Designing Conversations for Change

Braving post-blizzard traffic conditions in D.C., nearly 100 guests attended the museum’s third FRESH TALK—part of the new public programs initiative Women, Arts, and Social Change. On Wednesday, January 27, FRESH TALK: Can design be genderless? featured Netherlands-based designer Gabriel Ann Maher, whose work is on view in Pathmakers, and International New York Times design critic Alice Rawsthorn.

Design historian and critic Rawsthorn kicked off the evening with an overview of design, highlighting the ways design informs everyday life and how it is often gender-biased. She discussed the increasingly eclectic and fluid concept of gender identity and how it impacts design culture through digital technology.

Gabriel Maher speaks at NMWA; Photo: Kevin Allen

Gabriel Maher speaks at NMWA; Photo: Kevin Allen

Maher, a designer who identifies as gender fluid, investigates gender through design media. Maher dissected issues of the Dutch magazine FRAME to reveal perpetuated stereotypes of “male” and “female”—from article titles to depictions of men and women designers.

Maher explained how designers direct people’s self-presentation—through clothing that accentuates body shape, or through the act of sitting, in which people claim or relinquish space.

In one of the night’s most repeated and tweeted statements, Maher declared, “Design is inherently genderless but it is designers who create gendered objects.”

The presentations wrapped with a moderated conversation led by NMWA Director of Public Programs Lorie Mertes. Rawsthorn and Maher explored ways that design could become more inclusive—from genderless bathroom signage to TSA body scanners (which are based on an algorithm for male or female forms). The speakers reflected on cultures that embrace and revere multiple concepts of gender. Both pondered how the internet can be a tool for change.

Fresh Talk speakers with guests during Catalyst cocktail hour; Photos: Kevin Allen

FRESH TALK speakers with guests during Catalyst cocktail hour; Photos: Kevin Allen

At Catalyst, a cocktail hour with a topic and a twist, guests became impassioned participants in a conversation sparked by the presentations. They became friends with fellow attendees, discussed perspectives, and focused on actionable steps for change. Here are a few highlights:

1. Seeing the world with new eyes.

Guests felt more aware of their built environments. They began to consider how the world is constructed and how design can create obstacles for gender-fluid people.

2. Empathy is the name of the game.

Attendees introduced themselves and shared details of their identities—which many had never considered aloud. Guests gained a greater understanding of the LGBTQ community, discussed how gender stereotypes are ingrained, and considered the impact of gender labels.

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Left and right: Participants discuss gender and ideas for change; Photos: Kevin Allen

3. Your ideas for social change matter.

Guests were surprised to have such meaningful conversations about the world from inside a museum. Instead of a traditional Q&A, guests provided their own strategies for change. Via comment cards, they completed the phrase “My idea of social change is…”

  • “discuss, discuss, discuss.”
  • “acceptance. Great event!”
  • “to be inclusive.”
  • “looking for new spaces and forums for conversation and questioning.”

The conversation continues online with #FreshTalk4Change. Visit the museum’s website to watch event videos. The recordings of FRESH TALK: Can design be genderless? will be available soon.

Don’t miss the next program, FRESH TALK: Natalie Jeremijenko, Wednesday, March 2. Artist and engineer Natalie Jeremijenko teams up with Jean Case and Megan Smith to discuss “Can an artist use science and technology to heal the environment?”

—Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell is the public programs coordinator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Righting the Balance: It Doesn’t Stop Here

NMWA’s latest initiative, Women, Arts, and Social Change, kicked off Sunday, October 18, with FRESH TALK: Righting the Balance. The new public program focuses on women and the arts as catalysts for change through a series of “Fresh Talks.”

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FRESH TALK panelists, Left: Maura Reilly, Sarah Douglas, and Jillian Steinhauer, Right: Guerrilla Girl Alma Thomas, Micol Hebron, Ghada Amer, and Simone Leigh; Photo: Kevin Allen

Women at the top of their art-world careers addressed the topic, “Can there be gender parity in the art world?” Curator and event co-organizer Maura Reilly, who wrote the central essay in the recent ARTnews magazine on women in the art world, introduced the event. Discussions featured Jillian Steinhauer of Hyperallergic, Sarah Douglas of ARTnews, Gabriela Palmieri of Sotheby’s, Mary Sabbatino of Galerie Lelong, artist Ghada Amer, artist Micol Hebron (organizer of Gallery Tally), artist Simone Leigh, Guerrilla Girl Alma Thomas, and activist/storyteller Jamia Wilson.

The goal of FRESH TALK is to keep the conversation going, and it wouldn’t be complete without input from participants, advocates, and women. We asked for your feedback during stimulating conversation over Sunday Supper and via comments. This is what you told us:

1. More women need to be heard.

Although the panel featured women from different backgrounds, talents, and career paths—Guerrilla Girl Alma Thomas was a highlight for many attendees—participants want to hear from more women of color and from the LGBT community. The next two FRESH TALK programs push these communities to the forefront of the discussion.

2. It’s time to get loud!

Artist Micol Hebron—one of the most-quoted speakers of the night—said, “If you don’t see something, say something!” When visitors notice a lack of representation of women, persons of color, and the LGBT community in museums, galleries, or other arts spaces, they should speak up! Collective voices can rally against these injustices.

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FRESH TALK attendees share their thoughts during Sunday Supper and through comment cards; Photo: Kevin Allen

3. Arts inequities are a problem for women of all ages.

A vast intergenerational audience exchanged views over Sunday Supper. Emerging women advocates sat with experienced professionals and passionately shared ideas about advancing the conversation. Intergenerational advocacy can be a strong resource in combating inequality.

4. Nonprofit art centers can make a difference too.

FRESH TALK attendees; Photo: Kevin Allen

FRESH TALK attendees Sheena Marie Morrison and Lauren Lyde; Photo: Kevin Allen

Panelists focused on data concerning gender inequity in the arts—particularly in sales and auction prices of art by women.

Nonprofit and alternative art spaces work as resources contesting the status quo. Many institutions thrive under the leadership of women, especially in D.C. We look forward to hearing more about the challenges that local centers face through an upcoming Cultural Capital series.

5. Now is the time to strike!

Fueled with the knowledge of engaging panelists, the event’s participants were inspired to take action. One commenter wants to host a protest for women artists, while another hopes to encourage her university gallery to collect and display work by women. An educator plans to empower her students to continue to challenge inequity.

It doesn’t stop here. Stay tuned for more FRESH TALK programs and get involved in the fight for gender equity in the arts. Mark your calendars for “Carrie Mae Weems: Can an artist inspire social change?” on November 15 and “Change by Design with Gabriel Maher and Alice Rawsthorn—Can design be genderless?” on January 27, 2016.

—Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell is the public programs coordinator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts