Interview with Susan Stainman – “Things are much better than they used to be, but they are not equal in the art world and they are not equal in life in general”

Fellowship Artist 2013-2014, artists Susan Stainman talks about her experience in A.I.R., sexism in the art world and gender issues in her generation.

+ about Susan Stainman:

You are a recent member of A.I.R, right?

Yes, I was Fellowship Artist last year. 2013-2014. Then I joined as a member in November in 2014.

How was the experience as Fellowship artist in the gallery?

It was great, I loved it! I had never had a solo exhibition before, so the opportunity to have that was amazing. Then the community of the fellows, the 6 of us, we have continued to be a community and there are 3 of us that have become members. So it’s half of the group. That community was really great. We had also like a mentor, mine was Jane Swavely and I kind of feel she is still my closest member.

And why did you decide to become a member after your experience as a Fellow?

Jane had suggested it after I finished my Fellowship, there was spaces available. I thought “I’ll wait… I’ll wait…”. And then I thought “Why am I waiting?”. I guess I thought there would be something I would wanna do down the line, but I also asked myself, particularly, will I be in New York for ten years? I might not, so I might as well join now. I like also the idea of meeting other members, kind of making connections, building a community of artists. It’s kind of the thing I didn’t have when I moved back to New York 3 years ago. I had friends but I didn’t have a community of artists that I could talk about work, go see shows with, and this has provided a really nice sense of community. And also having a show every other 2 years it’s nice. Where else am I gonna know that I’m gonna have another solo exhibition in 2 or 3 years?

Do you plan to stay in A.I.R?

Yes, as long as I’m in New York. I don’t see why I wouldn’t participate, as long as I have financial sources. I guess that was also one of my hesitations about join. “Can I afford this?”. That’s a discussion that we are having, specially now, moving to the new space. How do you make the organization more inclusive? In terms of age, race, ethnic.

In NYC there are a lot of art organizations, cooperatives. Why do you think it is important to participate of all-women initiative?

Well… I think that I’m kind of always shocked when young women and female artists think that there isn’t such a thing as sexism anymore (laugh). I’m always just shocked! I think it’s really important for women to support women. Things are much better than they used to be, but they are not equal in the art world and they are not equal in life in general. I was having a conversation with someone about the Guerrilla Girls, about them being radical and I was like… “I really don’t think it’s radical!”. So I think it’s really important for spaces like A.I.R. to still exist. I kind of wish it wasn’t important. I kind of wish that A.I.R. didn’t need to exist. But it still does need to exist.

Do you think the art world is still sexist?

For sure. Even when women are represented, they are often not sold at the same prices as men are.

It’s the equal pay problem in the art world.

Yes. And I know it’s kind of subjective how you price work, but definitely women are priced less.

And how do you see your generation about these issues?

It really depends. When I went to art school, I was 6 years older than my colleagues, I had done another undergraduate degree. And so I took a Feminist Art class. I’ve never really considered myself a feminist or like… I sort of thought that feminist was like a “dirty” word (laugh). It wasn’t until this class and listening to my fellow students saying there was no need for it, it doesn’t matter, it’s all fine, it’s all ok, that I was like “Oh, wait. I feel really passionate about this. And you are wrong, don’t you see?”. And it was women saying that, much more than the men. It really shocked me.

So this class kind of changed your mind.

Yes. Well, it didn’t changed necessarily my mind, but my vocalness. And also my work itself, people use to say “your work is feminist”, but what does that mean anyway? Why are you saying my work is feminist? Just because I’m a woman and I use fabric in my work? But now I’m just like… “Ok, fine”. The work is feminist in a sense that part of it does stand from a desire to take something that is considered domestic and give it proper place in the art world.

I was going to bring that up: there are some articles that say in the past some materials and some kinds of art were associated with “women’s art”. Did it happen to you?

Yes. And then it becomes “craft”… I always call it sculpture, I don’t call it fiber arts. It might be just an ego thing but I think it’s also like “ah, fiber arts, that’s less, that’s not part of the mainstream art”.


Plexiglass, Fabric, Elastic. 2014

What’s the role of A.I.R. in your career?

I think, at the moment, it feels like a nice kind of home and also a jumping off point. I think the Fellowship really gave me an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had. And now I have collectors and other people given me more confidence to try to get other shows and other galleries. Also I think that it gives me kind of little bit security of knowing that I will show again soon. I think my studio practice sometimes is like if I don’t have anything to work for I don’t want to work.

How is the dialogue with the other members? Specially because you are part of a new generation in the gallery, and they have members that are there for more than 40 years.

When I’m not in a meeting I feel a little bit shy, but in the meetings I feel like I have a voice, I’m just as valid. It’s interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a organization like that, with 20 women who are all making decisions. But it’s also interesting to think of how social constructions of what women can ask for were playing out in this last meeting. In the last meeting we had a heated discussion about a payment, like “should we pay this people the full amount even though they din’t fulfill their contract?”. And then it was interesting to think that A.I.R. is this feminist organization and it’s empowering women and yet some of those kind of gender dynamics were being played out even though when there were no men in the room. I found it very interesting, something to be aware of. There are all those studies about how women don’t ask for raises, or how women are supposed to ask for raises against how men are supposed to ask for raises. Maybe it’s me, but this is something I think about – how much is my value and am I asking for money? So I was aware that this was being played out in that situation. I’m interested in see what else comes out in terms of those social structures.

Since the 70s, when A.I.R. was created, a lot of things were accomplished by women but there is still a lot to do. What do you think is the questions for women today? Do they remain the same?

I don’t know.. I went to this panel discussion, there were different panels and different discussions and a lot of second-wave feminists. Some of them were saying things about what feminism was and I felt like “I don’t know if I agree with that”. So… what’s the question now? Is it just a women’s question? Because there are also other minorities and men in these minorities too and what is feminism now? I think the basic things of equal rights and equal pay, I think those are still the basic questions. I guess the question is, maybe for me, “Do I take up the space I’m worthy of?”. Do I ask for what I am actually worth? And this is not necessarily a money question. If I value my art work, then I might ask for the opportunities that I feel like are worth. Of course there are all sorts of questions in there, about New York art market and competition, but basically it would be that, am I taking up the space?

So far do you think you are?

Most of the times I think I am.


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