The Art World Has a Gender Problem

This article was published in Judy’s Punch Magazine, 2016, pp. 18-19. Judy’s Punch is an annual anthology published by the UMSU Women’s Department at the University of Melbourne. My illustrations were also published on pp. 24-25, 30-31, 52 and 62-63 (Link to full magazine on issuu at bottom).

 

It’s been forty-five years since Linda Nochlin published her game changing essay ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’. It’s been thirty years since the Guerilla Girls called out the sexism in the art world of the ‘80s when they asked if women have to be nude to get into the Met. These were some of the earliest steps in raising awareness of the gender bias in the art industry that is so frequently swept under the carpet. These comments were a wake-up call to many and were considered radical for their time. Today however, the lack of progress we’ve made has left me a mix of burning anger and utter disappointment. Pussy Galore’s recent Guerilla Girl reminiscent statistics show change has not gone nearly far enough. In 2015 the average percentage of women represented in top NYC galleries was 29 percent. The lowest was five percent.

Of course it needs to be acknowledged that some changes have occurred, such as access to art education and shifts in institutional structures that previously prevented women from succeeding. The art world’s gender bias is less obvious than it used to be, but it is still very real. As every woman in the art world knows very well, sexism in is alive and well and it’s about time it gets an almighty kick in the you-know-where.

Whilst women artists have gained more opportunities in the years since the ‘70s and ‘80s, they are still underrepresented, especially at higher levels of the art industry. Even though there are ‘famous’ women artists, with the likes of Cindy Sherman gaining international profiles, this is still not the norm.

Despite the amount of feminist, queer and post-colonial art theory that has been introduced over recent decades, the majority of art education still perpetuates the traditional canon of art history. In my years studying art history at university, the majority of what is taught is still predominantly informed by Western, heterosexual and white men. Attempts to include more diverse material are generally segregated to specific weeks on feminist or post-colonial art and theory, rather than throughout courses. Encouragingly, a subject examining art and gender was introduced, however, this is still tokenistic when the rest of the course does not back-up an inclusive and intersectional art history.

Exhibitions, especially solo shows and works held in permanent collections are also lacking in diversity and representation. As far as my memory goes, I can’t remember a single major solo show at the NGV being given to a woman. Whilst they do exist – they are still unusual, and it is a problem in most major art museums across Europe, America and indeed, Australia. Furthermore, permanent collection rehangs often fail to take the opportunity to re-invent the art historical narrative, instead re-telling the same traditional masculine dominated history, preventing the narrative from evolving. Festivals and nontraditional art events appear to be leading the change. At this years Next Wave festival in Melbourne three quarters of exhibitors were women and 20 per cent of the artists were Indigenous.

What’s more, the media cover artists who are men at a jaw-dropping higher rate, further perpetuating inequality. As many as 90 per cent of artists featured in art books in 2012 were men. This is staggering and deeply problematic as it is through art books and the media, along with art museums, that the general public engage with art. These mediums need to be used to educate on past and present inequalities instead of perpetuating tradition, to help ensure the future of the industry is a more equal place than it is today.

Of course, just like in many other industries, there are structural issues that underpin much of the art world’s sexism. The senior positions are still overwhelmingly held by men, despite the artists at lower ranks of the industry and art students being predominately women. According to Art News, women ran 32 per cent of museums in the US in 2005 and by 2015 this was 42.6 per cent. While the increase is certainly a positive sign, these increases usually occur in smaller museums with lower budgets. Until the institutional structures of the art world embrace more diverse leadership, change will not occur.

 The gender problem of the art industry may not be front page news, however, this is part of the problem. It is clear to many within the industry and yet the wider population remain somewhat oblivious. The numerous articles on the topic only reach those involved or with a strong interest. The sexism and inequality still present in the art world needs to be widely acknowledged and those at fault need to be held accountable. Unfortunately, major and often world-renowned institutions are among some of the worst perpetrators.

Earlier this year, Elvis Richardson released a report on her ‘CoUNTess: Women Matter in the Art World’ blog showing that 74 per cent of visual art graduates in Australia are women, a number that doesn’t correspond with other categories, such as prize winners and museum exhibitors.

Tamara Winikoff, Executive Director of the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) stated that, “Despite the reputation of the arts as challenging outdated paradigms, it [the art industry] continues to fail on gender issues…We thought we’d won the battle in the ‘80s when the spotlight was shone on the systemic privileging of men in the arts. I hope this excellent report will rekindle the discussion and bring about a much needed change.”

 

 Art itself is a representation of life and has the ability to challenge the status quo and inflict change. The art world portrays an image of diversity and inclusion that is not reflective of the truth. Until the industry’s sexism problem is eliminated, the art industry is preventing art from doing what is does best. The historical and current propagation of traditional art historical narratives effectively censor the industry, allowing the voices of those with power to grow larger and stamping on those with little voice. This needs to change.

 

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