Women At The Table: Historic Influence of ArtTable

Shannon Edwards

Shannon Edwards

Founder, FromAtoSHE®

Executive Director Jessica Porter Talks ArtTable In 2021 And Beyond

It might come as a surprise to hear that the path to leadership in the art world has been a hard-fought-one for women. Perhaps it’s because female artists have indeed made strides. But like any industry that ‘seems’ to be equally stacked with women, leadership is generally dominated by men. That was until ArtTable came along…

Because more than 40 years ago, visionary women sought to effect change via this new organization. And they have been taking charge ever since.

In fact, a history of ArtTable published for the 25th anniversary is a fantastic starter for understanding the organization’s impact.

For me, reading about ArtTable’s history felt familiar. As I had a chance in the early 90s to intern at a museum. For one Summer I accompanied the female curator on visits to meet powerful gallery owners and artists. But I don’t remember many (if any) female brokers in the mix. And the curator wasn’t paid (her choice, but she was working nearly full time).

So I was excited to get an update on ArtTable from Executive Director Jessica Porter. She shared with me why and how the organization has endured. And what attracts its more than 1,200 members.

ArtTable celebrated 40 years of leadership last year, see the video celebrating the event.
ArtTable was founded in 1980 as an organization specifically for women on the business side of visual arts.

What about the group’s vision has endured? What has changed?

ArtTable began in 1980 as a platform for mutual support, advice, and networking for female professionals in the art world. And these connections still remain a vital part of our mission. But our focus has shifted now towards providing professional opportunity and career growth for younger generations of women.

With these goals in mind, we introduced our fellowship program in 2000. The program addresses the marked lack of diversity in arts employment. And it provides quality experiences and mentorship opportunities to female-identifying graduate students and emerging professionals from backgrounds generally underrepresented in the field. Our goal is to aid their transition from academic to professional careers in the arts.

From the beginning, ArtTable envisioned having an impact on policy. Is this still true?

In the late 80s and early 90s, ArtTable was a driving force for arts advocacy in response to many politicized issues revolving around tax incentives for art donation — both for collectors and artists, alike.

This push in the affectation of public policy was a direct response to increased military spending and engagement in foreign policy on behalf of the American government. Thus, ArtTable engaged with these questions by promoting arts and culture above violence.

In an impactful panel at Christie’s titled, “State of the Arts: Funding the Future”, ArtTable’s president insightfully posited, “In a country that places high value on government spending for the military, how can we, as arts advocates, work to make culture a higher priority?”

Forty years later, we find ourselves in a different cultural position. Tax incentives have been set in favor of the arts and cultural preservation has become a higher priority. So, instead, we are focusing on issues of diversity in the arts and cultural representation in positions of power for BIPOC women. Through a change of internal policy, ArtTable focuses more recently on Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity, and Accessibility in our membership, programming, and community initiatives.

We are making space in our organization for new voices to be heard and make sure that BIPOC women have a seat at the table as well. 

Do you attribute the group’s longevity to its very clear and specific mission?

One of the strengths of our mission — a dedication to advancing the leadership of women in the visual arts — is that it is based around an idea not an action. We recognize, as mentioned before, that this may take different forms at different stages of the organization’s history and that is what has allowed it to thrive over a 40 year period. At the root of our organization, we aim to uplift whatever group of women need us the most and we will continue this way into our future. 

ArtTable's 25th-anniversary publication "Changing the Equation" is a fascinating read. What progress has been made since then?

As ArtTable has grown over the last 16 years — in its geography, constituency, and programming — there has been an associated growth in the opportunities we are able to provide to our community. For example, our fellowship program which began in 2000, was initially limited to only 5 fellows. Though, with the increased development of our organization, the fellowship program was able to host 16, women-identifying fellows from a variety of underrepresented backgrounds this past year with hopes to increase this number in the future.

More recently, in 2009, we introduced the Career Development Roundtable. This is an annual program that connects students and emerging professionals with established mentors in their area of interest to provide insight and advice on how to forge a career path in the art world. The program began in New York and is now also hosted in Los Angeles and Washington DC. This program is incredibly important for younger women to feel confident stepping into roles in arts administration, art business, museum studies, etc and we hope to offer this opportunity with great geographic reach in the coming years. 

Has the technology industry challenged the lines around ‘the business’ of visual arts? How are you addressing?

Throughout art history, technology has advanced visual arts tremendously. As artists and professionals adopt new techniques that embrace this technology the business of the visual arts must follow close behind.

The most recent example is NFTs and the expansion of the growth of collectors in the technology industry to the art world. In response to this growing interest, ArtTable launched a series of programming focused on Art & Technology and heard from speakers at the forefront of the NFT market and also others who were able to share a more historical perspective on these issues. 

What are the biggest challenges for ArtTable going forward? Opportunities?

ArtTable was created in the face of the women’s liberation movement to address issues of gender parity. And primarily related to professional representation in the arts.