time and began scribbling on paper, the only art medium Ms. Asimini had at her home in Tel Aviv. Soon, every piece of paper was covered with scribbles.
Ms. Asimini, stripped of time, materials and a space of her own, but still aching to work, began transforming her daughter’s doodles — a scribble became a tangle of hair, squiggles an open-mouthed scream.
And so Ms. Asimini’s two worlds became blended — her art life and her home life — making her profession, already known to be challenging for mothers, that much more of a strain.
“Motherhood is a taboo subject in the art world,” said Hettie Judah, an author and a journalist who covers art, explaining that it’s not unusual for women to feel pressure to choose between their careers and motherhood or even to conceal that they’ve had kids.
Though there’s not much data explicitly focused on artists who are moms, female artists in general lag behind their male counterparts in representation and share of the market. A 2019 study found that 87 percent of the collections in 18 major U.S. art museums were made by men. From 2008 through 2018, only 11 percent of the art acquired by top museums was made by women, and from 2008 through 2019, women’s artwork accounted for only 2 percent of proceeds from art sold at auction. The authors of the investigation noted that Picasso’s work sold for more during the same period than the work of every single woman in their data set combined.
Dyana Gravina, founder of the Procreate Project, an organization dedicated to keeping mothers in the arts, says that in a profession already beset by inequality, motherhood makes the situation worse. “There is a lack of interest, lack of understanding, a lot of bias, preconceptions, systemic issues and structural limitations,” she said of how mothers are received in the art world.
It doesn’t help that some powerhouse female artists have framed motherhood as a liability. There was Marina Abramovic, who in a 2016 interview with the German newspaper Tagesspiegel explained that she’d had three abortions because children would be “a disaster for my work.” And Tracey Emin, who said in a 2014 interview, “There are good artists who have children. Of course there are. They are called men.”
Kate McMillan, an artist and professor at King’s College London who researches gender inequality in the cultural sector, has been studying the effect of the pandemic on female artists. Long story short: It’s going to get harder for most. But even before the pandemic, Dr. McMillan said, around 65 percent to 70 percent of art school graduates were women; yet they only account for around 30 percent of the artists represented by commercial galleries. This number is similar across developed economies, she said. A factor in those numbers, according to Dr. McMillan, is that the art market views women of childbearing age as a risk and therefore makes commercial galleries hesitant to invest in their careers. “As one gallerist said, ‘Women might move off to the countryside and never make art again,'” Dr. McMillan recounted.
This is a problem because commercial galleries are essential to an artist’s trajectory. Among other functions, Dr. McMillan said, galleries broker deals with museums, manage connections to curators and collectors, and help reinforce an artist’s place in the art history canon. “If commercial galleries are not representing female artists,” Dr. McMillan wrote in an email, “then gender bias in the commercial sector becomes embedded throughout the visual arts ecology.”
When Liz Linden was pregnant, she wore loosefitting clothing to hide her belly from a curator who had come to see her work. Ms. Linden, a visual artist and lecturer at San Jose State University, said she did it because there’s a penalty to those who make caregiving visible.
The penalty is alluded to in the wink-and-nod name, Wow Mom, adopted by a group of artists who gather monthly to critique each other’s work in California’s Bay Area. “It’s not because your child says, ‘Wow, Mom, that’s such a cool thing you made’ or ‘Wow, Mom, you’re an artist that’s so cool,'” Ms. Linden, who is a member of the group, said, “but more that if you’re working in the art world and you’re at a professional event, if you admit to someone that you’re a mom, the person inevitably ends up saying, ‘Wow, you’re a mom,’ and then wanders away as inconspicuously as they can.”
Though Ms. Linden looked to her personal life to inspire her work before she had kids, once she had her two children, she never trained her lens on them. “I’d internalized these messages that caretaking isn’t serious enough, isn’t rigorous enough to make conceptual art out of,” she said.
It was out of a contrarian response that two years ago she made a concerted effort to revisit her domestic life. “Caretaking is so undervalued,” she said, “and it will never get better as long as we treat it as something we need to hide and be ashamed of.”
Another part of the problem is that the art world isn’t structured to support mothers. It is an issue that Lenka Clayton, an interdisciplinary artist based in Pittsburgh, became aware of almost immediately after she had her first baby. Not only would it be logistically difficult for her to attend an artist residency, but she also figured out that moms with babies in tow “weren’t invited.”
A residency is typically designed to give the artist the space to create. In the art world that translates, almost always, to being alone, she explained. “It felt quite offensive that somehow you are more creative away from your family than with them,” she said.
Ms. Clayton, who had been warned by peers that having children would damage her career, wanted to reframe the prevailing narrative that motherhood is professionally stunting.
In 2012, she founded An Artist Residency in Motherhood (ARIM), a residency that takes place inside one’s home while looking after one’s own children. “Instead of getting home life out of the way so you can work,” Ms. Clayton said, “it’s looking at those obstructions — nap-length studio time, fragmented focus — as inspiration and material to make work out of.”
During her own three-year, self-imposed residency, she created pieces like “63 Objects Taken From My Son’s Mouth,” “All Scissors in the House Made Safer” and “The Distance I Can Be From My Son,” a film that measured — like, literally, with a tape measure — how far away he could stray from her before she felt an uncontrollable compulsion to run after him.
ARIM, which is open source and free to all, now has more than 1,200 residents. “We are all claiming motherhood as a space of creativity and inspiration,” Ms. Clayton said, “rather than one that stops you doing what you want to do.” Though it is similar in some aspects to a traditional residency, ARIM does not come with funding of any kind.
Despite more visibility around motherhood, most residencies still do not accommodate people with caregiving responsibilities, says Ms. Gravina, the founder of Procreate Project, which is based in Britain.
Entrenched structures in the art world, she says, are built around the very narrow idea we have of an artist — a single male who is not encumbered by familial or domestic obligations. “It is quite problematic,” she said.
Ms. Gravina, as well as others, are pushing to make the art world more inclusive. Among other things, this includes changing the days and times of events, because they traditionally occur in the 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. window “when we’re putting kids to bed,” and making events child-friendly “without it meaning that the quality of the exhibition is any lower than any other exhibition.”
This summer, Ms. Gravina’s Procreate Project plans to open Mother House, a 21-seat art studio with integrated child care that she hopes will serve as a prototype for others to replicate. She says the space will give women the infrastructure, support and community needed to continue making art in the early years of motherhood. “We can change the fact that there’s a huge gap in their CV,” she said, explaining that the lull in productivity during motherhood is often what keeps galleries from supporting women, and yet the lack of productivity is often the result of insufficient child care options.
But child care won’t solve everything. Ms. Gravina says the stigma that surrounds motherhood continues to be an issue. “Just having children,” she said, “in the eye of a lot of galleries and institutions, equals some kind of lack of quality all of a sudden.”
Ms. Judah, the author, who collaborated on a list of guidelines titled “How Not to Exclude Artist Parents,” is also working to change the stereotyped perspective on mothers. “We’ve become used to saying, ‘Here is an undiscovered old woman’ or, ‘Here is this young hot shot straight out of art school,'” she explained, “but we don’t have a narrative for the less sexy, ‘Here is this great woman who’s been looking after her kids for 15 years and is now re-entering the art world.'”
She explained that attaching market value to an archetype, like the young hot shot, can be damaging to everyone. “This idea of big entry and transcendence makes it hard for people who need to take career breaks and come back into the field in their 40s and 50s.”
Victoria Fu, a visual artist and professor based in San Diego, and mother of two, makes it a point to discuss motherhood when she gives lectures to art students, like the one she gave at Washington State University in March. “I didn’t have any real role models,” she said of when she was attending art school. “I want to show them that it’s possible.”
Ms. Fu, while taking care of her baby and 5-year-old, hasn’t completed any works this year. She calls the pandemic, euphemistically, “an extended research and development period,” but while entertaining her son with colored LED lights on the wall, she did come up with an idea for a public art project for which she’s now a finalist.
“It was definitely a result of slowing down and playing more,” she said, showing how motherhood, though time-consuming, can also inspire.
There is still much to be done, but on good days, Dr. McMillan feels hopeful that change is coming, especially as the pandemic has lifted a veil, making the invisible toll of caregiving more visible. “Women artists are asking for more,” she said. “There’s public discussion — ‘I’m having a child and I should be given child care in my funding budget!'”
But she also warned, “Nothing will change until men take more responsibility for domestic labor.”
Ultimately, without more support, motherhood continues to be a struggle, if not a roadblock, for many in artistic careers.
Jasmin Eli-Washington, a painter and mother of three, started three works for an exhibition titled “(s)mother 2.0: care in (a time of) crisis” that will run until May 29 in Ossining, N.Y. But between toothaches, home-school and teaching, she realized she would not finish in time. “I feel like I’m abandoning my artwork for my kids,” she said, “but my kids are like my creations, too, and I’d rather have them finished more than anything.”
Finished or not, her pieces are hanging at the exhibition. They are titled, in what is a sharp reflection of many mothers’ experiences this year, “Unfinished 1,” “Unfinished 2” and “Unfinished 3.”
As for Ms. Asimini, the artist who makes work with her daughter, blending her art and home lives freed her up to investigate motherhood itself, something she’d previously thought was too banal and naive for the art world.
“For the first time in my life, I didn’t judge everything that I was doing. I was just doing it,” she said. “It was so refreshing.”