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Perspectives on WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP—Bill Stern

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September 15, 2015
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In support of AIGA’s Women’s Leadership initiative, AIGA LA is embarking on a series of events, interviews, and discussions to celebrate the achievements of women in design, cultivate awareness of gender-related issues, and creating connections by facilitating relationships within and beyond the design industry.

This interview occurred in Fall, 2015, as AIGA LA prepared for it’s first Women in Leadership panel discussion.


Bill Stern is the Museum Director and Curator for the Museum of California Design, where his projects are mainly curating design exhibitions for museums, organizing award benefits and, occasionally, writing books. He is currently organizing an award benefit to honor Frank Gehry for his product designs.

Do you work from an office, from home, or other?

Home-office.

Can you give a brief explanation of the company culture you work in today?

I am the museum’s only full-time staff. Organizing the award benefit, I am working with one contractee, a graphic designer/photographer/office assistant, an accountant/CFO, a paid publicist, two paid sponsor agents, and two volunteers. Three of them are women, four are men.

Describe your family situation.

Single, gay.

How does this status impact you in your career?

The principal negative impact of being single is the absence of the network to which a mate might belong. The advantage of being single is being able to devote almost all my time to work. The advantage of being gay is the tribal affinity that it adds to contacts with other gay people. Although the new “acceptance” of gays has removed the sense of belonging to a secret society (or at least a secret part of society), it has not removed the shared experience of being an outsider that Jews and African-Americans also share.

From your perspective as a man or woman, are your career goals or current opportunities at all impacted by your gender and or family situation?

No, I don’t think so. I founded the institution I head and I don’t feel that being a man adversely affects my work relationships with colleagues of either gender.

Have you or anyone you know, ever experienced a disparity or career setback that you felt was based on gender or decisions centered on family situations?

Not recently, but several female designers have told me about difficulties they experienced in the ’50s and ’60s and even much later than that.

What do you think are the most damaging cultural norms about women or issues that affect women in the creative industry?

A belief that women can’t do this or that, or can only do such-and-such, is damaging both to individual women and to society as a whole. To whatever degree women are prevented from contributing their best inflicts psychological harm on the individual and robs the society as a whole of the contributions she–and potentially half of the population–could have made to it. That is the underlying theme of my book California’s Designing Women 1896–1986.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges to women’s careers when it comes to the creative industry?

Exclusion based on gender.

How has your career or perspective as a professional working in a creative industry been impacted by working with women?

This questionnaire prompted me to engage in unexpected introspection. Not even my work on the exhibition California’s Designing Women 1896–1986 and the subsequent book had caused me to reflect on how my mother’s talent and my father’s encouragement of it affected my sensitivity to the place of women in the creative environment.
That my mother had natural talent is attested to by a photograph taken in a New York City park in about 1923 when she was 10.  In it she is seated on a boulder with her younger sister and her parents and on her lap is a drawing and a pencil. 
Her creativity was encouraged first by her parents, who would have sent her to study art in Paris were it not for the Depression, and then by my father, a general practitioner who, after seeing patients, would try to get her into a gallery and ultimately succeeded.
When I was about 10 I was struck by a great compliment she was paid by her teacher, Jack Tworkov, who later was given a retrospective at the Whitney Museum. He told her: “You are the best female painter I know.” Even at that young age I knew there was something not right about that.
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