Women in the arts

Women in the arts

As a feminist curator, one of the things that drives me and my work is increasing the number of female artists exhibited in galleries. In my last post on why some artists sell while others don’t, I talked about sales channels, trends, artistic merit, an artist’s credentials, luck and persistence. What was lacking, however, was a discussion about gender, despite gender having a clear role to play in these things and more.

And so, for this last day of the year, I thought I’d have a look at the lack of female representation in the arts. In this post I’m going to talk about the data that shows how few women there are, what’s wrong with that picture, what I’m personally doing about that, and what others can do too.


What the numbers say

According to the 2016 Countess Report, which collects data on gender representation in the visual arts, and is produced by artist Elvis Richardson, with backing from the Cruthers Art Foundation and NAVA, nearly three quarters of visual arts graduates in Australia are women, but they make up less than half of the artists exhibited in commercial and public galleries. In America, according to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, while the art graduate figures are the same as here, women make up less than 30% of exhibiting artists.

Figures are similar for arts workers, particularly at the executive and leadership levels, and across other creative disciplines such as filmmaking and music. Clearly we have a long way to go to reach gender equity.

What the numbers mean

If there are more women arts graduates but less women exhibiting artists, what is going on? Are female artists really less deserving, less talented, less capable than male artists? Of course not; those numbers don’t add up and make no rational sense.

It means that women are not being given the same opportunities as men – sadly, just like everywhere else in society. When I talked in my last post about artist credentials, for example, you have to ask yourself: Who is winning the awards? Who is doing the awarding? The Countess Report showed that while women do win more art prizes than men, men receive a far higher proportion of the prize money, which goes a long way in counting the prestige of prizes and awards.  I also touched on the idea of ‘luck’ being important in an artist’s career, and it is, but a better way of putting it might be ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’ – in other words, the art world is an old boys’ club.

What I’m doing about it

When I opened Platform Gallery I made it part of my mission and brand to ensure women made up the majority of my artists, because that was what mattered to me. I know this is quite unusual, and it’s something I’m extremely proud of. Since launching, women have made up 83% of Platform’s exhibiting artists, and in 2019 women will make up 100%.

I am also acutely aware that while we have exhibited a high number of women, queer (22%) and emerging artists (60%) I am sorely lacking in other areas of representation, including artists of colour, disabled artists and Indigenous artists. I know one gallery can’t be everything to everyone but now that I’ve done what I set out to do in creating a platform for women artists, my goal now is to increase representation across the board.

What you can do about it

  • If you work in the arts and are a decision maker, the answer is simple: add more women to your program.

  • If you’re not the decision maker, you can ask the types of questions that lead to change – why do we have more men than women? How are we going to address that?

  • If you are asked to appear on a panel, or a conference, or in a group exhibition, or anywhere else with a public platform, check the male to female ratio, and if you’re not happy with the level of female representation, ask the organisers to change it. Refuse to participate if they don’t, and make sure you let everyone know why.

All of this advice of course applies to other minority voices in the arts, including artists of colour, disabled artists and Indigenous artists. Collectively, if we keep raising these issues and demanding change, and being the change ourselves if we’re able, change will happen.

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