In the arts and culture sector, and in the visual arts specifically, the manifestations of gender inequity and gender bias play out in complex ways. These are specific to the field yet are informed by the same biases and historical and social prejudices that have shaped gender inequality in society.
Women are well represented in positions of administration and cultural management. Consecutive reports by artist activist collective, the Countess Report, have found that over 70% of Australian art school graduates are women. Yet, women and gender diverse people continue to be significantly underrepresented in positions of leadership in the cultural sector as well as in the collections and exhibitions of major visual arts institutions.
These trends are mirrored internationally as identified in the Culture Action Europe report Gender inequalities in the cultural sector1 and the UNESCO large-scale study Gender equality: heritage and creativity.2 As well as articulating why gender equity matters in the cultural sector, these sources found that the barriers for women in the creative sectors reflect those found in other sectors. Some of these barriers include unconscious bias and historical norms and stereotypes which contribute to a lack of representation.
The need for collecting institutions, including our own, to take a more proactive role in redressing the legacy of historical bias has been made increasingly obvious in recent years. In early 2019, the National Gallery in collaboration with the Countess Report researched our collection data. We found that only 25% of our Australian art collection and only 33% of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art collection is work by women artists. This imbalance is also reflected in our recent acquisition data: of all works acquired by the National Gallery between 2014 and 2018, only 27% of works were by women artists.3
The lack of equitable representation in the National Gallery’s collection is one indicator of how the National Gallery has unconsciously upheld exclusionary systems and structures. This has made it difficult for the cultural contributions of women and gender diverse artists to be reflected in national narratives. That such unequitable representation has persisted is a source of frustration to waves of women and gender diverse artists, curators, academics and arts administrators. For First Nations women, women of colour, and women with disability, exclusion from the spheres of cultural production and consumption are felt even more severely.4
It is critical to understand the historic and contemporary contexts that have shaped and continue to influence where we are now. To bring about change, we also need directed and ongoing measures. In her essay ‘Know My Name (and hers and hers too),’ Julie Ewington reflected on Virginia Woolf’s 1928 feminist manifesto A room of one’s own. ‘[Woolf’s] argument was that women had talent, drive and ambition in abundance, but were thwarted by the lack of opportunity… [by] the way women’s lives and work were traditionally arranged and, too often, constrained.’ The causal effects of historical inequity, though complex, can be traced.
When, in the Renaissance, the figure of the individual artist began to emerge, women were not generally granted access to the academies. This prevented them from formally training as artists. They were also barred from studying nude models. Artistic knowledge tended to flow patrilineally which put women and girls at a further disadvantage.
By the late nineteenth century, women came to dominate art schools and academies, but as Joanna Mendelssohn writes, ‘the men who ran the art schools, who gave the opportunities, who ran the exhibiting galleries and wrote the exhibition reviews did not see the many women art students as future artists.’5 Nonetheless, the labours of women – domestic, reproductive, and creative – were the bedrock of key artistic developments through European modernity.
The year 2021 marked fifty years since Linda Nochlin’s influential feminist art history essay ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ was first published. Nochlin upended art historical assumptions, interrogating the social, educational and institutional obstacles that have impeded the recognition and representation of women artists. She questioned the very foundations of the Western art history narrative and its underlying ideas of ‘genius’ and ‘greatness’. Many women artists throughout history succeeded despite institutional exclusion and social inequities, as Nochlin asserted. Yet the subsequent erasure of women’s work from histories of art through the twentieth century is a subject that art historian Professor Griselda Pollock continues to return to. Pollock worked alongside international academics, writers, curators and knowledge holders who began, with increasing urgency, to examine art institutional structures, critique art historical narratives and use revisionist strategies to reconsider and challenge the canon.
Gender inequity in our Australian context cannot be adequately traced without looking at the relationship between settler–colonialism and gender oppression. The introduction of Western frames of knowledge to Australia brought disruption to the place of ‘women’s power, women’s law, women’s culture and art,’6 as Worimi educator, curator, oral historian, researcher and artist Genevieve Grieves remarked. The complex interplay of race and gender has been explored by Goenpul scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson. For her, mainstream Australian feminism has prioritised the experiences and demands of white women at the expense of Indigenous women, leading to further subordination.7
The Australian feminist art historian Joan Kerr (1938–2004) advocated for rethinking the very structural foundations of the Australian artworld, illustrating the point metaphorically: ‘we have to paint a new canvas and carve a new frame to fit [it].’8 For Kerr, ‘you could not “add in” women’s arts to the history of Australian art without broadening the very conception of art upon which the national canon rests.’9 Decolonial feminist perspectives like Grieves’s emphasise that, more fundamentally, the notion of Western art is a ‘limiting framework’ in and of itself.
Despite these challenges, all-women exhibitions have been organised and championed for decades, often by tenacious individuals impatient for large institutions to change.10 The first International Women’s Year in 1975 was marked by the Ewing and George Paton touring exhibition Australian Women Artists, One Hundred Years: 1840–1940. Organised by Kiffy Rubbo and Meredith Rogers and curated by Janine Burke, the exhibition sought ‘to reassess and re-establish the position of women in the history of Australian art’. This was also the year of influential American feminist art historian Lucy Lippard’s famed visit to Australia where she delivered the Power Lecture at Sydney University.
In 1991, Arrernte/Kalkadoon curator, Hetti Perkins, curated the landmark Aboriginal Women’s Exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. The exhibition was part of Dissonance, a feminist art program of over 70 projects that took place in universities, museums, commercial galleries and artist-run initiatives throughout Sydney. Four years later, and to mark the 20th anniversary of International Women’s Year, Joan Kerr succeeded in having her ambitious National Women’s Art Exhibition vision realised. This was a series of 150 independent exhibitions of women’s art mounted across the country. It included the Australian War Memorial’s first ever exhibition of work by women, Through Women’s Eyes: Australian Women Artists 1914–1994.
The world’s first international study An empirical analysis of price differences for male and female artists in the global art market by researchers from Monash University, Maastricht University (The Netherlands) and Artnet Worldwide, published in early 2021, revealed how disparity continues to play out in the secondary art market. Of the 2,572,346 artworks sold at auctions worldwide between 2000 and 2017, 96.1% are attributed to male artists. In the 2021 report The art market, produced by Art Basel and UBS, arts economist Dr Clare McAndrew finds the representation of women artists by commercial dealers across all sectors of the global art market was stable at 37%.11 Pollock correlates the art auction landscape directly with decisions made by museums and galleries. ‘There is an intimate relation between financial and symbolic value. If the work of women is not valued by scholars and curators’ art historically, the market reflects that low estimation.’12
There is a widely held belief that creative sectors and the arts are places where equality, freedom and progressive thinking are fundamental. Yet this does not translate to the realities of how women and gender-diverse people are represented, and how their work is presented, collected, and valued. Heeding Kerr’s and others’ calls, we need to not just add marginalised voices to the existing canon, but to think carefully about the ways in which creative labour, practice and outputs are valued economically, socially, and culturally. We need to recognise overlooked artistic practices and customs, and oftentimes redefine what constitutes fine arts practice, knowledge and expertise.
Contemporary feminist, queer, and decolonial projects continue to remind us that, as the National Gallery, we have a responsibility to question and address ingrained biases in the stories we tell. We must question methods of truth telling and continually interrogate the social, cultural, and political ideas upon which our systems and structures were formed.
This essay is from the National Gallery of Australia's Gender Equity Action Plan 2021–2026.
- Sandrine Pujar, Gender inequalities in the cultural sector, Brussels: Culture Action Europe 2016
- Gender equality: heritage and creativity, Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 2014
- Statistic courtesy the Countess Report (2021).
- This underscores the need for an intersectional approach to be taken when addressing gender inequity at the National Gallery of Australia. The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined in 1989 by African American Law Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics intersect with one another and overlap.
- Joanna Mendelssohn, ‘Why weren’t there any great women artists? In gratitude to Linda Nochlin’. https://theconversation.com/why-werent-there-any-great-women-artists-in-gratitude-to-linda-nochlin-153099
- Quote by Genevieve Grieves from her Know My Name keynote address: https://vimeo.com/493607912. National Gallery of Australia, Know My Name Virtual Conference, 13 November 2021
- See Moreton-Robinson, Talkin’ up to the white woman (2000)
- Joan Kerr, ‘Introduction’, in Heritage: the national women’s art book, ed. Joan Kerr (Roseville East, NSW: G & B Arts International, 1995), viii. Cited in Catriona Moore and Catherine Speck, ‘How the personal became (and remains) political in the visual arts’ in Everyday revolutions: remaking gender, sexuality and culture in 1970s Australia, ed. Michelle Arrow and Angela Woollacott (ANU Press: 2019).
- Catriona Moore and Catherine Speck, ‘How the personal became (and remains) political in the visual arts’ in Everyday revolutions: remaking gender, sexuality and culture in 1970s Australia, ed. Michelle Arrow and Angela Woollacott (ANU Press: 2019). Page 88.
- For a more complete list of all-women exhibitions see the book Australian art exhibitions: opening our eyes. Excerpt available here: https://theconversation.com/how-our-art-museums-finally-opened-their-eyes-to-australian-women-artists-102647.
- Clare McAndrew, The art market, 2021 published by Art Basel and UBS, page 86. https://d2u3kfwd92fzu7.cloudfront.net/The-Art-Market_2021.pdf
- National Gallery of Australia, Know My Name Virtual Conference, 13 November 2021.
Paola Balla, Annika Christensen, Max Delany, Julie Ewington et al, Unfinished business: perspectives on art and feminism, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Southbank, Victoria: Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2017.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, ‘Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politic’ in University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989. https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=uclf
Angela Dimitrakaki, Gender artWork and the global imperative: a materialist feminist critique, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013.
Julie Ewington, ‘Recurring questions, cyclical energies. A history of feminist art practices in Australia’ Book Editor(s): Hilary Robinson, Maria Elena Buszek
First published: 22 June 2019 https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118929179.ch1
Julie Ewington, Know My Name (and hers and hers too), commissioned by National Gallery of Australia, 2020.
Gender equality: heritage and creativity, Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 2014.
Joan Kerr and Jo Holder (eds), Past present: the national women’s art anthology, North Ryde, Craftsman House, 1999.
Dr Clare McAndrew, The art market 2021, Switzerland: Art Basel & UBS, 2021
Joanna Mendelssohn, Catherine Speck, Alison Inglis, Australian art exhibitions: opening our eye, Port Melbourne: Thames & Hudson Australia Pty Ltd, 2018.
Angela McRobbie, The aftermath of feminism: gender, culture and social change, Los Angeles & London: Sage, 2009, 131–132.
Jacqueline Milner and Catriona Moore, Contemporary art and feminism, New York & London: Routledge, 2021.
Jacqueline Millner and Catriona Moore (ed), Feminist perspectives on art: contemporary outtakes, New York & London: Routledge, 2018.
Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Talkin’ up to the white woman: Indigenous women and feminism (20th anniversary edition), Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2020.
Catriona Moore and Catherine Speck, ‘How the personal became (and remains) political in the visual arts’ in Everyday revolutions: remaking gender, sexuality and culture in 1970s Australia, (ed) Michelle Arrow and Angela Woollacott (ANU Press: 2019).
Linda Nochlin, Why have there been no great women artists? 50th anniversary edition, London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2021.
Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old mistresses: women, art and ideology, London: Bloomsbury, 2020.
Griselda Pollock, Differencing the canon: feminist desire and the writing of art's histories, London: Psychology Press, 1999.
Sandrine Pujar, Gender inequalities in the cultural sector, Brussels: Culture Action Europe, 2016.
Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang, ‘Decolonisation is not a metaphor’ in Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol1. No1, 2012, pp 1-40.
Virginia Woolf, A room of one’s own, London: Hogarth Press, 1929.
Launched on International Women's Day 2022, the National Gallery’s first Gender Equity Action Plan 2021–2026 was developed in consultation with staff, Council, community, government and the sector. Ensuring that all people regardless of gender, have the opportunity to reach their full potential is central to the National Gallery’s vision. The Plan commits to:
- Accelerate gender equity
- Advocate for sector wide collaboration
- Strengthen organisational culture
- Empower participation
- Amplify data for equity