Women are partly responsible for the private art gallery scene that's flourished in Kansas City over the past 20 years. And despite the stereotype of the artist working alone in a studio, they've been networking just like professionals in other industries.
“That’s what people do in the business world when they want to find a job or make contacts,” says CJ Charbonneau.
"We’ve got a lot of female gallery owners and artists, some very strong ones and successful ones and it’s inspiring,” says Vanessa Lacy, a painter who also runs her own gallery in the historic Livestock Exchange Building in Kansas City's West Bottoms.
Despite an art-world movement to pay more attention to female artists, they are still underrepresented in major museum collections. One study published last fall showed that just 11% of all museum acquisitions over the past decade have been of work by women.
But many of the women of Kansas City's arts community have a more immediate need than getting into museums.
Before their work might be considered for a museum collection, artists need to build resumes of exhibitions and shows in smaller galleries. Groups such as the Kansas City Artists Coalition have monthly gatherings for artists, but studio artists — who do spend much of their time alone creating work — do not have many opportunities to meet gallery owners to help market their work.
So four years ago, CJ Charbonneau started a Facebook group called Women in the Arts Networking KC. It grew into monthly events with wine and cheese at different galleries.
“If I was an artist going into a gallery just meeting a gallery person would scare the crap out of me," says Charbonneau. "So maybe if you could go to a gallery space in a group, and hear the owner talk and it would be a more approachable situation, people are having some wine and some snacks.”
During the day, Charbonneau works as a research and appraisal assistant at Madison Group Fine Art Appraisals. She spends most days looking at artwork and studying archives at the office in Union Hill; she's also a resident writer at Charlotte Street Studios. But she used to work at The UMKC Gallery of Art.
“I know when I worked at a gallery, I never went to any galleries I didn’t have time," says Charbonneau with a laugh. "I was always working when other people were working."
The spaces they visit, Charbonneau says, are open outside of normal business hours, such as on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening.
"Then you cannot only see it, you can see it and hear the whole story from whoever works there,” she says.
Building a career is "a very long game," says Laura Nugent, who has spent the past two decades selling her work in galleries around the country.
Networking events like these have something to offer an artist at any stage of their career.
“I can advise somebody on how to get started, what’s the best way to get your work exhibited if you never have," says Nugent. "I know that I want advice about where I am, and then how do I go beyond where I am, and so this is an opportunity to do that."
If nothing else, says Desiree Warren, whose works in clay and metal were featured in the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art's Women to Watch | Metals exhibition two years ago, the evenings are a good excuse to get out of the studio.
“It’s cool to see what people are doing. Women of all different stripes. Some are married, some are longtime single women, some have kids, some don’t have kids. Some are immigrants. Some have never left the metro,” Warren says.
“There’s not a lot of weird rivalry in the art world that I observe in Kansas City," she adds. "I feel like we’re all pretty good cheerleaders for each other. Something about helping your sisters out.”
And the relationships they're reinforcing might eventually translate to more of their work on gallery walls.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter @juliedenesha.