Author | Illustration Sarah Brown

When Men in Power Make You Feel Small

In a meeting with a gallery owner last week, I was confronted with a question: “Do you know what fine art is?” he asked me. I waited for a moment, unsure where he was going with this. I repeated the question back to him in a very serious tone: “Ah ha…that depends. How would YOU define fine art?” Deflecting the question back and forth like a ping pong match, I sat rather amused at this man’s attempt to make me feel small in a meeting I had arranged to chat about showcasing my work at his gallery. The silence was broken when he looked at me like a patronizing cow and remarked, “Fine art is for serious artists.”

If there’s one thing that rubs me the wrong way, it’s when people I don’t know tell me I can’t do something. This gallery owner was one of them. Sitting across from me with a Bluetooth headphone dangling from his ear, he explained to me why I wasn’t a serious artist. Ultimately, the conversation made me very concerned for artists looking for exposure in Toronto. Because I don’t care if he has enough money to own a gallery in Toronto–he’s a big-headed twit! And the last thing anybody in this city needs is a person who gets off telling young people why they’re never going to “make it” or be taken seriously.

“I’m not saying this to make you feel bad; this is strictly from a business perspective,” he told me. I nodded my head, wondering when would be the most appropriate moment to fly into a mid-air hurricane kick and vertical roll his ass to the floor like a street fighter match. Instead, I sat still, smiled nervously and stared at his cheap sunglasses on the table. Beyond his long list of reasons why I wasn’t cut out for the serious art world, I couldn’t help but wonder why he had set up a meeting to piss on my dreams. I didn’t knock on his gallery door looking for his advice or a pat on the back; I approached him knowing that my work was already good enough to hang on his walls. So why were we having this conversation?

It’s because people like him exist in all industries. Their purpose is to piss on the “fantasy world” of emerging artists. The way this conversation unfolded led me to believe that I was not only not good enough to participate in the serious art world but also slightly delusional. But that’s where he’s wrong and I’ll tell you why.

This man represents one of the many obstacles I’m going to face in my career. Does it change how I feel about making art? Absolutely not. Is it going to change how and to whom I sell my work? No. But I will take this experience and use it as motivation to drive my career forward. I’m thrilled I spent thirty minutes of my life listening to a guy tell me that I’ll never make it as an artist. What better motivation to achieve and find the personal fulfillment I’ve been looking for in a career that’s “never going to last” or is “better off as a hobby” than this one. It’s people like him who make me wake up in the morning and draw because I’m entitled to prove him wrong.

One of the things I recite to myself daily is a quote from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist: “When you want something, all the universe conspires to help you achieve it.” This gallery owner isn’t the first to stand in my way and he will not be the last, which is why it’s important to use this experience as a constant reminder that nothing comes easily, especially the thing you want most. After all, like Coelho says, “It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” That’s why I’ll continue doing what I do best without letting this gallery owner change the course of my direction.

But this isn’t just about being rejected as an artist; it’s also about women in the art world. As a female artist, the world is constantly reminding me that men make more money and that women have to work harder to make their voices heard. I wonder if the conversation with the gallery owner would have gone differently if I looked like Léon the Professional. Would he have felt obliged to tell me how hard it is to make it?

As women continue to get short-changed, they’re forced to prove men in power wrong. There’s always someone telling us what we will never be, instead of telling us what we can be. All of these experiences, disappointing and enraging as they are, are the memories I hold onto when I doubt myself. Being the person they tell me I can’t be is how I prove them wrong every single day. I refuse to let a stranger tell me what I’m capable of; he has no idea what I’ve been through to get to the place I am now.

“I hope you don’t take this the wrong way,” he repeated. I shook his hand, going the extra mile to thank him for being so…honest…with me. I had arrived overconfident with a very clear intention to display my work at this gallery, and I hadn’t expected to be laughed at. I wish I could tell you that I sumo smashed him, but the sad part of this story is that I let him talk down to me and tell me to look elsewhere for success. I didn’t stand up for myself. Not once did I interrupt him. I just sat there listening like I was an unsure little girl desperate for guidance. Inside, I was raging.

It may seem like a no-brainer to delete this experience from my memory’s hard drive and move on. I could do that. But it’s important to remember shitty experiences like these. Women have to work harder to be seen in the same light as their male counterparts. We can sit pretty, listen, look long and pretend we’re cool with someone telling us we can’t do it, but they’re wrong. So wrong in fact that I hope to see this man one day in the future and tell him why he should quit his job, give up on his dreams and close his gallery because he’ll never amount to anything serious. And when I’ve made him feel like the smallest man who ever walked the earth, I’ll pat him on the back and say, “I’m not saying this to make you feel bad; this is strictly from a business perspective.”

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