Women have made waves of progress since the passage of the 19th Amendment nearly a century ago. Even so, it seems like the most recent movement is like a tsunami, crashing through society to wash away pervasive injustice, once and for all. In arts, culture and entertainment, just look at the list of winners at this year’s Oscars for powerful evidence. But women in the arts have fought hard for gender equality for some time. Back in 2008, for instance, the arts service organization WomenArts launched its first Support Women Artists Now (SWAN) Day, a worldwide empowerment event that is flying high now more than ever.
The 12th Annual SWAN Day is officially March 30, but events will take place throughout March and April. This year, in addition, WomenArts Founder and Executive Director Martha Richards will hand over her leadership reins to StateraArts, the nonprofit organization co-founded by Executive Director Melinda Pfundstein that aims to “take positive action to bring women into full and equal participation in the arts.”
I caught up with Richards, Pfundstein and StateraArts Operations Director Sarah Greenman to find out how SWAN Day has adapted to our changing social and political times and what changes will be the works under StateraArts’ leadership.
Robin Rothstein: Can you describe SWAN Day for someone who has never heard of it?
Martha Richards: SWAN Day is a worldwide celebration of women artists. During March and April, we encourage people all over the world to organize events featuring women artists and to post them on the SWAN Calendar.
We have two main goals. The first is to increase the visibility of women artists by showing the world that there are women doing amazing work in every art form. There have been events featuring women in theater, dance, music, the visual arts, and film and video. They have ranged from afternoon workshops to multi-day, multi-disciplinary public festivals. Many of the women artists involved are working outside of mainstream institutions. As a result, it is hard for them to get the publicity they deserve. We want to make the world more aware of these women and their art.
Our second goal is to provide opportunities for women to discover the power and joy of working with each other. Many of the events are in a festival format. This gives the artists a chance to see each other’s work and to network. Many artists who got to know each other through SWAN events have developed new collaborations.
RR: Why is it important to link women artists with women audience members?
Melinda Pfundstein: Statera is working to bring women into full and equal participation in the arts — not just the individual artist, but some 70% of woman ticket-buyers who deserve to see themselves represented in the art they consume and support. We believe that art holds the power to remind us all of what is possible; that all benefit when art is made by and for more people.
MR: The arts provide powerful tools for audience members to explore their own feelings and to gain understanding of other people. But how can we, as women audience members, use the arts to examine the important issues in our lives when we almost never see those issues explored? Almost 90% of mainstream film and TV programs are written and directed by men, and most perpetuate stereotypes about gender, race, class and other issues. Although a few men are able to create wonderful women characters, we believe women artists are much more likely to create the stories women audience members need.
Second, women artists are often dismissed by male critics who do not understand their work. So it is good for artists to have audience members who truly understand their work and can relate to it at deep levels.
RR: With gender fluidity becoming more mainstream, how has SWAN Day adapted?
MP: Official SWAN Day celebrations amplify and celebrate women’s work. StateraArts recognizes the limiting nature of the binary use of women. We encourage all those hosting and celebrating International SWAN Day events to do so in the spirit of inclusion and through an intersectional lens.
MR: WomenArts has always recognized that we are part of a larger movement for more accurate representation and fair pay in the arts. That larger movement includes everyone experiencing invisibility or employment discrimination in the arts because of their gender, sexual preference, race, class, religion, ability or other issues, and we stand in solidarity with them. We have always had an intersectional approach that recognizes that many people experience multiple forms of discrimination.
RR: What effect has SWAN Day had on arts and politics since its inception in 2008? And under this administration?
MR: In these challenging times, I think that simple acts of kindness and mutual support are more important than ever. SWAN Day gives women opportunities to work together and cheer each other on. I have heard from many artists that it has inspired them and given them a sense of community. It is hard to quantify this kind of thing, but SWAN Day has started many friendships among women artists. I think that this network of collaborators that we are building may turn out to be our biggest long-term contribution to the field.
RR: What are some notable artists, arts organizations and/or venues that have been involved over the years?
MR: We have had almost 2,000 events in 36 countries over the past 11 years. Stars such as Sandra Oh, Famke Janssen and Isabel Allende have created short SWAN videos. We did a panel discussion about Broadway women in theater at the Lincoln Center Library that featured Lisa Kron, who won Tony awards for her work on Fun Home.
The women of SWAN Day Kenya were among the first to respond to the announcement of the inaugural SWAN Day in 2008 — even though Kenya was in martial law following the contested presidential elections there. They have done events in Nairobi every year since, and have had as many as 700 people in attendance, often including women from the tribes in the outlying regions.
A number of other groups have done events every year. Two of the largest ones are SWAN Day Connecticut (featuring women-fronted rock bands and a crafts fair) and SWAN Day Miami (a three-day festival with an emphasis on spoken word). There have also been some wonderful collaborations — New York Women in Film and Television usually collaborates with the Women in the Arts and Media Coalition and a number of other women’s arts organizations on their SWAN event every year.
RR: Martha, how did you select StateraArts to be the new leader of SWAN Day. How will you and SWAN Day co-founder Jan Lisa Huttner remain involved?
MR: The WomenArts board selected StateraArts because we could see SWAN Day as a good fit with their mission and their other programs. We felt that StateraArts would embrace SWAN Day as an integral part of their work instead of just an add-on. I am on the Advisory Board of StateraArts and actively involved as a mentor to Melinda Pfundstein. I will continue to be involved as a writer and mentor. And Jan is very involved in planning SWAN Day New York. She is also training young women to be film journalists through her company, FF2 Media.
RR: Any new implementations or undertakings for SWAN Day 2019 under StateraArts’s direction?
Sarah Greenman: Yes. Last October, StateraArts hosted a SWAN Day Convening as part of our national conference. It was pretty historic, because it was the first time organizers had ever met in person.
Two main initiatives were born of that collaboration. The first is the #SWANSunday Campaign. This is designed to amplify women and non-binary artists by flooding social media every Sunday with their work. This serves the mission by raising collective awareness about individual women-identified artists and also spreads the news about SWAN Day. It also keeps it in the public eye year-round.
Another new initiative is Statera’s free Resource Directory. SWAN organizers expressed a desire for more tools that would empower them to fundraise, connect with other women artists, and tap into existing resources such as art retreats, artist grants, advocacy tools and training opportunities. StateraArts went to work on building this tremendous resource and now offers it on our website to everyone!
RR: Can you tease some of the events of SWAN Day 2019?
SG: The SWAN Day Calendar is the best place to start. It lists events by date and location. As of Feb. 20, StateraArts already has 70-plus women-led events as part of our listings. Our 2019 highlights include veteran events like SWAN Day Connecticut hosting their 12th annual music and art festival in New Britain, SWAN Day Milwaukee, SWAN Day Miami, and SWAN Day Kenya.
Other highlights include The Fire In Me — a theatrical exploration of domestic violence in San Diego’s Filipino community by Thelma Virata de Castro; Pacific Conservatory Theatre’s production of Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves; and SWAN Day Pensacola, which is happening in partnership with PenArts. And StateraArts is hosting a Virtual SWAN Day Party on Sat., March 30 via Facebook so that our expansive community can connect with SWAN Events all over the world. We’ll have live video feeds, real-time interviews, and more.
RR: How has SWAN Day shaped your perspective on the nature of leadership?
MR: I always believed that women have the ability to lead, but they don’t always get the opportunity. Since SWAN Day is a grassroots movement, WomenArts has worked to encourage women to organize events by offering them practical advice about fundraising and publicity. One of the great joys has been watching women use those resources and grow as leaders over the years.
MP: One of the many aspects of Martha Richards’ legacy is recognizing and magnifying the talents and gifts of everyday leaders. International SWAN Day is a call-to-action for the leader in all of us to activate around shared values in our most intimate communities. Martha recognized the power of gathering together like-minded and like–hearted people, and built SWAN Day to what it is today. StateraArts is proud to carry forward this legacy.