‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to make yourself heard’
For this series celebrating women in the arts, the Director of Musée régional d’art contemporain Occitanie / Pyrénées-Méditerranée, shares her experience of working in the arts and her thoughts on Frances's own #MeToo movement #BalanceTonPorc (call out your pig)
As you were starting out in the arts, what were the possibilities for mentorship, collaboration and cross-generational engagement among women?
I studied business; art was an accident in my life that happened after I met the British artist Alun Williams in Marseille. He was part of a non-profit artist residency organization called Triangle Arts Trust (now called Triangle Network) which aimed to bring artists together, and to create links between artists in Africa, Asia and Europe. Triangle Network was founded in New York in 1982 by the artist Anthony Caro and the British collector Robert Loder. Our conversations around culture and identity were so inspirational that it changed my life. In 1995, I became Director of Triangle France in Marseille. (The organization is run between London, New York and Marseille and it’s also associated with Gasworks in London.) At that time, around 20 years ago, Marseille was very conservative and macho – it still is, in a way – and as I didn’t do art history my initial move into working with art was doubly difficult. However, I was really supported by a group of artists, critics, curators and directors of institutions, among them Nathalie Ergino, the director of MAC Marseille who now runs a great centre, the Institute d’Art Contemporain Villeurbanne/Rhône Alpes. Nathalie was very supportive to me but also her fearless attitude at work was an inspiration to me.
What, if any, were the difficulties of embarking on a career in the arts as a woman?
After Triangle, I became director of the Parc St Léger and President of the national network of art centres (d.c.a.) in France. On my first day in the job in 2007, there was a large symposium on the development of art centres in Le Magasin in Grenoble. Basically, there were two generations present: 50-year-old men and younger women. It soon became very clear how difficult it was for the women to make themselves heard, as the men were dominating the conversation. I remember very clearly that when a female director finally succeeded in saying something, a male director replied: ‘This is a silly comment, return to your history books, little girl.’ We were all like ‘whaaat?’ It was so violent and dismissive. Imagine, my first day as a director!
What has changed today?
In France things are getting better but there’s still a glass ceiling here: women tend to be promoted at the smaller art museums, but only very rarely are they employed in senior positions at the major museums and galleries. Most of the commercial galleries in France are run by men. There are a few women, of course, such as Chantal Crousel, but most of the artists they represent are men. I am part of the jury for the next French Pavilion and the last woman to represent France was Sophie Calle 12 years ago. In the entire history of the Venice Biennale, only two women artists have ever represented France. Things are changing for the better but it’s a balance – whenever a progressive movement takes off, there will always be a conservative backlash. But coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to make yourself heard.
What are your thoughts about #Metoo and other initiatives to call attention to sexual harassment?
I have to confess that it was a big shock for me, as I didn’t realize the problem was so deeply rooted in all parts of society. The backlash against #Metoo – which is called #BalanceTonPorc (call out your pig) in France – has been extreme here. Because of our cultural traditions around seduction, there’s been a real misunderstanding between sexual openness and consent and harassment. The chief editor of Artpress, Catherine Millet, was one of the co-authors of an open letter that was signed by more than 100 women – writers, actors, performers and academics – claiming that the movement will destroy seduction and ambiguity between men and women. The letter was titled Le droit d’être importunée which translates as ‘the freedom to be bothered’ (by men of course). The letter was dismissive of allegations of harassment, saying that if you are ‘bothered’ you can just say no and that #Metoo has unleashed a wave of puritanism. For them, it’s a struggle for freedom but they ignored, denied and turned a blind eye to the daily reality of most women’s lives. If Millet were to travel on the metro, for example, she would see how many women modify their behaviour in order to avoid being harassed. It’s a mistake to say that you simply have to say no. The statistics of women in France who attempt to use the law to tackle this situation is shocking: 95 percent of women who go to court against men lose their cases and 95 percent of women who complain of harassment in the work-place are fired. This situation has to change and I am confident that it will. All of these violent debates between women are sad, in a way, but I remain optimistic. As Lubaina Himid told me recently: ‘It’s the new generation who will resolve the situation, Sandra, and I’m sure that they will do it perfectly.’