Blog / 2016 / What to Do When Gatekeepers Are Biased

October 13, 2016

The video explains why the article below is not appearing in Professional Artist magazine even though it was supposed to. The homophobic venue that kicked off this whole thing might surprise you. I know that the way some people reacted to this situation surprised me. I am disappointed with Professional Artist magazine, but I’m still glad I wrote this article and I still think that the editor’s responses to it helped me to make it stronger.

What to Do When Gatekeepers Are Biased

It happens all the time. The curator says he really enjoys working with “cute little artist chicks like you.” The arts council asks you to make the lips “not as full” on the main figure in the mural so that more people will be able to relate to the piece. The critic writes about your activist art, but emphasizes that the work is just you “voicing an opinion.” And then, of course, there are the gatekeepers who stonewall, failing to acknowledge you or your work at all.

Faced with these dismissals, many artists are left wondering if it’s their work, their manner, or their connections that fell short. But for some, the questioning goes further. Certain artists face the reality that the gatekeeper may have a problem with their color, gender, sexual orientation, size, ability, age, religion, class, or nationality.

Whether it’s gallerists and art administrators or members of grant commissions and journalists, the people who decide which artists get picked are flawed, like all of us. They are the product of their surroundings, absorbing and repeating the biases of their social group. But there’s no reason for artists to accept bigoted behavior on the part of gatekeepers. Every day, artists choose to not conform. However pleasant and pretty our art is, we are rebels. We can change the world, and we need to, starting with the art world.

Whatever we look like, whoever we love, and however we pray, we can help fight discrimination in the arts. Here’s how:

Recognize that discrimination exists.

When it’s happening to me, my initial reaction is always doubt. No matter how many times my gender or my queer identity provoke discomfort—no matter how many times they end up complicating my career—my first response to discrimination is denial.

It’s not surprising that sexism and homophobia are hard for me to process. I’m white, so there have always been people who look like me on television and in politics. I’ve never had to be afraid that a police officer might harass me based solely on the color of my skin. I've never had to worry about whether or not I could safely move into a nice neighborhood. In other words, my whiteness means that people generally treat me pretty well; more importantly, it means that I sometimes have a hard time believing it when people don’t. I just can’t quite fathom that someone would notice my gender or my sexual orientation and use them as reasons to crap on me.

Worse still, my attitude makes it hard for me to see bigoted behavior against other people. My disbelief in the face of discrimination becomes the insult added to the injury. And I know I’m not alone in contributing to the hurt.

Listen to the experiences of others.

As artist Mark Anthony Martinez describes it, “if you’re a person who calls out oppressive behavior for what it is, you get labeled as ‘angry.’ Eventually, your colleagues start avoiding you altogether or you start avoiding them, just to feel sane. I don't really know which happens first.”

Working in multiple mediums, Martinez creates art that explores the concept of whiteness. He thinks about identity in terms of power and privilege, and the resulting art is both challenging and insightful.

Similarly, the paintings of Eric Telfort open up a dialogue. He portrays himself and other African Americans recreating moments of childhood dress-up, making images that are comical and approachable for audiences of any color, but their point is clear. The black experience of the day-to-day is fogged over by the white-as-default filter that society puts on everything.

In dealing with discrimination, Telfort points out that hurtful behavior is sometimes more a misunderstanding than an opposition. He encourages artists to come together with those who’ve discriminated against them in order to talk things through. At the same time, he says that the subtle racism that creeps into much of art criticism can make it hard to gauge the value of what’s being said. This, in turn, puts a wall up between the artist and the conversation around their work—hardly the ideal situation for someone who wants to make art that matters.

Ask for help.

You don’t have to confront discrimination alone. In fact, you shouldn’t. Society creates and perpetuates the fear of differences, and we have to work together to dismantle it.

When fighting a gatekeeper’s bigotry, well-placed or well-connected advocates can be a huge help. These include gallery owners or art administrators from a different institution, along with other artists or anyone who might have a relationship with the problematic gatekeeper. The advocate can talk with the gatekeeper privately and help them to reconsider their actions.

If you’re having trouble finding an advocate, you can instead tell your story publicly. This can be done with or without naming the gatekeeper and on any platform available, from social media to a syndicated news outlet. The goal is to turn an exchange between an artist and an institution into a broader conversation, inviting more people to learn from the situation and become advocates.

These narratives are vital. Martinez, who is also the Visual Arts Director at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas, explains how, earlier this year, the institution had to pull the plug on an exhibit after the featured artists had been announced. The show, which was curated by a group that was partnering with the Center, was supposed to celebrate local contemporary art. While the exhibit’s roster of artists were all female, none were Latina. This was a problem considering that 63% of San Antonio’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latinx—the gender-neutral term for Latina or Latino—and that part of the Center’s mission is to promote Latinx art. The decision to cut the show in such a public way prompted important conversations, made the guest curators reevaluate their role in the community, and sparked new interest in the city’s Latinx art audience.

Create space for marginalized voices.

The painter and sculptor Manuel Palacio sees the tendency to set up special venues as a kind of self-segregation. But, big or small, these institutions can play an important role in promoting the art of those who do not usually get the spotlight. As Martinez puts it: “There is healing and knowledge in giving others voice and listening.”

Kyra Coates founded Infuse Gallery for this reason. At Infuse, artists from marginalized communities show alongside career artists, and a percentage of all sales goes to the gallery’s nonprofit partners. So far, Infuse is working with the Central Asia Institute which builds schools for Muslim girls, Reach Studio which provides art training for the homeless, and Creativity Explored which provides art education for adults with developmental disabilities. And it's these same nonprofits that connect Infuse to the artists from marginalized populations who sell their work through the gallery. In other words, Infuse provides a platform for artists who might not otherwise get seen, while also ensuring that these artists have access to the training and materials they need.

Avoid becoming your own censor.

Palacio thinks art educators are the worst discriminators: “Everything taught to me was based on a white supremacist worldview.” He enjoyed art school, but he sees himself as “indoctrinated with art talk” and he acknowledges that the most insidious form of discrimination is self-discrimination. When you’re a part of an oppressed community, it’s very easy to learn to downplay the parts of yourself that aren’t considered mainstream enough.

Education can be the enforcer, as Palacio describes it, but it is also the only possible liberator. Coates points to the women who benefit from the work of the Central Asia Institute. Through access to the education that their sisters have been denied, these women are beginning to change the culture around them. And, as Martinez says, unless white people or people who can pass for white have read a lot about racism, they will almost certainly dismiss the discrimination that people of color deal with.

Education exposes us to different ways of seeing the world. It’s where empathy comes from, and it’s what will change our fearful behavior, but only if we are vigilant about not censoring ourselves as well.

Stand up for others.

A few years ago, I ran across this quote from the comedian W. Kamau Bell:

“People who are fighting for oppressed people should only be allowed to work for the group that’s one over from them. Black people should only be allowed to work for the Mexican immigrants’ struggle in America. Mexican immigrants should only be allowed to work for gay marriage. Gay marriage should only be allowed to work for black people. I feel like if we stepped one group over, I think we would get things done a lot quicker.”

It’s a simple idea and it’s easy enough to implement. For example, what if every time you read an article about a white cis-gendered able-bodied artist you searched out the work of an artist of color? Or promoted the art of a transgendered artist on your social media? Or blogged about a disabled artist?

If you notice that your city’s public art program gives commissions mostly to straight artists, write the committee a letter suggesting queer ones it might consider. When a fat female artist gives you an example of the sizeism and sexism she has had to put up with from an arts administrator, tell her story to others. Seek out the venues in your community that are dedicated to diversity and inclusion; support them.

Make it your business to amplify the marginalized voices in every way you can, even when it requires a lot of work or when it opens up discussions that are difficult. You may say the wrong thing or offend someone along the way, but at least you’ll be trying to make things better. You’ll be challenging that nervous silence, and you’ll be changing the world.

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