Bhavna Mehta’s “Leela – Portrait of A Woman in a Green Dress” / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

Last week, the Los Angeles Times published a breakdown of how Los Angeles museums compared, men to women, in terms of major museum solo shows. And for the first time, women came out (significantly) ahead.

How does San Diego measure up?

I ran a quick breakdown, basing the definition of “museum” on what the San Diego Museum Council classifies as “visual art and design” museums. The Museum Council, while membership-based, follows the American Alliance of Museum’s standards for defining museums, including adhering to collections management and ethics policies.

And of those visual art/design museums, 10 of them hosted non-permanent solo shows in 2018. I counted everything solo, even brief runs or smaller-scale exhibitions, that were listed on those museums’ websites.

An early look at the metropolitan (and publicly funded) heavy-hitters, the Balboa Park and urban museums, was dismal. San Diego Museum of Art hosted one female solo show (Nancy Lorenz), but five men got some solo wall time: Alfred Mitchell, Gjon Mili, Childe Hassam, Javier Marín Gutiérrez and Tim Shaw. Let’s talk about Nancy Lorenz for a second, though. For a large, historic institution such as SDMA to feature a living – nay! relatively young! – female artist (who was even featured in Elle magazine) is a bold statement. The summer show at SDMA was her first solo exhibition.

The Museum of Photographic Arts hosted Erica Deeman as the lone solo woman, plus two solo shows of men: George Hurrell and Irving Penn. Mingei should get a pass because its temporary relocation interrupted much of its programming in 2018, but the numbers are zero women, one man (William L Hawkins). The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego had a 1-to-3 ratio: Sadie Barnette to Lewis deSoto, Yve Laris Cohen and Mowry Baden.

The Museum of Photographic Arts and Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s important steps toward representation – which is a broader matter than just gender – were documented in this April CityBeat piece that covered the Deeman and Barnette exhibitions.

The Timken clocks in at one to zero: Living artist Bhavna Mehta graced us with a residency this summer (the Timken’s first), with some stunning installations. No men.

And San Diego Art Institute saw three women to one man: Women Xuchi Naungayan Eggleton, Flavia D’Urso and Sheena Rae Dowling each held solo exhibitions at the Balboa Park haven for living artists, as did a man, Roberto Romero Molina. Naungayan Eggleton and D’Urso’s exhibitions only lasted a long weekend, while Dowling’s lasted several weeks. Romero Molina’s was up for two months.

In the city limits, that’s seven women to 12 men.

As an aside, the San Diego History Center is only classified by the Museum Council as “historical site” or “cultural/heritage,” which means the brand new Bob Matheny solo show is not part of my original “visual art/design” figures. Similarly, the Central Library’s Art Gallery isn’t a member of the Museum Council at all; its current solo exhibition – a woman, Jennifer G. Spencer – is also not counted, but both of these significant shows at notable institutions are worth mentioning. But I set parameters for a reason! Stay the course!

The Bonita Historical Society held two exhibits of the solo work of men (Walter Redondo and Dr. Teller), but zero women.

North County, however, is helping even out the playing field. The California Center for the Arts Escondido celebrated just one solo show, a woman, Niki de Saint Phalle.

Lux Art Institute’s residency program hosted four women, Rachel Mica Weiss, Lia Halloran, Gabrielle Bakker and Francis Upritchard, but just one man, Tomory Dodge. And the Oceanside Museum of Art hosted a whopping six women-helmed solo shows that opened in 2018: Faiya Fredman, Maidy Morhous, Joyce Cutler Shaw, Sherry Karver, Janell Cannon and Claudia Ramirez (her Day of the Dead altar had an extended run and was in partnership with the Mingei). The works of four men were exhibited in solo shows in 2018 at OMA: James Hubbell, Fred Tomaselli, Brandon Ragnar Johnson and David Fokos.

Oceanside Museum of Art alone had the same number of solo women shows as all the Balboa Park museums combined. But with 10 total (men or women) solo shows, prolificity works in its favor.

“OMA is willing to take the risk by showing artists who have not otherwise been previously [vetted] by the museum world,” said the museum’s executive director, Maria Mingalone. “This often include underrepresented individuals, work by artists that falls into popular culture versus ‘fine art,’ or work that otherwise falls along the fringe of mainstream museum practice.”

The final count: 18 women, 19 men. Nothing to brag about, but not awful. And mostly not awful by the hands of smaller, younger, North County institutions. And it makes me curious: How would the countless independent galleries and those institutions outside of the San Diego Museum Council affect the numbers? And would including group shows serve as an improvement, or worsen it?

Regardless of how well represented women artists are in smaller galleries and group shows throughout the county, a solo museum show (versus group or gallery shows) notably transforms the reputation – and the profitability – of an artist.

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