Our recent Spinoff Art survey provided a snapshot on gender equality in the local art scene, but it wasn’t the full story. Anna Knox continues the conversation by asking some gallery owners and directors for their responses to our findings.
The Spinoff’s survey of gender bias in visual arts found that the industry continues to struggle with sexism, with the data suggesting that male art school graduates are four times more likely to succeed as artists than female graduates. However some readers felt that the article itself was biased – against men.
This reaction had some validity. For my original article I only spoke to one male gallery dealer, and only briefly, although this was mostly due to the lack of response to my query email. However, in the interests of gender equality, I decided to exit my own echo chamber and continue the kōrero.
Male directors’ response to gender bias
No-one I talked to denied there was a bias against female artists in Aotearoa. This bias manifests most visibly in the art market, especially in sales at auction houses, and in a wider art world that continues to be dominated by the success of male artists. Gallery directors Michael Lett (of Michael Lett) and Scott Lawrie (of The Vivian) both said it’s an issue that’s raised regularly at their galleries and is something they work actively to address. “It’s proven that there is an unconscious bias,” Lett told me. “The data is the data.”
At Bowerbank Ninow, Simon Bowerbank was concerned about drawing conclusions from the incomplete data gathered in our survey. “These issues are important and deserve to be investigated in-depth – there is a lot of room for writing that really gets its teeth into gender, ethnicity and class inequalities, in order to build a nuanced picture of the contemporary pressures being placed on both artists and their galleries.”
Simon ran an auction house from 2015 until earlier this year, and points out that the historical roots must be acknowledged. “The mechanics of the secondary market… are based on the historical artistic canon, which is overwhelmingly male. So, if you are talking about systemic bias, then it’s hard to argue that the art world doesn’t have a bias towards men.”
In terms of addressing that bias, however, he had no immediate suggestions, although he thought that it was more complicated than looking at percentages and emphasised that he was always just trying to get the best artists he could get.
Lett is cautious not to approach the issue in a deterministic way, practicing a general awareness rather than aiming for particular numbers. “We try to be conscious in terms of how we programme things, without going into a place where it becomes so obviously skewed in one direction,” he says. He points out that every art fair the gallery has done this year has been a solo exhibition of a female artist but is also careful not to make too much of that. “You don’t want to end up being like an institution or, dare I say it, a kind of funding body, where it’s got to be boy, girl, boy, girl. That to me takes away so much from the achievements of the artists.”
The ‘talent’ issue is the crux
For both Lett and Bowerbank it seems the crux of addressing gender bias lies in this tension between a policy approach which confronts bias systematically, and the fact that art is not just a numbers game. Each dealer represents artists they believe produce work of high quality, but that value is not measured quantitively. There’s a fear of box-ticking – and how that could impact the integrity of each gallery. “It makes me feel sick,” Lett said, when I told him his current ratio of male to female represented artists, according to his website. “But I don’t think a great reaction for us would be to suddenly let five male artists go from our books to correct the balance, or suddenly go out and grab some more female artists.”
Scott Lawrie, director of The Vivian in Matakana calls this “the talent issue”. Unlike Bowerbank and Lett, he doesn’t consider it a barrier to prioritising gender when considering which artists to represent and show. “Look, I just don’t think it’s that complicated,” he told me. “There’s representation, for which we have a 50/50 model, as best we can. And then there’s showing, and that’s about bringing a holistic balance into your programming over a year.”
It might be his smaller gallery and his slightly maverick status in the New Zealand art world that permits it – he’s Scottish, a star of Grand Designs NZ season 1, and bought The Vivian partly to allow more room for his own collection – but he makes the process of addressing gender bias seem very simple. “There’s this idea that it’s tokenism. Dealer Melanie Rogers says it’s got to be about the art. And she’s absolutely right of course – it’s got to be about the art!” he told me. “But there’s a moment of consciousness where you go – who are we going to choose to get the balance right?”
Knowing that the art community in Aotearoa is varied and numerous, I went to Enjoy Contemporary Art Space in Wellington for a different perspective from a non-profit sector. Director Sophie Davis said Enjoy responds directly to bias through their organisational culture, which is very distinct from that of a private gallery, where a director is not necessarily answerable to anyone. With a board that is all-female, bar one, it’s unsurprising that white male artists aren’t over-represented at the gallery.
Davis said gender bias to be a given in visual arts but also that data an insufficient, even inappropriate, way to look at it. Like Bowerbank, she was wary of the data we analysed in our original survey, and of responding to it. She suggested that talking to individuals about their experiences would be better and told me the gallery would never ask an artist about data points such as gender or ethnic identity.
There’s something powerful in being concerned only with your immediate, unique community and their experiences, but it has its own limits. In the sixth (brief, frank, beautiful) essay accompanying Enjoy’s current Present Tense: Wāhine Toi Aotearoa exhibition, writer Emma Ng describes those working in the creative industries as being “of diverse genders, ethnicities, and economic realities” which is close to how Davis described Enjoy’s board. But how does this translate into shifting the overall status quo in the market for non-male artists?
Anon, carry on
“Everything intersects,” Lett said when I asked him how he evaluates a potential artist or work. “When you make a decision you’re often thinking about who is already of interest to other people, you are picking up on a zeitgeist of sorts, you’re looking at where there is interest from museums or curators or writers.”
His point is that the value of an artist is not established singularly.
But what makes an artwork valuable, appealing, part of the zeitgeist, worthy of attention and focus, or marketable? And what would happen if somehow, magically, all artworks suddenly became anonymous and the question of gender identity was removed from evaluation? If we had zero data on identity, would the historically-rooted bias in favour of the success of white, male artists continue?
Acknowledging the reality of gender bias is something everyone in this brief discussion seemed to agree on. But it’s the first sentence in what needs to be an ongoing multi-faceted kōrero on how to address that imbalance.