Help Desk

Help Desk: The Penis Award

Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

I am a midcareer (female) artist married to an established (male) artist. Throughout our relationship I have endured innumerable comments and actions that validate my husband and cast me into the shadows. At social events I will be standing by my husband as he is introduced as an artist, and I am introduced with only my first name (if introduced at all). In one particularly memorable/awful dinner after an opening, his gallerist at the time literally told me to get up from my seat because “artists sit at this table, wives and girlfriends are over there” (meaning another table). I get that he is more established than I am, but I also have an MFA, frequently show my work, am invited to give artist talks, and teach at a university. Recently we collaborated on a project—which overall was a good experience—but I am dismayed to see social-media posts that only credit him. On the night of the opening, one of the gallery staff said to me, “Isn’t [husband’s name]’s installation great?!” We had both attended meetings at the gallery (with this person in attendance), had both been included on logistical emails (with this person cc’ed), both responded to requests for information, and it was obvious that the two of us brought separate components to the installation. Yet I was erased. The times I have spoken up to correct these situations (saying, “I’m an artist too!”) have been awkward, and I know I come across as a bitch, petty, insecure, etc. The sexism of the art world astounds me…but I’m not sure what I can do.

Nancy Spero. Picasso and Frederick's of Hollywood, 1990; handprinted collage on paper; two parts, each 17.25 x 109.625 in.

Nancy Spero. Picasso and Frederick’s of Hollywood, 1990; handprinted collage on paper; two parts, each 17.25 x 109.625 in.

Thank you for this question, even though it gave me flashbacks. I, too, am a woman artist with a male-artist partner, and have experienced similar treatment. I remember being goggle-eyed with astonishment when a nonprofit director heartily thanked my husband for his contribution to their annual fundraising auction—a contribution of my artwork that I had donated! No doubt thousands of other women could provide comparable examples. A friend and I call the automatic credit that men seem to accrue merely by existing the penis award. And it’s atrocious.

Your plaintive, “I was erased,” breaks my heart. This is the fundamental charge of sexism—that women are not full human beings who deserve equal respect, attention, pay, healthcare, or credit for their accomplishments. The message is that you are less than your husband. This is gravely injurious, not only directly to you, but to your business partnerships, your potential friendships, your marriage, and your sanity.

Sexism must be tackled head-on, and women can’t be the only ones on the battlefield. Therefore, the first thing that has to happen is that your husband has to start speaking up on your behalf when these attacks occur in front of him. In introductions, if you are sidelined by, “…and this is his wife,” he must say, “Jane Lastname. My wife is also an artist, and we sometimes collaborate.” If someone barks at you to sit at the “wives’ table”—oh, how odious is this phrase!—he must step in and say, “There must be a misunderstanding. Jane is also an artist.” When articles and Instagram posts and tweets are published citing only your husband for work that is collaborative, he must split with you the labor of contacting the authors and requesting a correction. Men are responsible for patriarchy, and thus are at least 50 percent responsible for dismantling it.

But what about the times when your husband isn’t there? When correcting someone makes you feel like “a bitch, petty, insecure”? This is where some scripts and roleplay can come in handy. What would a secure response look and sound like? Consider this: You are only stating facts. I am an artist. This work was a collaboration. Your article contains a citation that is incorrect. I want you to imagine every scenario in which you have been erased, ignored, and slighted. Write your memories down. Then rewrite the scenarios as a series of short scripts in which the snubs are the same but you are playing a slightly different self—a cool, magnanimous character who is sadly and temporarily surrounded by intellectual lightweights. Think two parts Rosalind Russell, one part Mr. T. It might go something like this:

Gallery staff: Isn’t [husband’s name]’s installation great?!

You: [deep breath, charming smile, small genuine laugh, eye contact like laser beams] I’m glad you think so! He and I collaborated, I’m happy to hear that our work is successful.

My dear, you are a queen—regardless of who does or does not recognize it—and if you aren’t yet adept at handing out a correction that drips with long-suffering noblesse oblige, go study the movie Auntie Mame and then take your scripts into the bathroom and practice in the mirror until you feel more comfortable with straightening these simpletons out. Unfortunately, we live in a world full of people who have either never learned or are unwilling to behave with egalitarianism. These situations are something you will continue to deal with, so why not build an arsenal of strategies that allow you to navigate other people’s idiotic failings with elan? You won’t fix the world in a single go, but at least you’ll have some fun with it. The best middle finger is the one that’s raised with gaiety.

If you’re not already meeting with other women artists, please look for groups (or start your own) that can help support your practice and your overall mental health: Meetup, a campus group of fellow art-faculty members, ArtTable, and Women’s Caucus for Art are just a few suggestions. Try to meet regularly with other women, and work out a few strategic plans for supporting each other in the studio, at openings, and on social media. If we can’t rely on the penis award, we ought to be able to rely on each other. Good luck!