A Real Change for the Women in Art - An Interview with Janice Sands of Pen + Brush


May 28, 2016

It’s no secret, although it is quite surprising, that female artists today still have a long way to go toward a position of equality on the international arts scene. The fact that we’re still talking about such an issue in 2016 is dreary, to say the least, because if we’re calling it “contemporary” society, the least we’d expect is is for it to get with the program of modern times. Still, the progress that the feminist movement has made since its conception in the 1960s is nothing short of impressive, and the truth is that many artists, mainly female, made important contributions to the cause over the years. But these female creatives sometimes need a little help in order to change the world, a supporting friend dedicated to the promotion of their artwork and visions. That’s where Pen + Brush comes in.

Ever since this one spring in late 19th century, New York’s Pen + Brush organization has been a wonderful patron of women who wish to create works of visual art or literature. Throughout their remarkable, rich history, they’ve grown to become a proper landmark institution of the Big Apple and beyond, a cultural beacon of hope and possibilities for many voices wishing to be heard. We’ve had the opportunity to speak to Janice Sands, the Executive Director of Pen + Brush, about the organization’s impressive achievements, the ways they helped change the art world at large, the issues and prejudices that female artists are still facing today and the exciting new endeavors they continue to embark on. Scroll down and have a read!

On History

Widewalls: Pen and Brush has a remarkable 122 year-long history of endorsing female artists and fighting prejudice and stereotypes. Your incredible dedication was also recognized by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2005, when the Pen and Brush Day was proclaimed on October 23. What can you tell us about the evolution of the organization over the years? How did it all start? 

Janice Sands: For over 122 years, Pen and Brush has been the only international nonprofit organization offering an outlet for women in both the literary and visual arts in the city of New York.

Our story began in 1893, when Miss Janet C. Lewis of New York, a painter, sent a letter to a number of female acquaintances proposing the establishment of a new group exclusively for women interested in pursuits of both art and literature. The purpose of this organization, as Lewis described, was to be for mutual improvement, advancement and social intercourse. The founders of Pen and Brush planted the seeds of an open and mutually beneficial organization for women artists and writers.

The first official meeting of Pen and Brush was held in the Fifth Avenue Hotel on March 29, 1894. In 1912, under the presidency of accomplished writer and suffragist Grace Seton – and eight years before women were granted the right to vote – the Pen and Brush became an established legal corporation: The Pen and Brush, Inc. The organization continued to flourish under the 30-year presidency of investigative journalist and writer Ida Tarbell. Members included Pulitzer Prize winning authors Marianne Moore, Margaret Widdemer, and Pearl Buck, who also received the Nobel Prize in Literature, and renowned visual artists Isabel Whitney, Malvina Hoffman, Clara Sipprell, and Jessie Tarbox Beals.

The purchase of the building on 10th Street in Manhattan in 1923 marked the beginning of a period of stability for the organization’s programming. For 29 years before this, various locations had to be rented for all Pen and Brush activities, including meetings and exhibitions.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg proclaimed “Pen and Brush Day” on October 23, 2005. He cited the organization’s history and contributions to New York City as cause for recognition. Bloomberg quoted Pen and Brush Pulitzer Prize winning author Marianne Moore, “Beauty is everlasting / and dust is for a time,” concluding that, “For 110 years, Pen and Brush has helped female artists and writers express themselves through enduring works of art.”

This takes us to our latest milestone, in October 2015, when we moved into our new state-of-the-art facility in New York’s Flatiron District and launched our new publishing model for our literary program.

Widewalls: How much has changed since you joined in 1998? How did you get involved in it all? 

JS: How I came to Pen and Brush is a real New York story. I had a lot of nonprofit management experience and had recently begun to specialize in arts/entertainment. I had just finished a project and saw an ad in the New York Times announcing that a prestigious women’s art organization in a charming Greenwich Village clubhouse was seeking an executive director… who could resist that?

I hadn’t applied for a job in 20 years, so I asked a friend for her advice on my resume. She suggested I use my address instead of a post office box, explaining people in New York City pay attention to addresses. I made the change and sent it in. Months later, someone called and asked if I was still interested in the position. She explained that after they placed the ad, they were inundated with thousands of resumes and had no idea how to sort through them. Each board member got a box full, and mine was in hers. She didn’t know how to evaluate my experience, but she knew my building because she walked past it a lot and decided by chance that she would give me a call. So it turned out that my friend had been absolutely right.

The Pen and Brush of 1998 bears no resemblance to Pen and Brush of today. It was actually closer to the Pen and Brush of 1900 in many ways. While there was a social component to the vision of the founders, over time it had a limiting effect on the organization, and on what it was able to do for women artists and writers that would really have a positive effect on their careers. In the early days, though, it brought women in the arts together and probably made for a stronger membership. Today, we look to build community through mentoring, discussion groups, panels, and workshops. It is true that having a physical presence gives the organization stability and gives the artists confidence. We were very conscious, though, in the designing of our new facility, of having an adaptable and flexible space that could accommodate all types of art and still be appropriate for literary programs. We also made sure to secure good IT and AV equipment. Putting the organization’s resources into those things is far more productive and mission-based than putting them into kitchen facilities and food preparation equipment (aspects of the former quarters).

The other major change in the organization is that it is no longer a membership organization. That change was made in 2009, going into effect in 2010. It was significant because it delinked the amount of money paid and the entitlement to have work in exhibitions. If Pen and Brush was really going to help emerging female artists, the only reason their work should be on exhibit is its merit, not how much the artist is willing to contribute to the organization. That change actually led to our current refined model of selecting work through review by an independent panel of curators, rather than by a juror who is obligated to select work from whatever is submitted during a specified period of time. Our curators are able to review submissions that come in constantly, and if they don’t find anything they want to advocate for, they are not obligated to select anything. When any one of them does find work they are willing to “adopt,” they have the freedom to decide how best to exhibit it.

On Changing the World for Female Artists

Widewalls: The last two years were also seminal for Pen and Brush, as they’ve seen a series of improvements and new ways to promote women in arts and their work. What is your new exhibition space like? 

JS: Our new facility was purposefully built to accommodate and showcase the exhibition of all forms of visual arts. In this way we are able to expose the work of women artists and writers to the public and a wide variety of influencers including scholars, collectors, curators, gallerists, agents, and publishers.

Our new 5,500 square-foot space was created to embody the boldness of the organization's mission; it can accommodate any size or scope of art that women can create. Additional features include uncovered steel columns, a wooden floor, and two elements tied together by the steel stairway, which creates one space on two levels.

A fitting location for a 122-year old organization, the space itself is also over 100 years old. We were able to bring out the wonderful industrial structure by keeping the integrity of the space with exposed riveted-steel columns, original brick walls, and a fabulous 30-foot skylight across the back of the space.

One benefit of our new location is that it offers us fully-accessible street-level visibility with our floor-to-ceiling glass storefront, and more than four times the exhibition space on two levels.

Widewalls: Pen and Brush also offers artists the opportunity to submit their work. By doing so, what will they get in terms of visibility and, well, earnings?

JS: Through our new program structure, Pen and Brush gives publishers, agents, collectors and gallery owners a renewing supply of quality work necessary for a lasting shift in the marketplace to take hold. Until it’s just about the art, and not the artist’s gender, Pen and Brush will continue its work through 2016 and beyond.

With a renewed focus on advocacy and mentoring, our hope going forward is for the organization to continue to represent female artists and writers in ways that will significantly impact their careers, by creating a platform for their work and establishing a pipeline to the marketplace for emerging women artists.

On Women in Art Today

Widewalls: What are the obstacles that female artists still encounter today in regard to their art, or the fact it's made by women? 

JS: First, we recognize that women face the same obstacles in their professional lives, whether it’s art or medicine or law. Hard decisions have to be made about how and when family will be juggled along with their professional obligations.

Second, there are numerous studies that demonstrate that art and literature by women is described using a vocabulary that is perceived as demeaning, and that conveys that women are really only suited to depict certain subjects. In the literary arts, there are annual counts that demonstrate far fewer women are published than men, and when they are published, far fewer have their work reviewed in top tier publications. In the visual arts, only a handful of women reach the top prices at auction and are far behind their male counterparts in gallery representation and how they are priced.

Every step on the ladder to gender parity is blocked – and this is in spite of increasing numbers of women working in galleries, curating, and in publishing. Many serious studies have shown that as more and more women enter previously male dominated fields, and effectively “colonize” them, the value of the work declines and the compensation for it declines as well. The challenge is to bring more and more women into increasingly higher and higher tiers in the primary and secondary markets, and in a way that does not cause those markets to become devalued.

Widewalls: How would you comment on the recent rise in the number of female-only shows around the world? What is the state of the art market when it comes to these artworks? 

JS: At Pen and Brush, we believe that women-only shows are one of the strongest ways to confront the stereotypes that work against women artists. For example: there are not enough women who do good work, women can only really handle certain subjects, or work by women does not show the diversity that work by men does. Women only exhibits – either solo or group shows – can present many women producing diverse work that shows their strength and proficiency. We do not advocate for affirmative action. Women-only exhibits are only constructive if the work shown is selected on merit. Because our submissions come in on a rolling basis, and are not in response to a stated theme, our curators are free to discern a common thread, or showcase the diversity of the work – whether in medium, style, or subject. We think women-only shows will demonstrate that across the spectrum women can match their male counterparts in every way.

As for the handful of women whose work can command super-high prices at auction, we’re delighted. We will consider it a success when women at all levels can achieve economic parity with male artists.

On Current Projects and the Future

Widewalls: What is the latest group exhibition “Broad Strokes” about? Who are the featured artists? 

JS: Taking the name from the sometimes pejorative word for a tough woman, "Broad" also refers to the wide range of work and perspectives represented. A group show totaling 63 works by 15 different artists, Broad Strokes offers an earnest contemplation of modern art’s rich history beyond the exclusionary lens of the accepted canon. As a result, Broad Strokes aims to incite and encourage deeper considerations and reconsiderations of the role modern art plays for contemporary women artists. Artists were selected by Raquelle Azran, who also developed the exhibition title and concept, while will be on display through June 5.

Among the featured artists was Josephine Barreiro, whose colorful and energetic paintings reflect her upbringing in Newark, New Jersey’s Ironbound neighborhood as the daughter of Spanish immigrants. Barreiro is inspired by her love of graffiti art and the iconic work of Spanish painters from Diego Velazquez to Pablo Picasso. Not only did Barreiro have work in the show, she performed a live painting during the Broad Strokes opening on April 1.

Other artists include Christie Devereaux; Lang Ea; Donna Festa; Anne Grandin; Courtney Hayes-Sturgeon; Kristina Horne; Elizabeth Knowles; Reagan Lake; Camey McGilvray; Isabelle Milkoff; Melanie Mintz; Leah Oates; Maria Stabio; and Zuzanna.

Widewalls: What are the plans and future projects for Pen and Brush?

JS: We want to give our model a chance. We want to see if we can create a pipeline for women artists and give them access to collectors, gallerists, those creating scholarship – those things we think are necessary for women to advance. We think it will take several years, but find that an increasing number of partner organizations and influencers, both inside and outside of the art and publishing worlds, are engaged in essentially the same crusade for gender parity. We feel that there is a tipping point on the horizon that will, with help from those who share our vision, accelerate the progress of Pen and Brush and of women artists and writers.

Featured images: views of the current show Broad Strokes, photo credit: Manny Fernandes. All images courtesy Pen + Brush.