The Challenges and Realities of Breastfeeding at an Art Fair

At art fairs around the world, breastfeeding is no easy task.

Martin Kippenberger, "In der Muttermilchzentrale" (1985), watercolor, pencil, and ballpoint pen on paper, 5 1/5 x 8 2/5 in. (image courtesy of Mana Contemporary)
Martin Kippenberger, “In der Muttermilchzentrale” (1985), watercolor, pencil, and ballpoint pen on paper, 5 1/5 x 8 2/5 in. (image courtesy of Mana Contemporary)

Art historian Amy Kaeser’s first experience breastfeeding at an art fair was not a positive one. She brought her son to the LA Art Show, which takes place at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and found seating in the dining area. “There wasn’t anywhere for me to be alone and be more private,” Kaeser says. She felt out of place and exposed. “I didn’t see anyone with a young child, so I was getting weird stares, and it was uncomfortable,” she said.

After half a day at the art fair, during which Kaeser fed her son multiple times, she left the convention center exhausted and with a different perspective on fairs. “It put a damper on my interest in those kinds of venues,” she says. Now, she only attends on weekends if she can leave her children with her husband.

This limits her ability to review shows, which she does occasionally for the Los Angeles magazine Art and Cake, or to simply attend as a member of the art world.

As Art Basel in Basel, one of the world’s most high-profile art sales events, opened in June, it’s worth noting how breastfeeding and pumping could be better accommodated by art fairs, where accessibility challenges are also a form of exclusion.

Azikiwe Mohammed, "Mother and Child" (2017), C-print, 20 x 24 in. (image courtesy of the artist)
Azikiwe Mohammed, “Mother and Child” (2017), C-print, 20 x 24 in. (image courtesy of the artist)

According to Art Basel and UBS’s The Art Market 2018 report, dealers made 46% of their sales at art fairs in 2017, a 5% uptick from the previous year. There are now more than 260 art fairs, up from 55 fairs in the year 2000, according to the report. Attending these art fairs is a rigorous circuit that many active professionals often feel compelled to attend for networking and art market research — and yet, the art world has room to improve when it comes to accessibility, including for nursing mothers.

Artist Carmen Winant, who currently has work in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) about birth and motherhood, hasn’t attended an art fair since she had children two and a half years ago. “I know how difficult it would be. I have a four-month-old, and if I’m not with him I have to pump every couple of hours. I effectively stay away from those situations which will make me feel uncomfortable in that capacity,” says Winant.

Lack of comfortable pumping facilities is a problem she has encountered outside of fairs — including at speaking engagements and gallery openings. “It’s not infrequent that I turn down opportunities because they are not set up to accommodate breastfeeding or pumping,” Winant says.

Uprise Art gallery founder Tze Chun has an eight-month-old daughter and has adjusted her schedule in order to be able to work art fairs: “I’ve just arranged with my team to take shifts at our booth that don’t exceed four hours. I haven’t even bothered to try and bring my pump to set up shop, but it definitely has affected the way we schedule our time,” she explains.

This year, Frieze New York’s VIP attendees contended with a stifling hot tent for the first two days of the fair — ultimately impacting sales. Even under the best circumstances, attending a robust art fair can be physically demanding. The Armory Show, held in Manhattan’s Piers 92 and 94 has more acreage than Madison Square Park — which may not seem like a lot to traverse, until you factor in all the zigzagging between booths and artworks.

Hyperallergic reached out to over 60 art fairs to inquire about their facilities for breastfeeding or pumping parents and roughly a third* of them responded, from Asia, Europe, North America, and South America, allowing for a sample across regions and scope. Of the 18 fairs that responded, 22% of respondents said that breastfeeding is normalized in their region, and 33% said that there is a public area with seating or a lounge at their fair where parents could breastfeed.

Of the fairs that responded, 28% have no designated lactation space, although 39% said that they have a private space (such as an office or staff room) available upon request. The bathroom is considered the lactation facility at 17% of responding fairs.

Installation shot of <em>Please Touch: Body Boundaries</em> at Mana Contemporary (image courtesy of Mana Contemporary)
Installation shot of Please Touch: Body Boundaries at Mana Contemporary (image courtesy of Mana Contemporary)

“I am not going to go into a restroom and [pump]. That’s unsanitary,” says Kaeser. Winant describes the frustration of trying to relax enough to pump in a room that isn’t set up for it. “I find pumping a little dehumanizing to begin with, and to boot when you have to do it in a public restroom,” she says. “Or you’re crouching because your cord doesn’t extend far enough. It really feels bad.”

According to the art world professionals that Hyperallergic talked to, fair attendees can and should be realistic about the limitations of these venues, which are often multi-use convention centers. But in turn, fairs should ask themselves which steps they could take to be more accommodating to parents and families.

“It’s very hard having children in a professional context, and I understand that from both sides,” says Amanda Coulson, the co-founder and director of VOLTA. “Fairs are under so much pressure. Every square meter has to be paid for, so sometimes it’s hard to find a comfy place to sit.”

Brigid Berlin, "Untitled" (1996), ink on paper, 6 1/4 x 9 in. (image courtesy of the artist and INVISIBLE-EXPORTS)
Brigid Berlin, “Untitled” (1996), ink on paper, 6 1/4 x 9 in. (image courtesy of the artist and INVISIBLE-EXPORTS)

Coulson found out that she was pregnant with her second child on the first day of the first VOLTA fair in 2005. By the next year, her four-month-old daughter was sitting at the welcome desk with Coulson, handing out VIP cards. As such, the fair strives to be family-friendly.

VOLTA14 (held from June 11–16 to coincide with Art Basel) has found a new venue in Basel, Elsässerstrasse 215. “We offer mothers wishing to pump or breastfeed our staff office at Elsässerstrasse 215, which is private and tucked away down a short hallway from the fair floor. It has electricity for an electric pump and enough counter space for all the essentials that come from (or go into) a change bag,” the fair’s communication manager Brian Fee said in an email.

Almost all of the women interviewed said that their ideal scenario includes both normalization and formalization of available facilities.

“My view is that [pumping and breastfeeding] should be so part of what we consider normal that we pump in public everywhere, no problem. But I’m also a realist, and I know that many women still feel uncomfortable breastfeeding in public,” says Mathilde Cohen, a professor of law at the University of Connecticut and the co-author of Making Milk: The Past, Present and Future of Our Primary Food. “We should have lactation rooms everywhere just like we have bathrooms everywhere. There should be lactation rooms in train stations, in long distance trains, in malls, in museums,” Cohen continues.

Jill Downen, "Breast Blocks" (2009), plaster, polystyrene, and latex, 48 blocks, each: 19 x 8 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. (image courtesy of the artist and Bruno David Gallery)
Jill Downen, “Breast Blocks” (2009), plaster, polystyrene, and latex, 48 blocks, each: 19 x 8 1/2 x 8 1/2 in., and, in the background, paintings by Clarity Haynes, (L-R), “Roxanne” (2012), “Lyz” (2012), “Leonora” (2015), and “Jaece” (2015) (image courtesy of the artist and Bruno David Gallery, paintings in background all courtesy of the artist)

“It’s similar to saying to women you have one year maternity leave. You don’t have to take it — women can decide how they want to participate in it,” says Dana Ben-Ari, the filmmaker behind Breastmilk (2014), a documentary about the lives of breastfeeding parents. She is also the co-curator of the exhibition Please Touch: Body Boundaries, currently at Mana Contemporary, with artworks depicting breasts by Louise Bourgeois, Takashi Murakami, and other contemporary artists. Ben-Ari and Cohen both participated in a panel to discuss the core themes of the exhibition.

“I would love to see a lactation pod or mobile mother’s unit at fairs,” says Chun. Winant echoes this suggestion: “I think it would not be that difficult to have pumping or nursing booths.”

To Lora Appleton, the New York-based founder of children’s design gallery kinder MODERN and the Female Design Council, an organization dedicated to supporting women in design, these steps don’t have to be grand gestures: designated family times, free water, a comfortable place to sit, and stroller parking are among her suggestions. “From the fair’s perspective, they don’t always have the luxury of space, especially in an urban environment,” Appleton says, but “it doesn’t cost a lot to think and to try certain initiatives.”

These offerings, when and where they do exist, should be clearly marked for attendees who aren’t familiar enough with the fair or its staff to seek out this information on their own — especially for fairs that offer their private offices to nursing parents, said several people interviewed.

Zhen Guo, "Punching Bag" (2014-15), sewing, collage, and painting, each: 72 x 18 x 18 in. (image courtesy of the artist)
Zhen Guo, “Punching Bag” (2014-15), sewing, collage, and painting, each: 72 x 18 x 18 in. (image courtesy of the artist)

“If there’s an awareness and sensitivity to the fact that you’re welcome to do what you need to do I think that’s a step in the right direction,” says Appleton. “It’s almost like the ‘Baby On Board’ sign. If that type of tone is presented in literature, on the website, on small little decals or cards in the lounge, at least you know you’re thought of,” says Appleton.

Progress has been made, but things can still improve. “A lot has changed in art fairs since I breastfed my children. There are diaper-changing areas in every bathroom of most art fairs, especially in the US,” says Leila Heller, who founded her eponymous New York and Dubai-based gallery over three decades ago. “Mothers sit in public areas where there is seating and put a blanket on their shoulder to go on with their breastfeeding.”

Asking working parents what else they may want would go a long way toward including people like Winant and Kaeser.

“If fairs are willing to engage with this topic they’ll reap the reward over time, because happy customers are buying customers,” Appleton concludes.

*    *    *

* The art fairs that responded to Hyperallergic’s request were POSITIONS, Art Nashville, Art Toronto, Artissima, Art Dusseldorf, Untitled Miami Beach, BRAFA, Zonamaco, India Art Fair, artKARLSRUHE, Volta, The Armory Show, Dallas Art Fair, Art Cologne, arteBA, Art Santa Fe, Chart Art Fair, Unseen Art Fair.

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