Amid national conversations about workplace harassment and sexual assault, the Arts Council of Greater New Haven on Tuesday night brought four local female artists to discuss the impact of the viral #MeToo movement on arts in New Haven.
Arts Paper editor Lucy Gellman moderated the conversation, which included chef Nadine Nelson, actor Malia West, musician Annalisa Boerner and photographer Luciana McClure. They discussed the challenge of being a woman working in the arts, how structures intended to support women can be improved and how power dynamics play into harassment. The panel discussion was a partnership between the Arts Council, and the Nasty Women Connecticut art exhibition and is the first in a series of talks aiming to foster discussions about the way that current events and political issues intersect with the arts community. It was hosted at the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology, and was also recorded by Baobab Studios as a podcast for the Arts Paper.
“There’s a difficult culture of speaking up when it comes to women,” West said. “A lot of times we blame ourselves or we don’t want to make the other person feel bad when it comes to advocating for ourselves so we kind of skirt around speaking up for ourselves.”
The power dynamics involved in many instances of sexual assault in arts workplaces were a major topic during the panel. Specifically, West brought up the fear of reporting sexual harassment in theatre workplaces and being “blacklisted” or losing a part as a result. She raised that fear in conjunction with class issues for women in the arts, who West said often cannot walk away from a job if they are experiencing harassment because they need the money.
Nelson, who owns the community kitchen and culinary education space Global Local Gourmet, said her negative workplace experiences came when she was working as a waitress, but that owning her own business as a chef has afforded her more power.
This conversation comes at a time of change in leadership positions at arts institutions across the country because of accusations of sexual harassment, including in New Haven. Long Wharf Theatre artistic director Gordon Edelstein was fired in January after allegations of sexual assault surfaced, prompting a third party review of the theatre’s sexual misconduct policies. Gellman said these allegations helped motivate her to plan the event.
Gellman asked the panelists about their opinions about the culpability of bystanders, a question that prompted discussions about who is responsible for restructuring systems that silence women’s voices. In the arts, she asserted, many men who harass women are passed off as “creative geniuses” or “eccentric” by other people in the field.
McClure, who helped found Nasty Women Connecticut, said there are no excuses for workplaces and people who do not report or sufficiently respond to reports of sexual harassment.
“If I were to know something about someone, as a mother I don’t think I could live with myself knowing that a woman felt harassed and violated in every way and felt that she couldn’t speak and also that she didn’t have support at all,” she said. “I feel that the job of every workplace and environment is to create a safe space. It’s to keep your eyes open and be diligent.”
Gellman said she wants future ArtSpeaks topics to cover a wide-range of issues and policies that may affect artists. She told the News that the Council is interested in speaking with people on both sides of the political spectrum about how different issues specifically affect artists, such as paid family and medical leave and raising the minimum wage. The Arts Council also hopes to incorporate more artists from outside New Haven into these conversations.
Nasty Women Connecticut will be opening an exhibit titled In Grace We Trust | Silence Breakers at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art on March 4.
Carolyn Sacco | firstname.lastname@example.org