UPDATE: The 2015 Art + Feminism Edit-a-Thon is coming up the weekend of March 7. Check out this list of editing events all over the country to see if there’s one near you.
It’s well known that female artists are underrepresented in art museums, but what about in our more modern and malleable institutions?
Next week, groups of artists and tech-savvy folks around the country are taking aim at gender imbalance in representation of female artists on Wikipedia. The “Art + Feminism Edit-a-Thon” being held in New York on February 1st has inspired simultaneous editing marathons in 17 other cities, all focused on adding more female artists to the public encyclopedia and fleshing out the meager entries of existing women artists.
The exciting thing about Wikipedia is that it’s a cultural institution with very few gatekeepers. Artists don’t have to impress a curator or strike it big at a fancy gallery show in order to get their work on the site. Instead, they or one of their fans just has to have the tech skills to create a Wikipedia entry. The huge number of people adding information to Wikipedia should theoretically mean that the ever-changing encyclopedia can present a more accurate and diverse portrait of American art than, say, the Met. But while anyone can edit Wikipedia pages, surveys show that the vast majority of people who actually do edit the site are men: less than 13 percent of people who create or change Wikipedia entries are women.
“How the site is written has a political impact, I think,” says multimedia artist and digital designer Krystal South, who is helping run an edit-a-thon on February 1st in Portland, Oregon. “Doing searches for contemporary female artists on Wikipedia, you find there are giant gaps.”
While there are hundreds of female artists with entries in the encyclopedia, there should be many more. As a recent New York Times story on Wikipedia’s gender gap succinctly pointed out, “Is a category with five Mexican feminist writers impressive, or embarrassing when compared with the 45 articles on characters in The Simpsons?”
Since over half of internet users say they have used Wikipedia to find information, the absence of women artists from the site is the equivalent of leaving them out of the history books. Luckily, unlike a history book, Wikipedia is easy to change.
The edit-a-thon has posted a list of female artists that it hopes to add to Wikipedia by the end of the big day. But Krystal South is making her own list of favorite artists who are poorly represented on the site. At the top of her to-do list is improving the entry on video artist Joan Jonas. When you Google Joan Jonas’s name, her Wikipedia entry is the first result to pop up—even above her biography at the Museum of Modern Art. But unlike the museum’s biography, Jonas’s Wiki entry has zero photos of her work.
The reasons behind Wikipedia’s lack of representation of female artists are complicated. The low rate of female editors on Wikipedia fits into depressing industry-wide trends: women comprise only 25 percent of the workforce in computing industries. Long-time Wikipedia editor Sarah Stierch also pointed to the design on the site. “It’s aesthetically very masculine in its design,” Stierch said in an interview with The Daily Dot. “Its community, like so much of the early Internet, has been male dominated, and I think when a lot of people—men or women—look at Wikipedia these days, they see it as a source for information but have little interest or excitement in contributing to it.” Plus, the way Wikipedia works is that the strongest articles cite facts and information in existing sources—in that way, the historic lack of attention to female artists in books, museums, and galleries perpetuates their continued erasure in an age of crowdsourcing.
The goal of the upcoming “Feminism and Art Edit-a-Thon” is both to raise awareness about the need to intentionally create and improve Wikipedia pages for female artists, as well as to equip hundreds of new people with the concrete skills to edit Wiki pages on their own.
“It’s not like my life passion to make Wikipedia feminist, but it’s been really surprising, there’s this whole underground world that I wasn’t aware of of people who are dedicated to editing Wikipedia,” says South. “The beauty of Wikipedia is it’s a public institution, people have the ability to go change it.”
Related listening: Our podcast episode “Wired” talked about feminism issues in tech with programmers Ashe Dryden and Serena Wales.