Women Creatives in Austin

Displaced 5 by Jennifer Balkan

According to the U.S. Library of Congress, “Although women now outnumber men in American colleges nationwide, the reversal of the gender gap is a very recent phenomenon. The fight to learn was a valiant struggle waged by many tenacious women—across years and across cultures—in our country.”

Woman’s History Month is celebrated every March.  This year’s theme was “Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment”. Inspired by this, Austin Creative Alliance is highlighting four dynamic women in the arts as we continue to celebrate women’s achievements throughout the year. In reaching out to these women, we discovered
diverse perspectives about the creative culture that thrives in Austin.

I’ll begin by acknowledging the women at Austin Creative Alliance and Now Playing Austin who provide invaluable services to promote the greater arts community in Austin. To learn more about Austin Creative Alliance go to: www.austincreativealliance.org

In the following interviews, we hope to convey insights and achievements that will inspire other woman in the arts. I presented a list of questions that revolved around this theme.

  1. As a woman in the Arts, how do you see the future for Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment in the Arts?
  2. How can we empower and educate woman to be leaders in the Arts?
  3. Can you describe some obstacles or hurtles you have confronted in your own career as a woman in the Arts?
  4. What insights or suggestions would you have for aspiring woman in the Arts?

I spoke with Catarina Sigerfoos, Chairwoman and Fundraiser of Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAMM) Benefit Day 2012.

Catarina Sigerfoos: These are two organizations I like and respect in Austin who focus on empowerment for women. They are heavily supported and active. Women and Their Work Gallery, is a fantastic gallery that is run and supported by the community, but only features work by female artist members.

There is also an organization called WIMPS, Women In Music Professional Society, www.facebook.com/wimpsaustin. I belong to this group of women who work in all facets of the music industry. We network monthly and meet working musicians, graphic artists who design cd covers, attorneys and accountants who practice music law and accounting, composers, band managers, music supervisors, and many more. We each get a minute to stand up and tell our story and recruit, inform, and educate about classes, gigs, workshops, auditions and opportunities.

We can support existing agencies whose agenda is in place. The way to do this is by joining and helping with outreach and donations in some cases.

The music industry has been male-dominated as a whole, but since I grew up in the music world (I am related to approximately 20 working musicians), I have been lucky to know the jargon, trials, and successes of working musicians. Occasionally I have heard of certain music genres not being open to female leads, and sometimes, age is an issue for more seasoned artists, especially females.

I think young aspirants should find a mentor, either in the literal sense, or seek someone on the internet who’s style they respect, and try to learn from them. Try to narrow the search so it is very specific to their goals and resonates with your their personal beliefs and approach. Find a strong woman who has succeeded in the field and read about her accomplishments and methods. Imitate and practice until it becomes your own style. For more about  Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, (HAMM) go to: www.myhaam.org

Sherry Mills, formally of “Reel Woman”, who is now retired from her position after serving as the Executive Director for ten years. Since June of 2011 the organization is no longer in operation. Sherry now hosts a radio program, “Ready for My Closeup, Ms. Mills” on KOOP.

Sherry Mills: I think it will continue to grow as an integral component of all arts education. There will always be many programs that are not gender specific, but I don’t believe there is any disadvantage or stigma to having female-focused opportunities.  Women think, feel, act and learn differently from men; and because of personal history and/or cultural history, they will often taken a subordinate role in a classroom or work situation.  As women continue to become clearer about their personal capabilities and aspirations, they will insist on the highest levels of instruction and experience, which means that they will seek out successful, respected teachers and mentors but will not limit themselves to programs that are not inclusive or that don’t offer them the opportunities they need. In working with women of all ages, at all levels of experience in trans-media, many of them performed and learned much better in the all-female environment. They profited immensely from being around the professional female filmmakers, writers, producers, directors, makeup artists, casting directors, agents, etc. who became role models and inspirations to them.

We can support woman in the arts by nurturing, mentoring and giving them opportunities to perform, learn and participate.

Looking back, I believe I created many of them for myself! In a group of men I would generally take on stereotypical female tasks such as being the coffee/food getter/provider, the note-taker, the clean up crew, the one who might not say my opinion because of either the fear of being judged or because I might hurt someone’s feelings. I still do those things sometimes, but it’s certainly with a different attitude because I want to lead by example. I do think that there were situations where I wasn’t paid as much as the guys.

I find that many young women take the attitude of “I want to do/be … (fill in the blank)” without doing necessary research, without being honest with themselves about their personal limitations, without putting in the training/learning time.  For example, I knew a young girl with minimal experience that spent time and money on head shots but was doing very little to develop her acting skills. There is the person that “wants to be a writer,” but they’ve never written anything.  Same for some aspiring directors. I studied theatre in school, and I thought I would be an actress; a little time invested in that direction proved to myself, that I was too sensitive to handle so much rejection. I wasn’t outgoing enough to promote myself properly and I realized in that process, that I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes much more than performing. The defining fact is that I recognized I wasn’t a very good actress!  I say to everyone: Invest the time. Do the research. Study. Practice. Learn. Volunteer. Seek out professionals, mentors, role models. Challenge yourself. Pick your battles; know when to back down.

After I left Reel Women I felt like I was in recovery from a divorce or breakup or serious illness or life tragedy. I knew it was the right thing to do, but it was still very painful.  Luckily, I was able to have the time and opportunity to get involved in radio and to use the knowledge and resources I’d gained in a new way.  Learning the FCC regulations, how to operate all the dials, boards, audio equipment, microphones, etc. Being the “new kid on the block” and having to prove myself all over again was a challenge, to say the least; but it challenged me and gave me validation as well as exercised my brain.

I have an intern now — her name is Paloma.  She is not a KOOP intern — she works (unpaid) just with me.  She had wanted to be a Reel Women intern and very diligently, but unsuccessfully, tried to contact the organization. Somehow she tracked ME down and left a voice message, which I didn’t respond to. She called me two more times, so I finally called her back and explained the RW situation.  She was very disappointed and then asked me what I was doing now, which she found very interesting. To finish the story, she has been working with me now for 8 months, getting involved in everything I do. She’s meeting so many people, going to special events and getting involved in projects.  Smart girl!
Listen to Sherry on the radio: “Ready for My Closeup, Ms. Mills!” Mondays, 1:00-1:30pm, on KOOP, 91.7, streaming LIVE at www.koop.org

Salvage Vanguard Theater is hub for Austin artists, audiences, and arts organizations. SVT creates and presents transformative, high-quality artistic experiences that foster experimentation and conversation.

Jenny Larson: I think it is a “one step forward, two steps back” situation. Certainly more and more women arts leaders are emerging but on a whole, more men are in charge and more male playwrights are being produced on a national level, heck, on an international level. Roles for women are slim and POSITIVE roles for women in theater storytelling are few and far between. I do think that with each generation women find more and more empowerment and voice in leadership but its a slow and steady growth, slow and steady change. The current political climate certainly makes me stop and re-evaluate exactly how much progress we have made…

That is a giant task, and as the single mother of an 11 year old girl I can tell you that the task starts when they are young. It takes no small amount of vigilance to ensure that our daughters and our next generation of women arts leaders do not fall into the “traps” of femininity. I am currently reading the book Reviving Ophelia so my thoughts are in a place right now of really trying to help my daughter hold on to her true self. I think the more our daughters learn to hold on to themselves the better chance we have of growing more women arts leaders.

You create the life the job the career the path that you want to have. Do not let fear stop you and do not get stuck in thinking that you can’t or thinking that the obstacles are too large. I have never been a goal oriented person or much of a planner, so for me, my stumbling into a position of leadership was just an opportunity offered that I decided to take. When I look at my life in general, that is what it has been, a series of opportunities taken. So keep your eyes peeled for the opportunities. Volunteer for artists that you admire, get close to them and let them know you are passionate. Be dependable. See other peoples work. Read. Read a lot. Read other peoples work. Travel and see work outside of your community. It is easy to fall into ideas of the way you must live your life, and in the arts its very important to be creative about how you live your life and creative about how you make a career for yourself. Austin does not have a wealthy arts community so most of us are working 3- 5 jobs to make ends meet. We are also living very humble lives in order to stay in the arts. This re-examining your needs and your consumption as a human in the world is also integral to a career in the arts. Be humble and need little. For more info go to: www.salvagevanguard.org

Women & Their Work is a visual and performing art organization located in Central Austin that serves as a catalyst for contemporary art created by women living and working in Texas and beyond.  For over 30 years, W&TW has brought groundbreaking art to Austin, with exhibitions,performances, literary readings and educational workshops.

Chris Cowden: More women are majoring in studio art and are going on to earn Masters of Fine Arts than ever before. While women have achieved near parity with men in their educational accomplishments, they still lag behind after they graduate. Today, women earn 81 cents for every dollar a man earns in the same position. (It has improved in the last 20 years–women used to earn 75 cents for every dollar a man earned.)  However, the pay ratio is even worse in the arts. This is the biggest challenge for women seeking careers in the arts in the future–to  achieve equal opportunities for employment, for exhibitions of their work, and for pay.  Also, their work historically sells for much less than male artists.

Young women can learn to be leaders by seeking mentors whose leadership style they admire.  Often becoming an intern can provide excellent opportunities to work with, observe, and emulate women who have succeeded in their field.  There are a number of women who direct galleries and museums who can serve as powerful role models for women who seek to follow their career path.

Women & Their Work was founded in 1978 when there were very few opportunities for women in any artistic discipline. Organizations such as W&TW created their own possibilities outside the established hierarchy. I was not involved in the founding of the organization so I didn’t have  to do any of the really heavy lifting that had to take place to make this a successful art organization. I spent my early career working in academia and then in a large corporation on Wall Street. The biggest difficulty was being taken seriously. I think the best thing to realize is that you have to take yourself seriously–but not too seriously.

I always remember Meryl Streep’s advice to the graduating class of Vassar, her alma mater.  She said  to integrate  what you believe into every area of your life. To take your heart to work and ask the most and best of everybody else. And preserve your own special character in the world. That seems great advice for any field –maybe especially the arts. For more info go to: www.womenandtheirwork.org

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