Women are still woefully under-represented in the art world argues Jennifer Thatcher

Last year an artist fired one of their studio assistants for being pregnant. The assistant recalls: ‘As soon as I announced the pregnancy I was treated differently, spoken to as though I had made a huge mistake and told that there was no way I could continue to work at the studio with a child. Despite working as hard as I could in an attempt to prove I was managing, things deteriorated and I was eventually asked outright to leave when I had the baby, and even to forgo my rights to statutory maternity pay.’ The worst part of the experience, she said, was the way she was spoken to – as though her baby was some kind of calamitous mistake. She could not believe someone would treat a pregnant woman, with all the vulnerability that entails, with such disdain. Making art had become such an all-encompassing focus for the artist in question that they had forgotten how to treat other human beings with the most basic level of respect, using assistants as tools which could be discarded when no longer of use. The assistant sued, they settled out of court.

This is very old-fashioned stuff, but it is a familiar story. I had become blasé about this kind of bad behaviour, as with much other bad behaviour in the art world, until the number of anecdotes from friends and colleagues became hard to ignore. I wondered how far the ongoing financial crisis could be used as an excuse for unscrupulousness. Is there still a sense of being able to get away with it? Has the art world become selectively professionalised – only choosing to abide by laws when it suits? Is it only the big institutions that can afford to treat women, and particularly mothers, decently?

In my 15-year experience of working in the art world (with a wide range of commercial and non-commercial organisations), news of pregnancies has frequently been met with barely concealed irritation. Sometimes it seemed that no one ever came back from maternity leave, or else they left soon after. That they occasionally sued seemed to be treated as a necessary cost of getting rid of them. One former colleague was made redundant when she was heavily pregnant – a year later, the same role was advertised at a much lower salary. It is hard not to conclude that pregnancy had provided a convenient opportunity for restructuring.

As Nina Power pointed out in her 2009 book One-dimensional Woman, capitalism operates a selective feminism: it doesn’t matter who does the job, as long as it gets done – indeed, for Power the emblem of the neoliberal economy is the successful, young, professional (childless) woman used to advertise luxury flat developments. That is, as long as the woman doesn’t get pregnant or become less available, at which point it is considered that ‘this woman has betrayed the economy’.

Power argues that the feminisation of labour (and its corollary, the laborisation of women) is representative of the increased precarity of work and its reliance on stereotypically ‘feminine’ characteristics: flexibility, pragmatism and professionalism. She warned that women should be especially mindful of the increased tendency to blur professional and personal lives: ‘If feminism is to have a future, it has to recognise the new ways in which life and existence are colonised by the new forms of domination that go far beyond objectification as it used to be understood’ – in the sense that at least the old objectification allowed some distance for critique. It is a reason why, in her entry for Fifty Shades of Feminism, novelist and videogame writer Naomi Alderman claimed that she found it more straightforward to deal with the ‘overtly sexist games world’ than the ‘subtly sexist world of novels’, in which publishers force upon her books ‘girly jackets featuring women gazing wistfully at summer meadows’ – a common complaint among female writers today, who are still told that men don’t read literature written by women.

Power offers Facebook as a well-known example in which people allow their private and public lives to mingle freely, and it made me think about the specific dangers this presents for women. One friend, a performer, asked her confidantes not to mention the upcoming birth of her daughter lest it impact on future freelance job offers that often come via Facebook. Facebook is also a subtle indicator of current attitudes towards parenthood: only one male (non-art world) Facebook friend, compared with six female friends, had updated his profile to a photo of him with his child – indicating men’s reluctance to define themselves as parents. Yet there is far less at stake for men when they do discuss their fatherhood: when my partner (with whom I share childcare equally) announces that he cannot work on a particular day because of his childcare duties, he says that reactions are respectful, even admiring of a man’s modern responsibilities. By contrast, when it was suggested to me that I couldn’t oversee evening events because of my baby – who I hadn’t actually mentioned – it felt that I was, at best, being patronised, at worst being strategically undermined in a subtle art-world power game.

For a sector that prides itself on its liberalism, the statistics on gender representation in the art world are embarrassing. East London Fawcett (ELF), a group founded in 2011 ‘with the intention of making East London the best example of a gender equal community in the UK’, recently completed a major audit of 134 commercial and 29 non-commercial London art galleries from April 2012 to April 2013, based on the New Exhibitions of Contemporary Art gallery list, the results of which they published in late May: of the commercial galleries, which collectively represent 3,163 artists, they found that under a third (31%) of the represented artists are women, while 78% of the galleries represent more men than women, and therefore only 22% of the galleries represent an equal number of or more female than male artists. ELF obtained similar results last year when they audited Frieze Art Fair (Artnotes AM361) and found that 27.5% of the artists represented at the fair were women, and that a pitiful 8.9% of the galleries represented an equal number of or more female than male artists. The rather worse results might indicate that the more successful the gallery (if one considers getting into Frieze Art Fair a sign of prestige), the fewer women artists, and/or that globally there are more sexist nations to tip the UK average down. Are (male) gallerists more comfortable dealing with, socialising with and selling the work of male artists? And why is it that female artists still command lower prices than male artists, even when they can boast comparable CVs filled with institutional shows and significant prizes and commissions?

It didn’t surprise me that commercial galleries were still failing to give visibility to female artists, even as female artists have become trendy of late – Phyllida Barlow, Helen Marten or Laure Prouvost (shortlisted for the current Turner Prize), for example – because they can ignore the tick-box culture of state-subsidised institutions, although one has to ask why they are ignoring all those women coming out of art college today (according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 61.7% of undergraduates obtaining a degree in 2011-12 in creative arts and design were female). But, naively, I expected non-commercial spaces to be more conscious of gender equality. In fact, of the 133 solo shows at non-commercial galleries audited by ELF, the same magic figure – 31% – were by female artists and, once more, 31% of galleries presented no female solo shows (but a number of male solo shows) during the same 12-month period.

ELF hasn’t yet conducted any research into the boards of arts organisations, so I selected a sample to see whether the statistics reflected an inequality at the top. It was encouraging to find that the majority of boards of London institutions had a 50/50 gender split, with a few notable exceptions: the Serpentine Gallery has nine men to two women, the Southbank Centre board of governors features nine men to five women, and the Photographers’ Gallery is made up of six men and two women. But, overall, this straw poll tallied with the statistics later supplied by Arts Council England (ACE): that for London-based organisations that it regularly funds (including the three above), women make up 47% of the total. One exception I noted is the ICA, where women outnumber men by one.

The overall national figure for ACE’s National Portfolio of funded organisations is 45% women on boards, yet when I took a random sample, my results demonstrated gross inequality outside London. Even if we accept that there must be a significant number of boards with equal gender representation in order to arrive at 45% (‘national’ includes London), the fact that the following organisations are high profile is particularly damning as a poor example to others. Of my sample, the worst offender was Ikon, which had six men on its board and no women, followed by De La Warr Pavilion, with ten men to four women, and Firstsite, with eight men to three women, then followed a number where the ratio was 2:1 male/female (Arnolfini, Aspex, The Hepworth Wakefield, Turner Contemporary). Only Modern Art Oxford had an exact 50/50 split. Ironically, the Bluecoat gallery, which recently suffered a funding crisis – not least from ACE cuts – had the most progressive board, with six women to five men, the only regional organisation I saw with more women than men.

ACE doesn’t set specific targets for boards, but each National Portfolio organisation is asked to produce an equality plan – so why are so many getting away with it? ACE offered the following comment: ‘We recognise that the gender imbalance permeates society at large, not just the arts ... We need to ensure that enough women get in at entry level and that they don’t suffer in mid-career due to family-raising complications so that they have sufficient experience and skills to be in position for those very senior level posts.’ Positive discrimination, as with any type of discrimination, is illegal in the UK, yet it astonishes me that trustees can look around a room and, where there are few or no women, not feel compelled to make changes – not for bureaucratic reasons, but because it is clear that lack of representation at board level affects not only the breadth of knowledge guiding the organisation but also women further down the ladder. Take the example of the 11 male trustees who blocked job negotiations with another former colleague until after the birth of her child even though she had already been informally offered the role to start six months postpartum, which is the average length of maternity leave taken in the UK. It is clear that a gentle nudge does not work and that far greater pressure – and consequences – need to be applied.

As we have seen, there are so many women graduates that entry level is surely not the issue, although one might question the nature of those entry positions and the number of female versus male undergraduates and, increasingly, postgraduates who undertake lengthy internships and PA roles in the hope of getting on to the career ladder. This implies that the main obstacles to women attaining senior posts occur in mid-career ‘due to family-raising complications’. There are, as ACE noted, many society-wide issues from which the art world is not exempt and which have become increasingly pressing: the rising costs of already very expensive childcare in the UK (according to a 2011 OECD report Doing Better For Families, the second highest in the world after Switzerland, with a nursery place now costing 77% more in real terms than it did in 2003) and a short, inflexible paternity leave for which there is a low uptake (unlike in Sweden, say, which operates a use-it-or-lose-it 60 days’ paternity leave within a shared, totally flexible parental leave of 480 days), although a recent article by Jennifer Allen for Frieze demonstrates that Swedish female artists still suffer financially in relation to men; and the gender income gap, which is ironically greatest among artists who have completed a postgraduate degree (Allen also mentions the trend for ‘asymmetric mate selection’ whereby heterosexual male artists pick less educated partners, leading to a scenario where more female artists have children than male artists). Continuing ‘reforms’ – aka cuts to benefits, an unsuitable public transport system and a rising birth rate for which the government refuses to make adequate provision in hospitals or schools (according to ONS statistics the number of live births rose 22% between 2001 and 2011) – all further contribute to the problems faced by mothers across UK society. Those who complain about the lack of support are often made to feel that motherhood is a lifestyle choice – if you can’t afford kids, don’t have them.

Mothers who are artists or freelancers (the ultimate post-Fordist workers) are often double-burdened by being both time-poor and cash-poor: unable to access paid-for childcare, so unable to find sufficient time or mental space to make art, write or undertake other creative work. Cash-hungry nurseries are often inflexible about how they allow parents of three- and four-year-olds to spread their state-provided 15-hours-a-week free nursery care, stipulating, for example, a minimum number of hours a day or not allowing parents to only use the nursery for their ‘free’ allocation and forcing them to pay for supplementary hours. Women I know in their 20s – let alone older – express anxiety at the prospect of having children, feeling that they must avoid visible obstacles to their career progression in a world in which one must appear continually available for residencies, commissions or even just networking, and where it is still considered crucial to become established before the age of 30. Yet it is important to remember that artists do make art after having children and that one can make better or at least different work. Children can be good for one’s creativity; parenthood can have the happy consequence of making one more decisive and assertive, as well as heightening one’s emotions and sense of urgency.

Artist Martina Mullaney started her group Enemies of Good Art (satirically named after Cyril Connolly’s infamous line: ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’) with broadcaster Ana Shorter in 2009 to combat prejudice against art-parents. The group, which now includes Jemima Brown, Cat Phillips and Lizzy Le Quesne, has organised public meetings in prominent art institutions such as the Whitechapel Gallery, Tate Modern and the Southbank Centre, as well as public lectures and a radio show on Resonance FM. At the public events, parents (though in practice the audience has been almost entirely female) are encouraged to bring their babies and children, counteracting the fact that parents with children are often excluded from public discussions out of a feeling of not being welcome or being too embarrassed by the possibility of raised eyebrows or of a screaming child.

Public galleries bend over backwards to appear family-friendly with workshops and activities, but there is often little provision for those with babies and infants too young to ‘engage’. Despite large education teams and sizeable budgets, it has taken outside organisations to propose alternatives to what Enemies of Good Art dismissively calls the ‘family cart’ option. Crib Notes was initiated by writer and PhD candidate Kim Dhillon at the Whitechapel Gallery to offer parents with babies solidarity in numbers when viewing an exhibition; the events are also led by curators, thereby acknowledging the intellectual needs of art-parents. Nonetheless, during a discussion that Mullaney co-chaired with Andrea Franke at the Showroom as part of Franke’s 2011-12 project Invisible Spaces of Parenthood, there was debate about whether it was right for the Whitechapel Gallery to host Crib Notes an hour before normal opening hours, thereby contributing to the invisibility of motherhood, and questions were raised about the fact that it was a paying event (£3), thereby adding financial pressure to already cash-strapped art-parents. The same issues of (self-)exclusion and finance were brought up in relation to CultureBaby, an initiative set up to offer paying tours to London galleries (the organisers have to cover the cost of hiring spaces; organisations don’t necessarily offer their facilities free of charge), as well as free monthly culture salons in cafes or in people’s homes.

The existence of Crib Notes and CultureBaby exposes the fallacy that organisations are truly welcoming to parents with babies; surely if parents felt comfortable at galleries, they would not seek to hide themselves away and pay extra for the privilege. Furthermore, once babies become toddlers, and more easily bored and frustrated, many parents would dearly like the option to see an exhibition alone – especially those with a professional interest, whether as an artist researching their practice or as a freelance critic, say – for it is very difficult to spend time reading long exhibition labels or watching lengthy videos with a small child in tow. Biennales and other large-scale, crowded exhibitions like Documenta are particularly problematic. This is where a visitor crèche would be of immense benefit. The Scottish Parliament and IKEA both run public visitor crèches, and the House of Commons runs an onsite nursery, so it would be entirely feasible for large public galleries to offer a crèche service, even one subsidised by a voluntary donation scheme. The internet is full of adverts for companies offering mobile crèches for corporate events, weddings and other occasions, so it cannot just be a question of legal or health-and-safety barriers.

When Goldsmiths College’s highly popular nursery was threatened with closure (it is now run by the Students’ Union at a daily cost to students, staff and community users of £55), then-student Andrea Franke organised a guerrilla crèche for her degree show. Likewise, Enemies of Good Art attempted to set up a pop-up crèche at Tate Modern but was scuppered; according to Mullaney, gallery staff apparently knew the group was coming and pretended it was their idea. But Mullaney doesn’t want to engage in ‘some Big Society, build-your-own-crèche bullshit’ in lieu of a professionally run scheme. Parents are, of course, only too used to making informal, improvised childcare arrangements between friends and family, but this is no replacement for a lack of state-subsidised support.

When I asked a number of large London arts organisations whether they had considered the idea of a visitor crèche, some, such as the V&A, had not thought of it, while the Southbank Centre, which is planning a children and families centre as part of its Festival Wing redevelopment, offered one-off crèches for specific events like the WOW: Women of the World festival, but the most frequent response was that arts organisations favoured a family-inclusive policy in which they offered activities, free admission for under-12s and kids-eat-free-type offers – which is also ACE’s preferred policy. Similarly, the Royal Academy pointed out that it did not have the space to support a crèche facility and that it also ‘would like families to visit the RA together’. Tate wrote: ‘Tate has considered offering crèche facilities for visitors’ young children, however, we feel that it is more beneficial to ensure that the galleries are a welcoming and family-friendly environment for everyone.’ But this ignores the fact that parents do not always want to be addressed as ‘parents’ or ‘families’ – to be ghettoised – by institutions but rather to be supported as ‘visitors’.

Feminism might currently be in vogue, but one must not ignore the fact that intelligent, powerful women are still not nearly as visible as men in the media (the boring fact that most comedy quiz shows adhere to the four men/one woman ratio, for example), politics or indeed the art world. It is not worth speculating whether the magic 31% representation of women in the art world is any kind of improvement; it is still disgracefully low. In one Enemies of Good Art meeting in 2010, Laura Mulvey recalled organising a festival of women directors at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1972 and of being sure at the time that in 20 years – let alone 40 – there would be 50/50 representation of women directors in the film world. When Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for best director in 2010, causing media controversy about the apparent rivalry with her ex-husband James Cameron, Mulvey realised just how far there was yet to go.

Women in the art world have had enough, and are making their objections known through groups and actions that should embarrass art institutions into rethinking their policies regarding staff and visitors who are also parents.

Jennifer Thatcher is a freelance writer and lecturer, and organiser of public programmes for the 2014 Folkestone Triennial.

First published in Art Monthly 367: June 2013.

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