Women in art, how far have we come?

Women in art, how far have they come?

Figures like Tracey Emin trick us into believing that women have defied statistics and have an equal shot when it comes to art.  

Research however tells a different story.

In 2010, the campaigning group UK Feminista discovered that over three quarters of artists in the Tate Modern are men, and even less women feature in the Saatchi Gallery. They also found that the issue extended into public art.  In East London for example, only around 14% of public art is created by women.  In 2011, the women’s activist group, Tim Symonds found that only 11 artists in the National Gallery in London are women, amid a collection of over 2,300 works.   

Given these commissions date back years, the numbers reflect the marginalisation of women in art and their struggle to make their mark in the traditional narrative of art history.  Partially, women in the 19th Century were set back as the most prized academic category of painting at the time, was 'history painting'.  This category of painting depended on drawing a male nude, which women were forbidden from doing in public. Consequently, they specialised in the 'lesser' categories of portraiture; still life and animal painting.    

How have things changed for women over the years?

Since the 1980s, the feminist activist group, the Guerrilla Girls, started to highlight both sexual and racial inequality in the arts, whilst dressed in gorilla masks.  

Perhaps their most famous poster came in 1989, featuring the female nude from Ingres's Grande Odalisque, wearing a gorilla mask, alongside the question:

"Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum? Less than 4% of the artists in the modern art sections are women, but 76% of the nudes are female." ... Seems extraordinary doesn't it?

The question still remains, as to whether female artists will go on to be celebrated as true greats, breaking through cultural expectations and the familiar tangle of a majority male arena. 

Arguably there is a lack of female representation in every segment of the art world, from the art dealers to the business leaders and art collectors, especially at the top.   The reality remains: you are more likely to make money selling or reselling art by a man than a woman. Could this come down to a capitalist patriarchal system, as opposed to the lack of female talent? After all, art reflects the culture it is produced from.

In other words, is there a longstanding bias against women artists or have women not had the time and support to flourish in their careers in the face of societal challenges, such as raising families and sexism?  

The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter, I think I’m one of the best painters.
— Georgia O’Keefe.

Arguably things have changed over the last three decades.   Today, the proportion of women artists selected to exhibit on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square make up 25% of the total, not great but an improvement on other stats for public art. 

Hundreds of artists and activists have joined GalleryTally - a project dedicated to highlighting gender imbalance in art.  They have calculated the proportion of artists represented by specific galleries who are women, and visualised the stats by creating posters.

In June 2016,  the Switch House extension will give the Tate Modern room to display a further 60% more works of art.  Although the majority of wall space will be devoted to work by male artists, the pieces are due to reflect the gallery’s greater focus on international art and the new directors avowed aim, women - signifying a march in the right direction. 

Putting the issue on the map certainly helps to encourage the art world to consider gender balance more openly and frequently.   Tackling the broad problem of sexism cannot be reduced to simply men oppressing women. Expectations and goals for women need to be seriously reevaluated.  This should hopefully lead to women having a genuine shot at history.