Do Israeli women deserve their own awards?

An initiative to establish a special prize for Israeli women artists provokes a public debate on whether affirmative action helps in advancing women or damages the battle for gender equality.

al-monitor An installation of untitled works by Israeli Artist Aline Alagem. Photo by Roee Fainburg.

Topics covered

workers' party, women in society, women, israel, employment, discrimination, artists

Jun 10, 2014

The numbers tell the story: Women win a lot fewer prizes than men do. A review conducted by the daily Haaretz revealed that women with impressive achievements are much less esteemed than men, and their share of prizes is very low to abysmal.

Take, for example, the top-rated Rothschild Prize. It has been awarded every two years since 1959 to Israeli researchers in the fields of exact sciences, humanities and social sciences, but according to the report, only 4 among its 131 recipients have been women. Or take the Wolf Prize, awarded since 1978 to scientists and artists from around the world. Haaretz reported that only 8 of its 272 recipients were women. Or the EMET Prize for Science, Art and Culture, awarded since 2002 under the auspices of the prime minister. Only 16 women have had the honor out of 114 recipients thus far. Or the Israel Prize, awarded annually at an official Independence Day ceremony attended by the heads of the state. According to the findings, 100 women have won the prize thus far, compared with 558 men.

This situation has generated a new initiative that is stirring up a storm on the Israeli arts scene — establishing a dedicated, women artists-only prize. On June 6, the initiators of the award concept, the artist Rinat Scheindover and professor Tal Dekel of the art history department and women studies program at Tel Aviv University, wrote an open letter to Culture Minister Limor Livnat, calling for the establishment of a prize or grant for women creators.

“The balance of power in society is unequal,” they explain in their letter. “Men creators come in for far greater recognition and material reward. … Contrary to the growing trend in the Western world of dedicated support for women in the visual arts, in Israel women and men compete for the same slot of institutional support. A slot which is gender-blind. And as a result, the Israeli arts world loses many important voices of women creators from all walks of life.” Scheindover and Dekel conclude by asserting, “The establishment of a state-sponsored prize or grant especially for women creators is necessary, a prize that will encourage them to stick to their artistic endeavor and make their voices heard in an independent and original fashion.”

The two women are now collecting signatures of support for their letter, which they intend to send to Livnat. They say 150 women and men from the art world have already signed on, including the curator and critic Dana Gillerman, the successful Israeli (and international) artist Sigalit Landau, curator and doctoral candidate No’am Segal and more.

The artist Aline Alagem, who recently exhibited her works in a solo show at the Artstation Gallery in Tel Aviv, told Al-Monitor, “Let’s not deceive ourselves that there’s equality in the art world.” She also said, “At the very least, the proposal for a prize dedicated to women artists only will provide a springboard for a debate about the inequality, with more practical potential. It’s true the prize might generate anger among women artists who feel they are equal to men and don’t think they require affirmative sponsorship, or bitterness among men who see no justification for affirmative action. But even this anger and bitterness can arouse consciousness and lead to a more significant change in the way these prizes are awarded in general.”

Contrary voices are speaking out as well. Milana Gitzin-Adiram — an independent curator, former director of the Bat Yam Arts Museum and curator of the Israeli pavilion at the 2012 architecture biennale in Venice who has served on several Culture Ministry prize committees — thinks there are more important goals than giving out a women artists-only prize. “As a woman, this is perhaps not a popular stand,” she told Al-Monitor, “and if they were to have asked me a decade ago, I would have of course supported such a prize. But today it’s clear that prizes are awarded in equal fashion. That’s how the prize committees are composed. Of course I support any investment in the field of the arts, but in my view, instead of creating a prize for a specific sector, it’s better to join forces and to fight for bigger goals — for example, for increasing the share of the culture budget in the state budget. Of course it’s important to ensure that prizes are awarded equally among men and women, with the sole criterion being good, quality art.”

An examination of the major prizes in the arts suggests Gitzin-Adiram is right. The Nathan Gotesdinner Foundation Prize for young artists, awarded between 1995 and 2010, was given to nine women and seven men. The Culture Ministry’s Young Artist Prize, awarded each year to 10 artists aged 35 and under, was given to six men and four women in 2012 as well as in 2013. Ten men and eight women have been awarded the Rappaport Prize, given each year to one young and one veteran artist. The Haim Shiff Prize for Figurative-Realistic Art, established in 2008, has so far been awarded to four men and two women.

The initiators of the proposed women’s prize are not convinced. They claim that even if there is a certain measure of equality in prizes awarded, it nonetheless does not reflect the division of the sexes in the field itself. A February 2012 report prepared for the Knesset Science and Technology Committee bolsters their argument. According to the document, written ahead of a committee session on the advancement of women in science, women constitute more than half those studying for all academic degrees, but their representation among senior faculty staff remains low, at only 26% in 2009. At the top level of tenured professors, women accounted for only 14%.

“The percentage of women among art students is very high,” Scheindover told Al-Monitor, ”but virtually all the art schools in Israel are headed by men. Those who decide what constitutes 'good art' are men. As a direct result, much art that is based on craftsmanship — such as sewing, for example — is considered low caliber. Already in the early stages of art school, there is gender discrimination, which reflects the general gender discrimination.”

As for the claim that the curatorial field is actually dominated almost exclusively by women, Scheindover said, “It’s true that today there are many women museum curators, but that also has to do with the low pay. The minute women enter a certain line of work, the pay and work conditions start eroding, and it becomes tailored for women, who supposedly don’t have to make a living and can rely on their partner to bring in his pay.”

Scheindover agreed with Alagam that awarding a prize dedicated to women is also designed to generate a debate. “The idea is to bring about recognition of the legitimacy of the perspectives and life experiences of women, as well as of the legitimacy of their voices in the arts,” she said. “From that point one can move on to rectifying the economic situation. Today, from a social point of view, the departure point for men and women is not even. Our initiative simply points to the inequality. People are afraid to point to this inequality, but ignoring it will not make it go away. I understand that it pains women to publicly admit discrimination, admit that we are not considered equal, but that’s how it is. That’s why it’s fitting to have affirmative action, just like many other sectors have.”

As for the argument that the very act of awarding a women's-only prize is supposedly an admission of women’s inferiority, she responded, “To say that awarding a women’s category prize belittles women reminds me of the saying that 'one can hide the sun with a finger.' There’s a central and important discussion taking place, and there are those who choose to look at it through a narrow prism.”

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