Gender segregation in art schools, barring from life drawing classes, and no elected women in the Royal Academy of the Arts (RA): by the time a proportion of women won the right to vote, they had emerged from a century of discrimination and underrepresentation in the arts world.  And they would need to wait another four years for Annie Swynnerton to become the first elected female member of the RA.

Looking at some of the headlines coming from the art world this past year, it can be tempting to assume that such inequality in confined to history. Lubaina Himid became the first black female to win The Turner Prize, Maria Balshaw began her job as the first female Director of Tate, and artist and theorist Hito Steryl topped the prestigious Art Review Power Ranking 2018.

These achievements are undeniably something to celebrate. But are the milestones made by such individuals indicative of us quickly approaching equal treatment and representation of female art professionals? Other more concerning news from the art world suggests not.

“While progress is being made, that there is still work to be done in establishing equality and fairness within the art sector.”

Just a few of these stories to emerge in the last year include sexual misconduct and harassment allegations being raised against prominent art collectors, dealers and gallerists such as Steve Wynn, Aaron Bonderoff and Antony d’Offay, who are accused of exploiting their positions of power. There are masses of experiences of harassment and discrimination that have surfaced on social media using hashtags such as the sadly all too familiar #metoo and #notsuprised, while in October a group of over 2,000 artists, curators, gallerists and administrators signed an open letter by campaign group We Are Not Surprised denouncing experiences of ‘been groped, undermined, harassed, infantilised, scorned, threatened, and intimidated by those in positions of power who control access to resources and opportunities.’

Along with this dark side of the arts world, recent statistics suggest that even what visitors to festivals, galleries and museums do see might be falling short when it comes to equality. Just a few of these finding reveals that:

  • Women accounted for only 14% of the top 500 contemporary artists by auction turnover (artprice, 2017)
  • Only two European museums out of 101 have 40% or more women artists in their collections (The Guerrilla Girls, 2016)
  • Despite Himid’s achievement, 37% of The Turner Prize nominees have been female (Hyperallergic, 2017)

Considering that women make up 51% of visual artists today, these statistics paint a poor picture of the state of the art world (National Museum of Women in the Arts), and make it clear that while progress is being made, that there is still work to be done in establishing equality and fairness within the art sector.

“Thanks in part to movements such as #metoo and #notsuprised, silence on sexual misconduct and abuse is being broken.”

The art world may currently be an unfair one, but the history of women in art over the past century shows that the status quo has changed before and can change again. I’m hopeful that in a hundred years’ time, articles like this one will join whale bone corsets and gramophones as relics of a by-gone era, and there are powerful individuals, initiatives and organisations taking strides to make this a reality by making the art world a more equal place.

Thanks in part to movements such as #metoo and #notsuprised, silence on sexual misconduct and abuse is being broken. To return to campaign group We Are Not Surprised, who published an open letter denouncing sexual misconduct and harassment signed by more than 2,000 industry members, have utilised the backing of mainstream media such as The Guardian to raise awareness of the issue and put increased pressure on organisations to break ties with those accused.

Along with contributing to various alleged harassers leaving their positions, the #metoo movement can also be seen to have empowered women to take to gallery spaces. For example, artist Jaishri Abichandan delivered a public performance featuring signs stating ‘Me Too’, in protest of the retrospective exhibition of photographer Raghubir Singh, who she claims sexually abused her, at Met Breuer in New York. With such noise coming from those in the arts world, and potential visitors, it is becoming harder than ever for organisations to turn a blind eye to such behaviour.

“Hayuk refuses to show her work in galleries featuring less than 10% of work by women in their collections.”

‘Can you name five female artists?’ This is the question posed online by the National Museum of Women in the Arts for Women’s History Month 2018. Using the hashtag #5womenartists, the Museum challenged online audiences to celebrate the work of female artists and address the imbalance of exposure. It saw participants from across seven continents (including scientists in Antarctica taking part) raising awareness of female artists.

Likewise, The Gallery Tally names and shames – or praises in cases of gender parity – individual museums and galleries, similarly drawing on the power of online crowd sourcing to circulate visualisations of the percentage of female to make artists in galleries in colourful and striking ways. Outside the digital realm, artists such as street artist Maya Hayuk are using their status to encourage galleries in their collections. Hayuk refuses to show her work in galleries featuring less than 10% of work by women in their collections, giving an additional incentive for them to up their representation.

And of course, no discussion of women within the art scene is complete without a mention of The Guerrilla Girls. A feminist artists and activists collective who have been drawing attention to in equality in the art world since the 1980’s, with bold posters shaming galleries with unequal representation, report cards of institutions and exhibitions delivering the hard facts about women art professionals’ experiences utilising pulpy pop-art aesthetics.

This is just a handful of the small army of women and men in the art world fighting for better representation, rights and treatment of women in their industry. And if momentum persists, perhaps in a hundred years unequal gallery representation will seem as alien as the idea of having not a single elected female in the Royal Academy of the Arts does to us now.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Nopebook on Patreon!