Another incredible year for female artists. So why are they still suffocated and impoverished?

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It was a great year to see, hear and feel the work of women artists. My highlights from the past 12 months include violent installations by Cornelia Parker; lightweight knotted-thread sculptures by Ruth Asawa; old textile scraps animated by family ties in the hands of Louise Bourgeois; bold performances by Carolee Schneemann on sexuality, gender and disease; the fleshy woven sculptures of Magdalena Abakanowicz; the brain paintings of Allison Katz; tapestries and tussocky colored fiber mounds by Sheila Hicks; and Vivian Maier’s sly street photography.

There were moments of triumph. Last week, Veronica Ryan was announced as the winner of the Turner Prize from an all-female, non-binary shortlist. In April, Sonia Boyce won a Golden Lion for her exhibition in the British pavilion at a Venice Biennale in which the magnificent central exhibition – Milk of Dreams – was dominated by women artists, current and historic.

In other words: if it were the numbers of male artists, it would be considered a crisis

This is the fifth year that a publisher has asked me to sing about the present moment as a great moment for women artists. In the version written four years ago, I interviewed a social media savvy young curator who is making waves with an Instagram account called The Great Women Artists. In the meantime, Katy Hessel has become a cross-platform sensation, her book The Story of Art Without Men was just named Waterstones Book of the Year, and she now writes a column for the Guardian.

So… job done? Should we stop worrying about gender parity in the art world? Is this really a great year for female artists? (Can we call the year in which Roe v Wade was canceled a good year for all women – artists or otherwise?)

In her podcast Death of an Artist, curator Helen Molesworth explores the art, life and death of Ana Mendieta, who fell 34 stories from a window. Her husband Carl Andre has been charged with her murder. An engaging storyteller, Molesworth uses the true crime format to explore power structures in the art world and ask whether you can ever consider art separate from the artist. It details the trial following Mendieta’s death, during which André’s lawyers portrayed the Cuban-born artist as a hot-blooded drunk who indulged in occult practices. The art world closes ranks around André, who is acquitted and whose work continues to be shown. Molesworth evokes a milieu in which the legacy of male genius is valued over a woman’s life and work.

But that was in the 1980s. Surely things have changed? The podcast’s latest episode is led by art writers Charlotte Burns and Julia Halperin, whose Burns Halperin reports in 2018 and 2019 analyzed data related to African American and female artists. Despite the popular belief that the art world has become more inclusive, they found that most of the apparent progress was superficial. Museum acquisition of works by female artists peaked more than a decade ago and then declined. Why are museum acquisitions important? Because it is art deemed important enough to be preserved. Exhibits are temporary – they do not reflect changes in a museum’s collection.

Burns and Halperin’s new report will be released this month. So, was it a good year for female artists? “In other words: if these were the numbers for male artists, they would be considered a crisis,” they say. “Overall, the data shows systemic apathy and complete disengagement from the scale of the problem, especially among museums. The art market has seen a marked improvement for works by women in recent years, but they remain so deeply undervalued that it will take generations to catch up.

For Burns and Halperin, celebratory articles compound the problem: “They sell a tempting version of reality that is sadly false, encouraging readers to believe in progress that simply does not exist.” By looking at the data rather than the prevailing mood, they “began to understand that most media coverage of progress in the art world is based on emotion”. The bottom line, for Burns and Halperin, is that the art world considers itself more progressive than it is.

Figures released last week by the Freelands Foundation tell a similar story in the UK. Women and non-binary artists made up 32% of works acquired for the Tate’s collection in 2021: a small improvement that does little to address the historic gender balance. The National Gallery acquired four works in 2021, all by men.

Art historian Eliza Goodpasture argues that it takes more than unbridled enthusiasm to secure a place in the canon. “To continue to group ‘women artists’ into this category over time, separate from ‘artists’, is not as progressive as it sounds,” she says. Goodpasture challenges the current tendency to ‘copy and paste’ women artists into existing art historical narratives, rather than asking why they might not fit into existing history, and why this difference is worth exploring . “It’s much more difficult to write things or organize exhibitions that address this nuance. I find it frustrating that the things we read and see about female artists are often very ‘girlboss feminism’: they’re very marketable and less judgmental.

Magdalena Abakanowicz’s woven sculptures at the Tate Modern. Photography: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock

For the past seven years, the Freelands Foundation has pushed to change the art ecosystem with an annual award supporting an exhibition by a mid-career female artist at a gallery outside London. Two of the four artists on this year’s Turner Prize shortlist – Ingrid Pollard and Veronica Ryan – have been nominated for their Freelands Prize exhibitions. I reached out to Pollard and Jacqueline Donachie, the first recipient of the award, to discuss its impact.

“Freelands has definitely made a huge difference for me,” says Donachie. The organization has provided supporting infrastructure in London and, since its 2017 exhibition at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket, has lobbied for its work to be in the Tate collection. Nevertheless, as a Glasgow-based artist, she feels invisible to the London art world and its commercial galleries. “I didn’t take off commercially,” she says.

Donachie’s experience is echoed by Pollard, who is based in the northeast. Despite a Baltic Artists Award, a Paul Hamlyn Award, the Freelands Award and this year a Turner nomination, Pollard is not represented by a commercial gallery. “There’s always been this London bias,” Pollard notes. “Gallery representation is hugely influential as it also allows your work to be seen outside the UK.”

The winner… this year's Turner winner, Veronica Ryan, with some of her work at Tate Liverpool.

The winner… this year’s Turner winner, Veronica Ryan, with some of her work at Tate Liverpool. Photography: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

A commercial gallery is important not only for sales, but also to support an artist’s participation in biennials and institutional exhibitions. Without the support of a commercial gallery, an artist is much less likely to receive major exposure. Currently, while 66% of art students in postgraduate courses are female or non-binary, 67% of artists represented by commercial galleries are male.

At 69, Pollard has been around long enough to be skeptical of what his Turner nomination will bring. “I’m waiting to see what happens next. There has been a shift – definitely things are opening up for young artists of color and non-binary artists. But sometimes it feels like there is a lot of air around, then normal service resumes. I don’t want to sound depressing: there is change. I hope I live long enough to see what it’s going to be like in 10 years.

Making Modernism is the first collective exhibition of female artists in RA since 1999. The previous one was called Amazons of the Vanguard.

As the year draws to a close, Making Modernism, an exhibition of early 20th-century German artists that includes Paula Modersohn-Becker and Käthe Kollwitz in its all-female lineup, draws crowds to the Royal Academy in London. The exhibition is “the first group exhibition of female artists that the RA has organized since 1999,” curator Dorothy Price tells me. The previous one, 23 years ago, entitled Les Amazones de la avant-garde, was to be a turning point. But no turn came. So it is: the work of reintegrating women into the history of art has been a long process of “ups and downs, troughs and peaks”.

If we want to capitalize on the energy of the current moment, “institutions have to be more courageous: they have to take risks,” says Price. And even if they don’t have the means to acquire works, “they must continue to make these exhibitions. It can’t just be a flash in the pan. »

Price’s show is the result of 30 years of teaching and research. None of the current waves of exposure and scholarship have happened overnight. It comes on the back of more than 50 years of extensive research by previous generations of feminist art historians. Prominent scholars, including Griselda Pollock and Linda Nochlin, have unearthed the names, identified the work, and proposed new theoretical structures for a more inclusive art history.

Explosive… Cornelia Parker's work at Tate Britain in May.

Explosive… Cornelia Parker’s work at Tate Britain in May. Photography: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock

I asked Pollock if she thought it was a good year for female artists? It wasn’t an interesting question, she told me, but what did it say about our society that we still had to ask it? “Think how much creativity has been stifled, how our world is impoverished if only one way. Behind the word ‘women’ lies this much more fascinating complexity: each one is a singular contribution to accumulated richness of what culture offers as a way of apprehending our world.

Equality is not just about ticking boxes. Pushing for diversity in our collections and exhibitions is important because art is an expression of human thought and experience. An art world that remains biased not only fails to reflect the wealth of society – it eloquently expresses the ideas and feelings of whom society values.

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