“Women Influencing the Arts”: Why Start It?

Over the past two years of graduate school, I have become increasingly interested and aware of the topic of women in the arts. Some of the issues which have stood out to me are: challenges faced by women in the field; the lack of influence in leadership roles; and the underrepresentation of women both on and off the stage. My interest in focusing on female voices and influence stems from my own personal journey of dealing with issues arising due to my gender.

In May of 2015, I attended the 2015 Opera America Conference. During the conference there were many sessions, presentations, and panel discussions pertaining to what it took to be a successful opera company in the 21st Century. The one which stood out to me the most was Women in Arts Leadership. In a room full of female leaders (and a few very supportive men) we discussed the lack of women in leadership roles within opera, issues in the field, personal perspectives and experience with barriers, as well as changes we (women in the field) would like to see in the field. Leaving the room I felt as though I was part of a revolution. A movement. I felt as though I was a part of something important and was inspired to continue digging deeper.

My first glimpse into better understanding women in the arts was to examine the influence of female leadership within organizations. I located and interviewed three Executive Directors of arts organizations and asked them about their personal experiences in the field including: their own inspiration for joining the field; struggles they have faced which they believe is due to their gender; and any advice they could provide for young and emerging women professionals in the field.

To my surprise, nobody had any “struggles” to speak of. I thought to myself, how could this be true with all of the studies being conducted showing the disparaging numbers of women in the field in areas such as leadership, directing, composing, exhibitions, music festival lineups, etc.? For example, according to an article written by Alanna Vagianos titled, Music Festivals’ Glaring Woman Problem out of 10 major music festivals, “women artists (single performers or all-women groups) made up only 12% of acts in 2016 — compared to 78% male performers (single or all-male groups).” According to a preliminary research survey done by OPERA America, there has been “an actual decline in the number of women in leadership positions at all levels of opera companies over the last 16 years. While the general numbers seem to indicate a steady increase in female leaders, the ratios to male leaders in the same positions show a decrease of between 4 to 8 percent from 1990.”

During the twentieth and so far in the twenty-first century, Women have certainly made great strides in creating a more equal work force, and a more equal world in general, from women’s suffrage (ratified in 1920) to women’s centered journals and magazines i.e. Bella Magazine, educational opportunities specifically designed for the empowerment and advancement of women (for example college degrees in Women’s and Gender Studies), National Equal Pay Day, and Women’s Leadership Conferences. While all of these showcase a woman’s strength, perseverance, and tenacity, and should by no means be undermined, women, especially in leadership roles (both formal and informal) in many fields in the arts remain underrepresented.

To address this issue, organizations including  OPERA America and American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) have begun focusing research and programming directly for women in the field. OPERA America has started the Women’s Opera Network which is an online platform meant to educate people on the issues facing women as well as creating a space for young professionals to connect with established women in the opera sector. ACT has partnered with Wellesley Center for Women to launch the Women’s Leadership Project. The purpose of this project is to research the lack of women in leadership roles within theatre. They will also be hosting their first “Women’s Leadership Project” conference in August of 2016 to begin the conversation on gender equality in theatre.

While these efforts are centered on specific fields, some universities have also begun creating programming highlighting women in the arts on a broader scope. Armstrong State University has created the annual Women in the Arts Symposium where they invite students to present on contributions made to the fields of visual and performing arts by women as well as issues faced by women in the arts. In March of 2016 Cornell University opened up their annual President’s Council of Cornell Women Symposium to focus on women in the arts. Alumnae in publishing, acting, film, and music business came to speak on their work as well as issues facing women in the arts.

The Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, right here in southwest Virginia, holds a Women’s Leadership Conference for local business women. While this is beneficial to all who attend, the arts sector is in fact different from the corporate sector. Here on the Virginia Tech Campus there are multiple programs for women. For example: The Women’s Center hosts an annual Women’s Leadership and Mentoring Program for those interested in pursuing a career in higher education administration; Virginia Tech and the American Physical Society will be hosting a Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics in the spring of 2017; and the School of Engineering features housing specifically for female engineers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2012-2013 women earned 61 percent of all bachelor degrees, 57 percent of all master’s degrees, and 53 percent of all doctoral degrees in the Visual and Performing Arts field. Virginia Tech has a robust program for the arts and it only continues to grow and yet there are no programs tailored to foster their growth as emerging women in the arts.

I began thinking of my time as an undergraduate student and then as a young emerging professional in the field. I had always hoped for mentorship and personal connections  to gain experience. Of course, I did have the guidance and input of my professors, but I wanted to learn from other established women in the field as well.

A combination of reflecting on my past as an undergraduate student, the trends in the field, as well as the need for a program for women on Virginia Tech’s campus led me to develop a speaker series focused on celebrating what it means to be a woman in the field. Part of celebrating “where” you are in your journey, whether it be in school or applying your skills in the field, is the ability to recognize challenges one encounters along the way. This speaker series is meant to do both. It is meant to celebrate the presenting artists while addressing issues and challenges women have faced and will face while pursuing a career in the arts.

I couldn’t just stop at creating the series. Along the way , I have had the honor of meeting some fascinating and fabulous women; I have read about influential women who impact the arts on all levels; And, I’ve learned about performances and projects women arts leaders and arts makers are creating right here in Blacksburg, VA. I wanted to create a place where these women could be recognized and honored.

I welcome everyone to participate in the conversation and the celebration of Women Influencing the Arts. Are there women you admire in the field? How have they influenced you? Let me know!

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