The studio visit is a vital place of exchange between the private creative life of an artist and the wider commercial and institutional worlds of the market and museum. But when an element of the art world is both commonplace and essential to its functioning, it deserves to be scrutinized, especially from the perspective of women artists and other populations the art world has systematically underserved.
In her book Seven Days in the Art World (2008), author Sarah Thornton spends one of her precious days at a studio visit with Japanese art world star Takashi Murakami. The visit is focused on observing the studio mechanism whir, buffered by studio assistants and mediated by gallerists with international reputations. But the studio life of very few artists (and even fewer women artists) looks like that of Murakami. What about the strata of artists working below this level, for whom the studio is more creative sanctuary than art factory, and for whom a studio visit can be a fraught invasion of personal and emotional space?
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At its core, a studio visit offers an opportunity for an artist to share her work with a potential collector, interested curator, critic, or scholar. In other words, many visits are defined by an unequal power dynamic playing out between two people in a private space. In the #MeToo era, this is a formula we can all recognize to be fraught, especially for women, though when I reached out to the women artists in my network — via my mailing list, Instagram, and word of mouth — the number of eager responses made it clear this was a subject on the minds of many, but on the lips of few. The fear, discomfort, hesitation, and, ultimately, lost opportunities engendered by a system that depends on studio visits reveals just one more facet of an art world that disadvantages women artists.
Numerous women shared instances of unwelcome propositions, verbal abuse, sexual assault, and harassment. Artist Barbara Rosenthal recounted the excruciating story of her rape at the hands of a man who took advantage of her when invited to her space during an artist residency in a foreign country. “The burden for protecting themselves against sexual predators shouldn’t be on artists,” said sculptor Juliana Cerqueira Leite, and yet, there is very little explicit consideration of safety at residencies, studio buildings, and open studios.
Without an art-world-wide concern for the well-being of a workforce that largely creates in isolation, women artists have to take their safety into their own hands, often relying on each other for intel on potential studio visitors. “I check the visitor out before they come,” said Kansas City-based Jan Schoonover, “Artists can be gossipy. I am. So if someone is a jerk, I do not have them visit.”
The importance of a strong network is reiterated by painter Alissa Massey: “It is incredibly important to build your community and find those you can lean on and trust. The artist’s journey seems to be glorified as a solo mission, but it is not.”
A network might offer solace in the studio, but is of little use against safety concerns while commuting to it. A New York City-based artist told of the compromises she makes when choosing where to rent space: “As a woman, I did not feel comfortable renting a larger and cheaper studio in an industrial zone [because] walking to the subway at night felt unsafe.” This issue was of particular concern for one Asian-American woman artist, who severely limited her time in the studio as she felt uncomfortable commuting due to the recent rise in violence against Asian Americans.
For others, the cost of any studio is out of the question. Instead, they find space within their own homes, whether in a spare bedroom or on the kitchen table. For these artists, studio visits are almost impossible, as the exposure of sharing a personal address with relative strangers is not worth any potential upside. “You are letting someone enter your entire life,” said Leemour Pelli, “since my studio is in my home it puts me … in a very vulnerable position.”
Many spoke of how exhausting a studio visit can be and the ways visitors can abuse their time and hospitality. “Even if they’re nice and friendly, I think a studio visit should be limited to 60-90 minutes,” said artist Sally Brown.
Many women expressed similar frustration with their guests’ uneven assumption of generosity, finding it to be another instance of women doing unpaid labor. Ava Wanbli, a digital artist based in Chicago, finds the expectation that she takes on the “identity education labor” of explaining herself as a trans woman exhausting, especially as it can keep her from discussing the content of her art.
“It feels skewed,” she said, of the amount of effort she has to expend for a studio visitor who doesn’t “come prepared to have a dialogue.” For a studio visit to work, both people “have to do labor for each other.” Artist Erin Butler feels similarly: “I always feel the onus is on me to make [visitors] feel comfortable,” she said, “but that really does go both ways!”
Finding a place of equality is the crux of successful studio visits, and women artists have plenty of ideas on how to ensure a feeling of mutual trust. “I recently saw an artist state that artists should not do studio visits for free,” said painter Jordan Ann Craig, “This … struck me because studio visits take time to prepare and participate in. I sometimes walk away from them feeling vulnerable and exhausted.”
Payment is one way to right an imbalance of labor and power (artists could treat the visit fee as a deposit, deducting it from the price of any pieces purchased), especially as a means to deter those with ulterior motives. Tickets might also be an excellent way to protect participants of open studio events (coordinated weekends when artists in a certain area open their doors to strangers), as many women I spoke with expressed dismay at the lack of consideration for their safety during these weekends.
Valerie Arntzen recognized this concern when organizing “First Saturday Open Studios,” a monthly program in Vancouver, Canada, making sure to include a section about safety on its website. “Use the buddy system when at all possible,” the website reads. “You could offer a friend art lessons and when visitors come it could be a jumping-off point to start a conversation. If you are in a bigger building check on each other once in a while.”
Others suggest that open studios and other art events refrain from the common practice of advertising free food and alcohol, as these additions draw individuals uninterested in engaging in the art.
Without these measures in place, several artists I spoke with noted they did not participate in these open studio weekends (one artist said she was “horrified” at the idea), meaning they’ve missed out on opportunities to sell and share their work with a wider audience. “Luckily virtual studio visits are more common now,” said Massey. “If I am truly unsure … I would start there.”
Adverse studio experiences often have repercussions that extend beyond them. After a traumatic incident of sexual harassment at an open studio event years ago, artist Beth Reisman found herself hesitant to invite male writers or curators over to see her work.
“As a young artist, this invitation was too often misconstrued as a sign that I was interested in some kind of sexual relationship,” Reisman lamented. “I had given no indication of this interest in any way but I found that this was always in the way of me being seen as a professional who was just networking and sharing my work. I truly believe it kept me from ‘getting my work out there’.”
Unfortunately, Reisman was not the only artist I spoke with who was certain she lost out on sales, exposure, or networking opportunities because of concerns for her emotional and physical well-being. To add to the terror and humiliation of her assault, Rosenthal suffered professionally as well. “I could not go to do the performance the following day. I was quite sore, and stayed in bed,” she explained. “One of the results was that I’d missed a visit by [my] artists’ books and prints dealer, and she wasn’t happy that I’d advertised an event but didn’t appear for it. That was very unprofessional of me, I know, but I never told her, or anyone, until now, why.”
Sharing stories and vocalizing these issues is one step towards finding a system of studio visits that works for every artist. “There is no other way we can create better working relationships than by asking these sometimes uncomfortable questions and raising a new and better standard of working,” said Massey.
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The art world deals in silences like Rosenthal’s, broken yet recalcitrant systems, and the preservation of the status quo. None can remain if we have any hope of building an equitable world for women artists.