This February Artereal Gallery is excited to present Nevertheless, she persisted – a group exhibition addressing issues around female visibility / invisibility in the art world by showcasing the work of ten unrepresented artists identifying as female or non-binary.
Neverthless, she persisted is a concerted effort on the part of Artereal Gallery to bring issues surrounding the need for equal gender representation in the art world to the fore. It represents an attempt to participate in an important ongoing dialogue and recognises the responsibility of commercial galleries in affecting change and redressing the gender imbalance which has historically existed within the commercial gallery sector. Exhibiting artists include: Grace Blake, Sabella D’Souza, Leila El Rayes, Brooke Leigh, Eugenia Lim, Cat Mueller, Claudia Nicholson, Ebony Russell, Georgia Saxelby and Naomi Segal.
The following are Elvis Richardson’s own thoughts and reflections on the questions we posed to her as part of our panel discussion Tips on persisting…
Can you tell us of a moment in which you felt that your gender held you back or disadvantaged you in some way? How did you handle this realisation?
Elvis Richardson: Most artists consider academic and formal training in visual art as essential to identifying as an artist. If we look at the resumes of artists in shows like Primavera or Sydney Biennale almost all have a visual art or related degree of some kind. Countess statistics show that 75% of graduates from visual art degrees in Australia are women, but when you come to the professional art-world exhibiting in state and national museums or commercial gallery representation women only made up at best 40% of the contemporary artists on show. (countess report 2016)
When I started an MFA at Columbia University in 2000 on a Samstag Scholarship I was immediately struck by the number of men in the course – exactly 50%, and I was to learn that gender equity was a part of Columbia’s admission procedure. But after graduation I couldn’t help but notice how few women artists were actually being shown in New York commercial and public galleries. I was reminded of the Geurilla Girls who first used statistics to highlight gender inequity in the visual arts and I began to highlight and count names in art magazines which ironically have very few images of art compared to the number of artists or gallery names displayed in all manner of fonts, in various colours and sizes.
These observations helped me understand how success for women in the arts is a much steeper hill to climb. The numbers just don’t add up.
From your perspective what do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing women today?
Elvis Richardson: First the actual, and ever present potential threat of violence against women and how managing our own physical and emotional safety has effected so many of us individually and as a group in society on a daily basis.
Next I would say the income pay gap (for art and non-art income) and the lower values placed on the work and labour of women, including the lack of recognition about how society literally could not function without the unpaid labour that women preform in families and communities, including art communities – Countess is an example of this non-paid work as are the board members of ARI galleries the majority run by women, museum volunteers, and so on. And then the resulting impact this pay-gap has on sustainability, longevity, independence, time management, budgets, and opportunities to contribute, travel, research, experiment, exhibit and prosper as artists now and in the future. We live in a society not an economy – but time and again our value as artists and citizens is reduced to this economic factor, (except when seen from the artists perspective) and it too often defines and separates us.
And I wonder how many women artists like myself were terrified of having a child – knowing how the role of mother would compete with the role of artist both requiring/demanding a lot of time and attention. And I remember being at an opening one night and catching up with an interstate curator I had previously worked with who asked all about my partner and child and then turned to the male artist next to me re-directing the conversation, the curator asked him, “so what shows have you got coming up that I could go and see?”. That is just one of a hundred stories I could share, but I guess it is not a mystery why most of my artist friends did not have children until they were well into their 40’s and more than half did not have children at all – probably a much higher percentage than the general population I imagine.
When I launched the Countess Report in 2016 after counting and recording almost all the artists who exhibited in galleries across Australia – commercial, ari, public, musuems, art prizes during 2014 – I thought of its future potential as a bench marking exercise that could be used to measure change over time. And in 2019 Countess will be releasing a new report – a count that re-counts all the artists exhibiting in galleries across Australia during 2018. Watch this space! www.countess.report
In your opinion, what are some of the most effective ways in which women can support each other?
Elvis Richardson: I think it is daunting and disappointing for women who have trained and excelled in art schools to enter the male dominated commercial and professional world of being an artist where market demand and collectors and public taste are not very diverse or open to being challenged and too often institutions and their gatekeepers uphold this status quo. The art-world is a freelance gig for artists – networking is essential to getting jobs and building a reputation to get more jobs. One thing I started to do as a result of counting artists for countess – I almost exclusively (online anyway) look at artworks by women – in an effort to de-program myself from all the male artists work I have seen and come to know all my life, I have been doing this for a few years now and it works. I share this knowledge gained in my role as a teacher and it influences the work I make and who I perceive to be my peers and audience. I chose to do this consciously because I recognised, I had been programmed through all the exposure and repetition to male artists throughout history and I wanted to stop myself from recalling the male artists names that so easily and quickly popped into my head as examples of a genre, medium, time, etc. And as more and more women are re-discovered and re-written into male art history shows us how extraordinary and genius these women were then who toiled in obscurity and continue to be today– doing this research and writing these histories are really important.
I have a saying that seems to be double negative but also reveals a truth- “I just want mediocre women artists to have the same opportunities that mediocre male artists enjoy”. This to me was a way of saying when we do succeed we often think it’s because we are talented, smart, strategic and the best choice. Countess research questions the artworlds system of merit and shows success is more often the result of the privilege of being in the dominant or most influential ethnic or social group (straight, white, middle class and wealthy men), education and economic background, (for example 70% of high school graduates included in Top_Arts at NGV were from private schools), the directed support of a powerful individual gatekeeper, timing and luck. Panic! a study done in the UK in 2018 found that most participants in the art-world believe it is a meritocracy – but when asked what is most influential factor to “getting in and getting on” in the arts – talent, hard work, or educational and economic background (therefore networks) most respondents acknowledged that talent and hard work while being essential it was background and networks that clinched or furnished the deal.
More recently our cultural understanding of issues around gender equity have been super-bolstered by broader social movements #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, and gender identity which have educated all of us towards deeper understandings of how gender, sexism, racism, and also privilege work on an individual, social and cultural and economic levels. As more diverse voices are represented and heard daily, women, gender non-binary and ethnic and culturally diverse artists are becoming more ingrained, essential and necessary to the fabric of the media and politics and the art-world (with all its bohemian avante guarde reputation the artworld seems to change incredibly slowly). At this point I don’t think it’s possible to go back.