PIPAF is emerging quickly in the plein air movement. But in terms of gender equality, it’s already a leader.
View From Back Street Oil on Panel, by Chantel Julien was the 2017 PIPAF Best in Show winner. (Photo courtesy Parrsboro Creative)
Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival has emerged quickly as an important contender in the plein air scene. It attracts big-name artists, sales are increasing, and visitation is up. But there’s one way in which I hope it remains unchanged: gender equality.
Each year since its inception, the grand prize winner has been a woman artist: Chantel Julien, Nancy Tankersley, and Poppy Balser. (A hat tip to Becky McAndrews for noticing this.) And it didn’t stop with the top prizes, either. The lists have been remarkably fair-handed.
At most plein air competitions, top prizes are taken by male artists. Some sponsors have tried to address this by alternating between male and female jurors, but have found that the gender of the juror doesn’t make much difference. Painting is one of the last bastions in western culture where men’s work is perceived as more valuable than women’s work.
Nancy Tankersley was the 2018 PIPAF Best in Show winner. (Photo courtesy Parrsboro Creative)
This imbalance is unfortunately not just for dead artists. A data-mining exercise last year found that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) collection is only 11% women-made. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 18% of the artists are female.
A search of MoMA’s database reveals one painting by Lois Dodd, View through Elliot's Shack Looking South, which they acquired a few years ago. Meanwhile, there are 86 works on their website for her contemporary and peer, Alex Katz.
Is gender in the eye of the beholder? Identifying cultural attitudes with art auction prices, by Adams, Kräussl, Navone and Verwijmeren, found that women’s art in the secondary market traded at a 47.6% discount. It was worse in misogynistic cultures, and better in western nations. However, the world’s new wealth is being minted in those misogynistic places. That doesn’t bode well for the future of women’s art.
The Romantic ideal of the Cult of Genius underlies much of the misogyny of the modern art world, because Genius was thought to be a male trait. “Underlying the question about woman as artist, then, we find the myth of the Great Artist—subject of a hundred monographs, unique, godlike—bearing within his person since birth a mysterious essence, rather like the golden nugget in Mrs. Grass’s chicken soup, called Genius or Talent, which, like murder, must always out, no matter how unlikely or unpromising the circumstances,” wrote Linda Nochlin in a ground-breaking feminist essay in 1971.
Sunset Glow at the Weir, by Poppy Balser was the 2019 PIPAF Best in Show winner. (Photo courtesy Parrsboro Creative)
The great virtue of plein air painting is that it rejects the Cult of Genius in favor of craftsmanship and hard work. And despite its lack of recognition in the art establishment, it is the first new art movement in decades, and overall one of the greatest in art history.
Adams, et al sought to burst the idea—once and for all—that art prices reflected any difference in quality between male and female painters. They devised two experiments where paintings were assigned arbitrary genders. In both cases, knowledgeable buyers appreciated paintings less when they thought the artist was female. Ouch.
But in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, the tide is turning. I can’t credit Canadian culture for this: two of the three jurors have been American. Nor is it a case of women jurors crediting women painters, because two of the three jurors were male. However it happened, it’s wonderful to see prizes awarded to women painters.