It was during my middle school years when I realized the art world was not the homogeneous, equal opportunity institution I took it to be. Back in the early seventies, I bought my art supplies at a mom and pop framing and art store in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. The display shelves in the beyond-cluttered one-room storefront were taller than me. More art materials than I had ever imagined advertised their mysterious uses in a secret language I could not yet understand. I needed time to figure it all out. I wanted to examine all of the point-of-sale displays, I wanted to read all the labels, and I wanted to ask how artists used each and every object in front of me.
Upon arrival, I was always greeted by a stentoreous "Are you looking for something?" After my first time, by the tone of their voices I quickly learned I was not supposed to "loiter," that I had to bring a list of supplies for the ancient man and woman behind the counter to fill. That was the purpose of an art store, I concluded. Being that my needs and budget at the time were modest, I used to spread them out over the school semester so I could earn more opportunities to visit. I would go there just to buy one tube of Grumbacher Academy watercolor, or an eraser.
It was during one of those flash visits that the door opened and in walked a teenager not much older than me. Instead of waiting for the standard question, he greeted the ancient woman by name and spent a few minutes on chit chat. She asked him how school was going and I learned he attended an art school in San Juan for those who already had selected it as a career. Before I could process this, he left the counter and selected a few supplies for what seemed like an eternity, nothing expensive. He was never interrupted. Then he went back to the counter and asked for Damar glaze, paid for it all and left.
As soon as he was gone, I was asked again what I needed. I did not have loitering privileges because I was not going to the best art school in the island. Attending a school of the arts didn't count because its graduates didn't go on to earn BFAs. In fact, ancient mom and pop had never asked me where I went to school, the assumption being that art would not become a career for a girl in middle school. All of this didn't sink in until I reflected in the discomfort of those years a bit later and decided that, just like the rest of society, the art world is stratified. Whether we like it or not, public perception will place us in one category or another. The art store was one of my first lessons.