Last semester a student came to me for some advice. “What do I do?”, she said, “What do I do when I am confronted with casual sexism from my professors and classmates? I don’t want to be the person who is constantly educating others on how to treat me as a human person, a human person who happens to be in a lady shaped container, but a human none-the-less.” I was honored that she felt comfortable enough to come to me for this advice, and yet dismayed that this was her experience, one that I strongly identified with.
I told her to make her actions and life an answer. I told her to accept that she has deep power and she has choices as to how she uses that power. That while our institutions retain bias, conscious and unconscious, she as an individual can live as a person of agency and power. “Create boundaries, calmly and clearly communicate what behaviors and comments you find unacceptable. And create opportunity” I said. “curate shows, instigate projects, find the people and organizations you want to work with and then create opportunities for each other.”
Today I have the opportunity to fall back on my own advice. I’m in Portland OR for an academic conference. Southern Graphics Council International Conference (SGCI) is a professional ‘conference of record’ for Printmaking academics. It is an institution. It confers legitimacy to presenters and exhibitors. SGCI is a way to obtain peer standing in the field of printmaking and in fine arts.
I didn’t register. The conference is far too expensive for my budget as an independent artist who is living an adjunct lifestyle. Since starting grad school in 2009 there has been but one year when I made more than $24,000 in a year. But I’m here to exhibit work, see print exhibitions and visit with colleagues and my dear friends. I’m here to luxuriate in the community that I have built and am so often so far from.
SGCI creates a framework for us to share research, build community and to learn from each other. And every year I am grateful that we have the opportunity to meet in one place to exchange with each other.
This year, part of the exchange has been a general sense of dismay over the glaring lack of diversity in the programming of key-note speakers for the conference. As artists and academics we have the opportunity to direct our viewers’ attention to topics we find important. It is unacceptable for an organization that serves to advance the professional standing of printmakers to consciously or unconsciously exclude a plurality of voices from that advancement through lazy programming choices.
And then that guy said that thing.
During the panel discussion for James Rosenquist’s Lifetime Achievement Award Maurice Sanchez made a glaringly (to most everyone but him) sexist comment. He related an anecdotal Robert Motherwell quote that printmaking is a dance. Sanchez then expanded upon that sentiment to state (in summary) that as a collaborative printer he knows what it’s like to be a woman, to not lead but follow.
And with that one comment, I know that I will not be working with or paying much attention to Maurice Sanchez.
It is my attention, my viewership, readership, engagement, my community, my time and resources that you lose if you reveal yourself to be ignorant. If you are ignorant of the intense, day after day, effort to retain footholds and break new ground in social and cultural institutions, let alone personal relationships, to allow for a plurality of experience and identities, then you are not welcome to work with me and my community.
I am a leader, I know what it is like to be a person who walks away from outdated modes of legitimacy and from institutions and people who no longer serve the collective good. I am a leader, one who sees power in collaboration and plurality. I am a leader, someone who earns trust and shares knowledge.
If organizations, institutions, and individuals wish to retain a position of relevancy and viability in the minds and lives of their members, colleagues, and community then they can not ignore that long-term exclusion from the collective narrative and hierarchal power has created unequal access to power, cultural value and opportunity for anyone whose experience is anything but white male.
So, SGCI, use your framework of legitimacy to advance a plurality of experiences and voices that have been left behind or traditionally excluded. Change the collective narrative to reflect the identity of your viewers and constituents. In other words, SGCI, be a better leader.