BY Hettie Judah in Opinion | 11 JUN 19

What’s the Cure for the UK Art World’s Gender Gap?

A new report highlights the key role commercial galleries must play in achieving gender parity in the arts

BY Hettie Judah in Opinion | 11 JUN 19

Change is afoot. The fourth annual Freelands Foundation report into gender balance in the British art world is also, according to Managing Director Melanie Cassoff, the first in which a pattern of transformation has asserted itself. ‘We are definitely seeing a change and I feel it’s because this whole topic is in the spotlight,’ says Cassoff, who identifies the #MeToo movement among factors that have helped raise broader awareness of gender imbalance.

Most notable shifts have taken place within the public sector, where a greater parity between female and male artists has been achieved in museum exhibition programming, major British biennials and triennials, Turner Prize nominees and artists selected for the national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. This is the result of ‘senior people who have decision-making powers […] pushing that female agenda forward’, suggests Cassoff. Among significant recent initiatives identified in the report have been Tate Britain’s all-female rehang of art from the past 60 years, and Tate Modern director Frances Morris’s adoption of gender quotas for displays in the gallery’s Natalie Bell Building.

Jenny Saville, Shadow Head, 2007-13, oil on canvas. Courtesy: Sotheby's 

Does it compromise an institution’s programming to work self-imposed quotas? Dr Kate McMillan, the artist and academic who authored the report, suggests that such accusations lead down a dangerous road: ‘Surely to propose that gender quotas may result in poorer quality work is simply to suggest work by female artists is of a lesser standard?’

While news from the public sector is largely positive, McMillan’s report cautions against complacency and challenges the assumption that equality naturally trickles down. A number of significant patterns endure since the Freelands Foundation’s first report in 2015: there are still more female than male students on undergraduate art and design courses in Britain (64 percent in 2018, up marginally from 62 percent in 2011/12) and the gender balance of artists selected for New Contemporaries since 2010 roughly reflects that of the student body. Yet, when it comes to gallery representation, there’s a dramatic shift: in 2018, women made up only 32 percent of the artists represented by 28 major London galleries. (Those chosen for the study were all included in the main section of Frieze London art fair.) ‘The data reinforces the idea that gender disparity happens over time and is not clear at the outset of artists’ careers,’ suggests McMillan. 

The same inequality is not present among the top brass of the galleries themselves, however, with 48 percent run or owned by women. While Pilar Corrias and Hollybush Gardens were singled out for representing a high proportion of women artists, McMillan notes that this is not always the case: Sadie Coles, Marian Goodman and Maureen Paley are all identified as showing ‘comparatively low numbers of female artists’.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Compound Leaf, 2017, pastel, charcoal and pencil on paper. Courtesy: Sotheby's  

McMillan’s own research into the commercial sector suggests evident causes of disparity, as well as changes that might help remedy it. With the bulk of childcare still falling to women, parenthood is a major factor. For artists and others in the industry, motherhood often comes at a crucial stage. ‘It usually happens in your 30s, when solidifying your career is really important, but you’re unable to travel or do evening work,’ says McMillan. ‘You then spend your 40s playing catch-up, when you don’t have those limitations, and you end up a decade behind your contemporaries.’ McMillan’s interviews with gallerists in London have suggested ways they might support female artists to enable them to maintain momentum. She singles out Pilar Corrias for helping artists with childcare to ensure they can spend time in the studio: ‘If affluent galleries could assist with childcare in the same way that they assist with, say, storage costs, it could have a significant impact.’

Analysis of three contemporary art sales at Sotheby’s reveals even greater disparity: 88 percent of the work sold was by male artists. ‘Much more needs to be done to educate collectors, and to impress upon auction houses their significant role in achieving comprehensive gender equality in the sector,’ McMillan wrote in the report. ‘It is not acceptable to simply allow the market to determine the legacy of female artists.’

Louise Bourgeois, Listening One, 1982, painted bronze. Courtesy: Sotheby's 

Katharine Arnold, Christie’s Co-Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art, Europe, suggests that for auction houses to advocate and address work by women artists differently from that of men runs the risk of reductionism. ‘I think there was a lot of damage done historically where women weren’t supported to forge careers, or juggle careers and motherhood. Hopefully that’s changing,’ says Arnold, citing recent strong sales for work by Louise Bourgeois, Tracey Emin, Agnes Martin and Bridget Riley. ‘I hope we can work towards achieving more parity in sales, but not by using gender as a trope. If you put together an auction themed around women artists, then what does Yayoi Kusama, say, have in common with Jenny Saville? We have to commit to celebrating great artists, regardless of gender, and make sure the treatment is equal.’

With public galleries and museums becoming increasingly dependent on support from the commercial sector, however, McMillan sees the underrepresentation of women in the latter as potentially having a significant long-term impact. Commercial galleries ‘are accountable for determining the legacies of artists in a way they were not 30 years ago’, she maintains. ‘They’re part of a really integral ecosystem.’ 

Main image: Bridget Riley, Bright Shade, 1985, oil on canvas. Courtesy: Sotheby's 

Hettie Judah is a writer based in London, UK.