Building A Women Artists Movement (Round Up 2009)

Swan Day 2009 Helps Organizers Build New Skills & Alliances
By Martha Richards, Founder & Executive Director, WomenArts
Originally published in Round Up, the magazine of the
League of Professional Theatre Women, April 2009

Almost every day, women artists call WomenArts to ask for help raising money or marketing their work.  Even though they have great ideas and make valiant efforts, they can’t seem to get the funds or publicity that they need. After thousands of these calls over the past fifteen years, we have come to the conclusion that the problem is with our arts support system and not with all of these individual artists.  It does not matter how well these women write their proposals if the amount of money available is hopelessly inadequate. Also, in the stiff competition for media coverage, how can women artists who are working independently and writing their own press releases be expected to compete effectively with the full time marketing staffs of larger institutions?

It is clear that this systemic problem requires some kind of paradigm shift, but what should that look like?  How can we take the first steps towards building a movement that will be powerful enough to transform the way people think about supporting the work of women artists in the U.S. and elsewhere?

Two years ago WomenArts launched a new project designed to address these issues.  We declared a new international holiday called Support Women Artists Now Day or SWAN Day and invited people to create events celebrating women artists on the last Saturday of March or any time during March or early April. I am happy to report that the Second International SWAN Day held in March 2009 was a huge success with over 170 events in 14 countries.

These celebrations were wonderful in their own right as arts events, but it is even more exciting that as we work with artists around the world to create their SWAN Day events, the framework for the movement that we need is starting to emerge.  We have identified at least three essential “building blocks” for this new movement: morale building, skill building, and alliance building.  This article will discuss how SWAN Day helps with each of these goals.

Morale Building

When we announced SWAN Day, one of our goals was to embody our faith in women’s creativity. We invited people to organize events celebrating women artists. We did not tell them what to do, we did not publish guidelines.  We told them their event could be a performance, concert, exhibit, party or any other event that featured their own work or the work of other women artists.  They could raise money or just have fun. The most important thing was to affirm the validity and importance of their creativity.

We did this because we have spoken to so many women artists who doubt their own talents and instincts. It is not just that they have written proposals that were rejected or sent in press releases that were never printed.  They are discouraged because our society constantly tells them that being “businesslike” is more important than being creative.  They see that their peers in the business world make much more money than they do.  In recent months, they have seen that when huge businesses fail, they get bailed out because they are “too important to go under.”  No one says that about the countless women artists who are suffering in the current economy.

Also, when women artists apply for grants, they discover that most funders try to demonstrate that they have “maximized the impact” of their gifts by quantifying the results of each grant. Larger arts organizations can respond by sending the funders reports about their growing ticket sales or economic impact, but independent women artists can’t play that game very well.  Their creativity may have helped another woman cope with her deepest fears or eased someone else’s heartache, but those things are hard to quantify. Even though art and life are fundamentally about emotional expression, most grant report forms give much more weight to numbers.

SWAN Day is a way of challenging these deeply engrained attitudes.  We encourage everyone participating in SWAN Day to imagine that they are living in a world where women artists have the respect they deserve, and then to try to think and create from that perspective.  It is surprisingly hard to do at first because we live in a world where so much emphasis is placed on having money. A big part of the challenge is to imagine a world where women’s emotional intelligence and wisdom are valued as much as money is now.   We all need to imagine that reality and keep talking about it in order to move towards it.

We also want women to see that they have the power to inspire and strengthen each other.  We have done video interviews with television star Sandra Oh, novelist Isabel Allende, and film star Famke Janssen and asked them to talk about the women artists who have inspired them. Sandra Oh said that the musician Bjork inspired her with her courage, Isabel Allende said that the early women’s movement writers showed her a new way to think about her life, and Famke Janssen said that she was fascinated by the way that Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures were able to capture so many layers of meaning all at once. Each of them said that her own work was deepened by her experiences of the work of other women artists.

Isabel Allende went even further. When we asked her if she had advice for women artists, she said that the key to survival is to “Be connected – even if you are living in terrible circumstances, if you can connect with other women, you can feel the energy, you feel the force, you are not alone.”

The power of “feeling the force” has been echoed by SWAN Day organizers all over the world, and we believe it is the key to organizing a movement of women artists. Pat Johnson from Women Artists of the Silicon Valley in San Jose, California wrote that SWAN Day was “Truly an epiphany – I cannot say enough about how wonderful it was to work with the great women in the local arts community who planned and contributed to the day.”    Maureen Obara from SWAN Day Nairobi wrote, “I have NEVER enjoyed an event like this before – Long Live Women Artists!” Alice Tuan wrote from Shanghai, “SWAN Day was a blast!!” A Kentucky playwright who attended SWAN Day at the Humana Festival in Louisville wrote, “I just can’t tell you how much today did for me.  I came away feeling invigorated, inspired and encouraged.”

Another interesting development this year was that several groups decided to do benefits for women who were suffering from health problems or other financial crises. For instance, Natalie Agee, a young trapeze artist in Brooklyn, decided to do a variety show fundraiser to help pay the dental bills for spoken word artist Sini Anderson. We were moved by the generous spirit of this event and also struck by the fact that Natalie was using a SWAN Day event to fill in one of the biggest gaps in the arts funding world – many women artists have inadequate health insurance, but there are very few places where they can apply for funds to cover medical expenses.

By letting the artists decide how they want to use the funds they raise, we are getting a clearer picture of their financial challenges.  This was Natalie’s first fundraising event and she was able to raise $1,800 for her friend using our online advice and tools, her own ingenuity, and “the force.”  She wrote, “It was such a great swirling of good hearts and amazing energy.”

Skill Building

To help artists organize their SWAN Day events, we provide a variety of free tools on our website at including fundraising and publicity advice, downloadable logos and posters, and sample fundraising letters, press releases, mayor’s proclamations, letters to the editor, and press releases.

Many people have told us that our online tools are extremely helpful, and the best proof of that is that many of the people who organized SWAN Day events in 2008 returned to do events again in 2009.  In almost every case, their second SWAN Day event was bigger than the first.  In Miami, the Spoken Soul Showcase expanded their SWAN Day event from one day to three.  In Nairobi, there were 100 people at last year’s SWAN Day event and 700 this year.  SWAN Day Connecticut reported bigger crowds and more performers this year.

We were also pleased that people followed our online instructions to receive mayor’s proclamations for SWAN Day in New York, San Francisco, Boston and elsewhere this year. Janice Perry, a long-time performance artist based in Vermont, obtained a SWAN Day proclamation from the Mayor of Burlington that commended her many years of cultural contributions. She wrote that it was very moving to have that kind of public statement of support from an elected official after all these years. So many women artists never experience that.

Many women artists are very talented at creating their work but have great difficulty with fundraising and publicity.  The traditional wisdom is that these artists should go to more classes that teach these skills and somehow make time to do all the extra work. But does that really make sense?

We don’t ask plumbers to fix our cars, and we wouldn’t want a dentist doing open heart surgery. Even in the world of arts management, a bookkeeper would have a hard time getting a job as a marketing director. Why do we think that a talented musician should spend her time writing grant proposals or that an actress should write her own press releases?

In almost every other sector in our economy, we recognize that the division of labor is more efficient because it lets everyone do what they do best.  If we truly respected the skill and experience and rehearsal time that it takes to create great art, then we would want our most talented women artists to focus on their art, and we would find people who were talented at managerial tasks to work with them.

These managers are starting to emerge through their SWAN Day events.  For next year, we plan to ask our more experienced SWAN Day organizers to start mentoring the new ones. We believe that this skill-sharing will be a great way to train a new generation of arts managers and will have wonderful long-term impacts on the field.

Alliance Building

Many organizations are doing excellent work for women artists within their own disciplines and their own countries, but our movement of women artists will be much more powerful if we can join together across disciplines and across our national borders. With the new administration in Washington, DC, we have an opportunity to organize advocacy campaigns to obtain more federal funding for artists in general and for women artists in particular.  To do that advocacy work effectively, we need to build alliances with other women’s organizations.

One of our goals for SWAN Day 2009 was to start to identify the larger organizations working with women artists in various disciplines and work with them on SWAN events.  We began by co-hosting a SWAN party at the Sundance Film Festival in January with the Alliance of Women Directors from Los Angeles. We had a great turn-out and made many contacts with up and coming women filmmakers and with other organizations serving women in film.

The success of our Sundance event helped us persuade New York Women in Film and Television (one of the oldest and largest women in film organizations in the country) to do a SWAN Day screening of short films and reception in New York.

The League of Professional Theatre Women organized a SWAN Day panel discussion at the Lincoln Center Library in conjunction with their wonderful exhibit of 100 years of women in costume, set, and lighting design. The excellent panel featured Carrie Robbins costume designer of over 30 Broadway shows including the original production of Grease), Robyn Goodman (producer of Avenue Q and In the Heights, winner of the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical, founder of Second Stage Theatre), playwright/ performer Lisa Kron  (2 Tony nominations for her Broadway production of Well); Leigh Silverman (director of Well, Beebo Brinker Chronicles); Holly Hynes, costume designer for the New York City Ballet; and Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, Director of Exhibitions for the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

We worked with the League to publicize the event and managed to get coverage on NBC’s 6 O’Clock News.  Like many women’s organizations, we struggle to get press coverage in the mainstream media, so the NBC coverage was a major breakthrough for SWAN Day in the tough New York market.

In Massachusetts I joined forces with Susan Fisher Sterling, the director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, at a SWAN conference on The Power of Women in the Arts at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.  The National Museum featured SWAN Day in their monthly magazine and hosted two other SWAN events – the 120th anniversary of the National Association of Women Artists, and the opening of an exhibit of the work of American fashion designer Mary McFadden.

In Boston, the International Centre for Women Playwrights hosted reading of new plays.  It was their second SWAN Day fundraiser for WomenArts.

WomenArts is building relationships with all of these organizations through their SWAN Day activities, and we plan to identify more partners for SWAN Day 2010.  By establishing these relationships we are laying the groundwork for future collaborations and advocacy efforts across disciplines. We are also working to build alliances with organizations of women artists in other countries and with large women’s organizations outside of the arts like the National Organization for Women and the Women’s Funding Network.

How To Participate

If you would like to participate in SWAN Day 2010, please visit our website at for more information.  The Third International SWAN Day will be on Saturday, March 27, 2010 and the surrounding weeks.  If you would like to organize an event, please email us at and we will be happy to talk to you.  Also, please feel free to contact us if you have any other questions or comments about SWAN Day. We are especially interested in hearing suggestions about organizations that might be interested in hosting SWAN Day events or partnering with us in any other way.