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Liezel Strauss: A Contemporary Curator Amplifying Women’s Voices

The existence of gender inequality cannot be denied, whether it be at home or in the corporate world. Patriarchy has put women in a box defined by gender roles, and we have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously. For female artists, the world of art is very much the same as they remain severely underrepresented despite their accomplishments.

This week in our ‘Women in Art’ series, we look at Liezel Strauss who is not only a curator but also an activist working towards closing the gender gap in the art industry.

About Liezel Strauss

Image published by Art Frankly

Strauss, who proudly declares herself as a “feminist, activist, and mama”, is determined to revolutionize the world of art. She is the co-founder of Subject Matter which claimed to be one of the first online art galleries at the time of its opening. Later on she founded ArtGirlRising, which is a platform dedicated to raising awareness about the inequalities female artists face.

For Strauss, art has the power to transform a place. But soon enough, she realized that many people hesitate to buy art due to its inaccessibility. As she decided to take an initiative almost a decade ago, Strauss was clear about her objectives; to make the art-buying process more exciting for people and to ensure that the female artists are represented at her platforms.

Strauss has always acknowledged the importance of diversity, and on top of that, she has had the opportunity to live in countries like Japan, UK, Malaysia, Germany, China and South Africa. That’s why, it’s quite easy to understand how her travelling experiences could have contributed to her passion for cultural exchange. She has recently moved back Cape Town with her husband and son, where she continues to collaborate with artists and organizations from around the world.

From Studying Engineering to Becoming a Curator

Strauss recalls feeling passionate about drawing and painting all her life, but somehow her life’s trajectory led her towards the corporate sector. It was only in 2011 when Japan was hit with a devastating tsunami that Strauss decided to do something tangible and curated shows in Tokyo to collect funds. The purpose of the show was not only to crowdsource, but it also aimed to represent emerging artists that specialized in fine arts photography. The initiative asked the photographers “what does Japan mean to you?” in an effort to highlight the beauty of the country in this catastrophic time. Strauss was able to raise more than $30,000, which is not a small feat!

What Strauss did not anticipate at the time of the Tokyo Show was how this small charitable act was only a stepping stone towards something bigger. While she defines her very first exhibition as nerve-racking, the experience made Strauss realize how underappreciated art was and how hard it was for artists to showcase their work. Thus began the humble beginnings of a groundbreaking venture!

When we reflect on Strauss’ journey of becoming a curator, something that instantly jumps out is her interest in community work. The organic way in which Strauss set up her gallery is very telling about who she is as a person. For her, starting this venture was never about the profitability but a sincere attempt to give back to her community. Strauss initially opened a gallery in Tokyo and then moved it to London. Soon after, she turned it into an online gallery to make art accessible to a much wider audience.

Becoming a Visionary

You may remember a time when the digital world did not play such a massive role in our lives, as it does today. It was then that Strauss took a leap of faith and decided to take action to resolve the inequality that plagued the world of art. It would not be wrong if I went on to say that that she was ahead of her time! For Strauss, showcasing artworks by female artists is not enough, she wants to start the conversations and inspire change that can reform the art world.

In 2019, Strauss was chosen to represent the UN Women ‘Impossible to Ignore’ campaign along with 8 other innovators. Her advocacy for the gender disparity in the art world and dedication to restoring this balance in the industry has won her the title of UN Women’s top 100 female innovators worldwide. This further pushed her to launch her own directory project ‘Where Are The Women Artists?’, a database that includes more than 2000 artists from 97 countries. So, if you are an emerging artist, this directory should help you access art organizations and support groups without any difficulty.

Strauss’ poster at the World Trade Center taken from Artist/Mother Podcast’s Website

Subject Matter and its Impact

Just like many great ventures, the conception of Subject Matter began at Strauss’ home. She and her husband Jon founded Subject Matter to make art more accessible for buyers. Their dream was to create a platform which not only provided a fun experience for the consumers but also catered to the underrepresented group of artists including women from different ethnic backgrounds. Presently, Strauss runs Subject Matter with her friend, Kitty.

Every 2 months, Subject Matter organizes an online exhibition where a new country is explored and its regional artist is given the platform to represent his/her culture. So far, Subject matter has successfully curated over a dozen exhibitions where it has worked with a diverse range of artists from all over the world. For Strauss, it is important that people are able to buy something, which is why Subject Matter also features art under $500.

Activism through ArtGirlRising

Out of 18 prominent art museums in the U.S. with over 10,000 artists, 87% are male and 85% are white.

ArtGirlRising

In 2018, Strauss came across the #5WomenArtists challenge by the National Museum of Women in the Arts which aimed to ask people to name 5 female artists. This made Strauss realize how more women needed to be seen for their art. She immediately set up a Shopify site that had T-shirts with 5 women artists’ names. As her venture gained momentum, it subsequently led to the creation of ArtGirlRising to help female rising artists.

Image taken from BMW’s website

To raise awareness about the inequalities that women artists face. Our goal is to spark conversations about the inequalities and to ultimately inspire change and action to help women artists rise to their rightful equal positions in the art world”

ArtGirlRising’s Objective on its Official Website

The ArtGirlRising Instagram does a great job of representing the platform’s core ideologies. With almost 60 K followers, the page highlights women and non-binary artists while featuring female artists of different ethnicities. Recently, ArtGirlRising has merged with Canadian Social Enterprise Repaint History to amplify the voices of non-binary artists on a larger scale.

The platform considers itself to be part of the ‘slow fashion movement’ and sells products that are ethically produced and are 100% organic. Portion of proceeds from the profits goes to national museum of women in arts and you can check out these products on ArtGirlRising’s official website.

Advice for Aspiring Artists

If you dream to be an artist, hold on to Strauss’ words of encouragement! She advises aspiring female artists to get out of their comfort zone and build their own community that supports women artists. She also notes that people need to get out of the mindset of the struggling artist as this narrative does not serve the community. While the idea of struggling artists has always been portrayed in the media as romantic, it only appeals to buyers and dealers. In the real world, however, artists need to take care of their families and they must never work for free.

Creating a more Inclusive Art World

Strauss firmly believes that asking questions makes people more aware. In her interviews, she has stressed upon the fact that change can only happen if we collectively strive towards it. A great piece of advice from her is that we must ask about female artists and artists of colors while visiting galleries as it puts pressure on the curators to make their shows more diverse. Another way to promote marginalized artists is by writing or speaking to galleries and demanding to see representation from our region.

As an artist, you must support other artists, and they will do the same for you.

Strauss in one of her podcasts

Strauss’ ongoing struggle for an inclusive art industry is nothing less than admirable. Despite the discrimination she faced due to her non-conventional way of approaching the gallery business, she never gave up. It’s not every day that you come across people who see the need for a change and then actively work to bring it about, and Strauss’ efforts at grassroots level have successfully enabled her to take that action!

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