#WCW: Superfierce Exhibit Takes on Gender Disparity in Art

D.C. artist and entrepreneur Maggie O’Neill remembers how much work it took to build up her business and find mentors. That’s why Superfierce, a platform created by women for women in creative arts, is an invaluable resource.

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Duane Heaton
Superfierce Founding Artist Panelists (left to right): Violetta Markelou, Lesley Devrouax, Maggie O’Neill and Dominique Fierro.
Duane Heaton
D.C. artist and entrepreneur Maggie O’Neill remembers how much work it took to build up her business and find mentors. That’s why Superfierce, a platform created by women for women in creative arts, is an invaluable resource.

n“We make up over half of the visual artists in the world, but we’re represented less than 5 percent in permanent collections,” O’Neill said. (Citing statistics the National Museum of Women in the Arts has used from the National Endowment for the Arts ).

nThis year’s must see exhibit is open until Nov. 4 at The Southwest Arts Club Blind Whino , which is a former Southwest D.C. church that has been transformed into a non-profit organization and event space geared towards service for the arts. "The amount of women that have come out who want to be part of this has been really overwhelming, which just shows that there’s a need,” O’Neill said.

nI caught up with O’Neill this week at the exhibit to talk about Superfierce , D.C.’s art scene and more!

Duane Heaton
B. On Top: How important is it to showcase a diverse group of women artists?
nO’Neill: Very important. We have to be conscientious of that; if we’re not conscientious, it’s not going to change. We have to be highly analytical, organized and unapologetic about it. Otherwise, I don’t know whether we’ll be able to change the representation that we have. If this whole exhibit was a bunch of white women’s artwork, it wouldn’t be a necessarily fair representation of women, right? It’s creating a lot of really important dialogue.
Duane Heaton
B. On Top: What do you think when you hear that, “Oh, we’re looking at quality,” when people bring up gender disparity? Is it “quality” that has created this gap? How can that change?
nO’Neill: If you’re a curator of a museum or a permanent collection, you have a responsibility to the community. If you’re going to have an accurate display of the work that’s being produced in the world you can’t eliminate 50 percent of the population. I don’t think it’s an outward prejudice…but the people who are really the curators at the top, for them to recognize this problem exists is the first step in remedying it. If anything in this world is obvious, you have to work hard at fixing something that’s an inequity. I don’t think that there’s a problem saying, “Well, we just like to make sure we’re holding a place for women artists’ work.” And there’s no reason to believe that the quality isn’t just as strong. That’s a bulls**t statement, if you ask me. There’s no chance our work is substantially less than a man’s work. It just doesn’t even make sense...But the volume of submissions that come in are just uniquely higher. That’s a comment I get back from a lot of curators.

nB. On Top: How have you seen the D.C. arts scene grow?
O’Neill: D.C.’s art scene 20 years ago was even more segmented than it is now. This wasn’t a hotbed of a creative economy at that time. So asking around and trying to find people that could potentially be a mentor or help me learn how to actually have a career in the arts was near impossible. The few people that did, Anne Marchand being one of them -- also one of the artists in the show -- and another named Byron Peck, who is probably one of our most famous muralists in the city, were both very helpful to me.

Duane Heaton
B. On Top: What lessons have you learned throughout your career so far?
nO’Neill: There are things that go on well beyond the brush in order to be a successful artist. And if you’re trying to figure out how you can be more valuable or say, “I want to move from a couple thousand dollars to $10,000” or “I want my work to be $15,000,” how do you get to those mile markers? Who’s determining that your value is “x”? The gallery system is...it’s not obsolete, but it’s not the only way. Social media and public art has really demanded people’s attention in a way that you just can’t deny and that means the options are wider and more dynamic than they’ve ever been before. But that could be paralyzing or really scary to people when you’re first starting. So I’ve learned a lot of really expensive lessons in the last 20 years.

nB. On Top: Why does mentorship matter?
nO’Neill: I don’t know if you’ve heard that phrase, “When the tide rises, all ships rise,” kind of thing. Well, there’s enough business for everybody and part of the problem, I believe, that women are sort of socially trained to believe is that we are each other’s competition. And while there’s some truth to that...we’re also not put on this planet to be each other’s worst enemies. There’s this sense that you can’t help each other out and I just -- I’m over it. The only way things are going to change is if people get organized, vigilant and funding. Things don't just change by sitting around and talking about them. We actually have to make business different.

(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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