Another extraordinary year for female artists. So why are they still suffocated and depleted?

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It has been an excellent year to watch, hear and smell the work of female artists. Highlights of the past 12 months include violent installations by Cornelia Parker; very light knotted thread sculptures by Ruth Asawa; old textile scraps animated by family ties in the hands of Louise Bourgeois; Carolee Schneemann’s bold takes on sexuality, gender, and disease; the fleshy interwoven sculptures of Magdalena Abakanowicz; the brain paintings of Allison Katz; tapestries and tussocky mounds of colorful fibers by Sheila Hicks; and Vivian Maier’s clever street photography.

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

Put it this way: if these were the figures for male artists, this would be seen as a crisis

This is the fifth year that a publisher has commissioned me to anthem to the present moment as a great moment for female artists. In the version written four years ago, I interviewed a young social media curator who was causing a stir with an Instagram account called The Great Women Artists. Meanwhile Katy Hessel has become a multi-platform sensation, her book The Story of Art Without Men has just been named Waterstones book of the year, and she now writes a column for the Guardian.

So… job done? Should we stop worrying about gender balance in the art world? Is it really a big year for women artists? (Can we call the year Roe v Wade overturned a good year for any woman, artist 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 the power structures in the art world and question whether art can ever be viewed in isolation from the artist. She details the trial that followed Mendieta’s death, during which Andre’s lawyers portrayed the Cuban-born artist as a hot-blooded drunk who dabbled in occult practices. The art world closed ranks around Andre, who was acquitted and whose work continued to be exhibited. Molesworth evokes an environment where the legacy of male genius is valued over the life and work of a woman.

But that was the 80s. Surely things have changed? The final episode of the podcast is led by art writers Charlotte Burns and Julia Halperin, whose Burns Halperin Reports in 2018 and 2019 analyzed data on African-American and female-identifying artists. Despite the popular belief that the art world has become more inclusive, they found that many apparent advances were superficial. Museum acquisitions of works by female artists peaked over a decade ago, then declined. Why are museum acquisitions important? Because this is the art judged important enough to conserve. The exhibitions are temporary: they do not reflect changes in a museum’s collection.

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

For Burns and Halperin, the celebratory articles compound the problem: “They’re selling a tantalizing version of reality that’s sadly false, encouraging readers to believe in progress that simply doesn’t exist.” Looking at the data rather than the prevailing mood, “they’ve begun to realize that most of the media coverage of progress in the art world is based on emotion.” The bottom line, for Burns and Halperin, is that the art world sees itself as 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 accounted for 32% of the 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. “Continuing to group ‘female artists’ as this category over time distinct from ‘female artists’ is not as progressive as it might seem,” she says. Goodpasture challenges the current trend of “copying and pasting” 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 curate exhibitions, that involve this nuance. I find it frustrating that the things we read and see about female artists are often very ‘feministic’: they are very marketable and less critical.

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

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

“Freelands has definitely made a huge difference to me,” Donachie says. The organization has provided supporting infrastructure in London and, since its 2017 exhibition at the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh, has pushed for his work to enter the Tate collection. However, 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 lives in the northeast. Despite a Baltic Artist Award, a Paul Hamlyn Award, the Freelands Award and this year’s Turner nomination, Pollard is not represented by a commercial gallery. “There’s always been that London bias,” observes Pollard. “Gallery representation has a huge influence, because it also shows your work outside of the UK.”

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

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 for supporting an artist’s participation in biennials and institutional exhibitions. Without the backing of a commercial gallery, an artist is much less likely to receive a high-profile show. 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 her appointment to Turner will bring. “I look forward to seeing what happens next. There has been a shift: Certainly things are opening up for young artists of color and for non-binary artists. But sometimes there seems to be a lot of air around and then normal service resumes. I don’t want to sound depressing: there is a change. I hope I live long enough to see how it plays out in 10 years.”

Making Modernism is the RA’s first female artist group show since 1999. The previous one was called Amazons of the Avant Garde

As the year draws to a close, Making Modernism, a show by early 20th-century German artists that includes Paula Modersohn-Becker and Käthe Kollwitz in its all-female line up, is drawing crowds at London’s Royal Academy. The exhibition is “the first group show of female artists that the RA has mounted since 1999,” curator Dorothy Price tells me. The previous one, 23 years ago, called Amazons of the Vanguard, was supposed to be a turning point. But the turn has not come. So it goes: the work to bring women back into art history has been a long work of “ups and downs, dips and peaks”.

If we are to capitalize on the energy of the current moment, “institutions have to be braver: they have to take risks,” says Price. And even if they can’t afford to buy works, “they have to keep doing those shows. 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 wave of exhibitions and grants happened overnight. It comes on the heels of more than 50 years of extensive research conducted by previous generations of feminist art historians. Eminent scholars including Griselda Pollock and Linda Nochlin have unearthed the names, identified the work, and proposed new theoretical frameworks 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 he thought it was a good year for women artists. It wasn’t an interesting question, he told me, but what did it say about our society that we still had to do it? “Think how much creativity has been stifled, how impoverished our world is if it is only one-sided. Behind the word ‘women’ is this much more fascinating complexity: each is a singular contribution to the accumulated wealth of what culture offers as a way of understanding our world.

Equality is not just ticking a box. 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 richness of society, but eloquently expresses the ideas and sentiments society values.

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