Last year, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio presented the city’s museums and arts boards with some startling numbers on diversity, or the lack thereof, among museum staff. De Blasio, who threatened to strip funding from arts organizations that didn’t prioritize diversifying their staff, sent a wake-up call not only to the arts leadership of New York, but to museums, galleries and exhibition spaces across the country. Though San Antonio hasn’t faced the same level of demand from city officials to address these issues in the city’s arts and cultural communities, the impacts of a non-diverse group of arts decision-makers has caused a disruption in recent years.
A group of San Antonio women is working to overcome to these challenges.
Claudia Zapata, a San Antonio artist and Southern Methodist University Ph.D candidate, and Artpace Executive Director Veronique Le Melle, along with seven other women active in the local arts community, recently formed the Creative Women’s Alliance. The organization is dedicated to equipping women artists of color with the tools, lessons and resources they need to compete for exhibition space, grants, residencies and recognition.
Rounded out by graphic designer Isabel Ann Castro, consultant and curator Chris Davila, self-portrait artist and Más Rudas co-founder Mari Hernandez, artist and entrepreneur Ana Fernandez, Más Rudas co-founder Kristin G., Artpace teen programs coordinator Ashley Mireles and Southwest School of Art young artists programs director Patricia Morales, the Creative Women’s Alliance aims to prepare the next generation of minority women to challenge the structure that’s placed arts leadership in the hands of their white, male peers.
Le Melle arrived in San Antonio on the heels of what she calls a “breach in the city’s artist community,” when an SA2020 panel titled “Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts” generated controversy for neglecting to include a Latina artist in the discussion. Ironically, that panel arose from a Contemporary Art Month exhibition that got canceled after the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center pulled out as host venue because of the show’s lack of Latina representation.
“After a couple of months of complaints, we saw no action,” Le Melle says. So she decided to channel her and others’ frustrations into something productive for artists who are not represented in the city’s more mainstream exhibitions and events. While foregoing terms like “leader” (Le Melle believes that artists should be their own leaders) and “mentor,” the group hopes to guide a community of underrepresented creative professionals — from emerging artists to aspiring museum directors — to develop their voices and demand a seat at the table.
In a 2017 report by the American Alliance of Museums, a survey of 100 museum directors and 841 museum board and chair members across the nation found that 93 percent of museum board directors, 92.6 percent of museum chair members and 89.3 percent of museum board members identified as Caucasian, while only 2 percent of museum directors identified as Black/African American and only 3 percent identified as Hispanic or Latino. Those numbers were even lower for museum directors who identified as Asian, American Indian/Alaskan Native or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, which made up 0.7 percent, 1 percent and 0.4 percent, respectively. The numbers for chairs and board members who identified as anything other than Caucasian were also devastatingly low compared to those who identified as white.
The survey also found that 46 percent of all museum boards in the U.S. are 100 percent white — a number that 64 percent of museum directors and 42 percent of museum chairs are “extremely or somewhat unsatisfied” with.
So why aren’t museums diversifying their leadership? That question is at the heart of what the Creative Women’s Alliance is determined to address, beginning with women looking to start their art careers in San Antonio.
During her tenure at Artpace, Le Melle says she’s seen a unique weakness among San Antonio’s budding artists: They don’t know how to defend their work. The ability to fluidly articulate one’s ideas and intersectionalities is a skill that takes practice — one that benefits from being challenged, questioned and critiqued. At times, that skill is the key to landing a residency or exhibition. It’s also a skill the Creative Women’s Alliance promises to hone during forthcoming workshops dedicated to networking, communication and crafting writer’s statements. “They can have all the correct letters behind their name — BFA, MFA — but that doesn’t mean they’re ready as an artist,” Le Melle says.
She makes a strong point. Earning a degree in art or art history doesn’t guarantee a finessed resume or translate into a museum job or inclusion in exhibitions. Of the three Bachelor of Fine Arts programs offered in San Antonio — through the University of Texas at San Antonio, Trinity University and the Southwest School of Art — only the Southwest School of Art’s degree plan includes courses on professionalism, a mandatory class at both the junior and senior level. Though UTSA’s Master of Fine Arts program offers a Graduate Studies Seminar and MFA Exhibition courses, the practical skills needed to become a working artist often take a back seat to technique and creativity.
What we need, Zapata says, is to demand more. While she admits that “San Antonio does a good job [with] artist talks and programs,” one-time events don’t leave much of a lasting impression. And without criticism, “you have no documentation, and then it’s like those artists and their work never existed.”
For Kristin G., it’s important to “‘arm’ women artists with the tools they need … so they are so geared up and ready for that art world, that they can’t be missed, because they are empowered to create, apply to art opportunities, and ready to share and talk about their artwork.” At its core, the Creative Women’s Alliance is all about establishing a network of women that will “provide avenues of inspiration [and] collaboration and support professional opportunities” within the city’s arts community.
Moving forward, Creative Women’s Alliance workshops and discussions will focus on topics ranging from social media and documentation to networking, taxes and legal aspects of the art world. After an initial mixer where the organizers met to discuss workshop topics, “local [women artists of color] told us what they needed,” Kristin G. says, “and our workshop series was born.”
For details on upcoming Creative Women’s Alliance workshops and events, stay tuned to @creativewomensalliance on Facebook
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