Alexis Hunter, Approach to Fear VIII: Contamination - contaminate (detail), 1976. From Trish Clark Gallery, Courtesy of The Alexis Hunter Estate.

Gender bias and art in Aotearoa: a Spinoff survey reveals the harsh reality

Art activist group the Guerrilla Girls has been calling out gender bias in the American art world since 1985. Their survey show, Reinventing the “F” Word, is in its final weeks at Auckland Art Gallery. But what’s the picture on gender representation closer to home?  How equal are the opportunities for male and female artists in Aotearoa’s art world? Anna Knox chases data on gender and diversity and finds out some cold, hard stats. 

There’s a piece of paper on gallery owner Anna Miles’ wall that says:

26.3%

It was mailed to her anonymously in 2017. Other dealer galleries in Auckland got similar letters. Nobody knows who sent them, but it’s a classic Guerrilla Girls stunt. Formed in New York, the anonymous feminist art activist group has been calling out sexism and bias in the art world by naming and shaming galleries, individuals and institutions for their low representation of female artists and artists of colour since 1985. They wear gorilla masks whenever they interact publicly, to keep their identities secret. “Our anonymity keeps the focus on the issues,” they say. “We could be anyone and we are everywhere.”

A survey exhibition, Guerrilla Girls: Reinventing the “F” Word has been running at Auckland Art Gallery since early March. I came across it on a rainy Sunday with my two daughters, aged six and three. “What’s the ‘f’ word, Mama?” followed by “Are you a feminist?” led to a conversation about gender equality I had once naively imagined as being historical by 2019. Which is why this bright, colourful, engaging show is also depressing; it suggests that since 1985 not much has changed.

The bold type-face advertising-style posters spread throughout the pink-and-yellow themed rooms are full of facts, figures, and ironic commentary, like this one:

Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? 2012. Copyright © Guerrilla Girls and courtesy of guerrillagirls.com.

Something about these posters sat uneasily with me. The effect en masse was a lot like continuous yelling – indeed the voice on the ‘Guide to Behaving Badly’ video was relentlessly piercing. But my discomfort was also with the narrow, American-Western feminism that the collective pushes, compared with more intersectional approaches.

Nevertheless, the work the collective does in raising awareness (to wit: the introduction of the concept of feminism to my daughters) is wholly admirable, even if its own research suggests that raising awareness has so far done little to shift the balance. The exhibition moves in linear fashion through the rooms to the present day where Guerrilla Girls’ current statistics conclude that women, and indeed all non-white-males, are still squished into a tiny wedge of the Great Euro-American Art pie.

How Many Women Had Solo Shows At NYC Museums? Recount 1985/2014, 2015. Copyright © Guerrilla Girls and courtesy of guerrillagirls.com.

Which is why Miles’ number is interesting. 26.3 is the percentage of men she represented in 2017, not women. Could it be that in Aotearoa we are bucking global trends?

I decided to find out.

But first, we need to talk about data

A data journalist I know (who helped with the below graphs) advised me in writing this piece that data shouldn’t be regarded as a higher source of information, but simply as a source which, like any, can be distorted, taken out of context, and manipulated. I discovered through the many varied responses I received while researching this piece that art people in Aotearoa are well aware of this. They don’t trust data. I think they’re right not to. Numbers are slippery fish. Although they present a reliable face, they can be as nuanced as language, and when communicated or interpreted poorly can distort a picture more than they inform it. And they can never tell a full story.

An example pointed out to me by Remco de Blaaij, director of Artspace Aotearoa, was that their numbers, while slightly favouring males, don’t include data from their extensive public programme and other events which might involve more female representation. A dealer gallery owner explained that while her gallery represents slightly more males than females at present, they give more support to their female artists, particularly in the international market. De Blaaij also made the important observation that gender itself is not fixed. For example, ten years ago an artist might have identified as male, but they may identify differently now. This becomes more likely as our categorisation of genders relaxes. I included a ‘gender diverse’ category in my questions to galleries, but recognise this is insufficient to capture the complexities of gender identification. (Artspace had by far the highest representation in this category, at 21 artists, or 3.83% between 2003 and 2015. However, group shows are included in this count, which is why the gallery data is not on the main graph).

The goal for this piece was to get a data-based understanding of the attrition rate of New Zealand (including New-Zealand based) artists from university fine arts programs to gallery exhibition and/or representation in Aotearoa in terms of gender. To do that, I looked at art school programme completion numbers between 2000 and 2015, solo exhibitions from 14 public galleries (I approached 23) between 2003 and 2018 and dealer gallery representation for 24 private galleries (I approached 30) for 2019. While the 15-year time frame helps build a more accurate picture than a one-year snapshot, that information, shown below, is still a sketch, not an oil painting.

Due to the scope of my research, I also chose to focus on a historically Euro-male trajectory of art practice: art school followed by individual recognition in a marketplace or institution. While they are part of the picture, I couldn’t analyse artist-run spaces, collections, art in public places, or acquisitions. I also couldn’t look thoroughly at secondary markets, such as auction houses – where sales are famously male-dominated (a recent report puts art by females at 2% of global sales) – or art-related jobs such as curating. I couldn’t consider such factors as age, career stage, sexual orientation, ableism, differences between regional and metro galleries, or whether the artists exhibited or represented were dead or alive – even though I’m conscious such details are pertinent. I tried, initially, to consider ethnicity alongside gender, as the Guerrilla Girls do, but that proved near impossible, and highly sensitive. (Only Te Papa and Waikato, along with six dealers, were willing to provide that information).

Several public gallery directors were concerned that I wasn’t considering group shows as well because more women were represented in those than solo shows. A skim of the data shows that’s true, but also – what does that say about gender and representation?

Gender representation in visual arts in Aotearoa, 2000-2018

While the data can’t tell us the full story, it can tell us that while Anna Miles’ gallery is an outlier, compared to the US, we are in some ways bucking global trends.

These numbers show that females far outdo males in terms of art school qualifications, and then, in the workforce, that males significantly outdo females. Diverse gender representation is slim.

Roughly speaking, these statistics mean that in a class of 22 females and 8 males (based on the programme data), 10 of whom become ‘successful’ artists, 4 will be female and 6 male. That’s a 75% chance for males at success and an 18% chance for females, based on a 30% success rate for the class as a whole. Males also have 30% more opportunities to exhibit in solo exhibitions in public galleries in New Zealand than females.

There is a difference between Master of Fine Arts (MFA) and Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) programmes: BFAs, in general, have approximately three times more females than males, but MFAs have only one-and-a-half times more. Interestingly, the 26.3% of male artists Anna Miles was informed she represented corresponds almost exactly to the number of males completing a Fine Arts degree between 2000 and 2015.

What is encouraging in looking at the numbers is that public galleries are starting to approach equal male/female representation in their solo shows (although that still doesn’t reflect the ratio of female-to-male art school graduates). The Dunedin Public Gallery and The Dowse museum in Hutt City have achieved that equilibrium, give or take one artist. Dunedin Gallery’s director, Cam McCracken, says in their case this is due to “a mindful effort to foster and support a wide range of artistic practices that has resulted in a strong representation of women’s art practices over time”.

Also encouraging is that representation of female artists in public galleries in Aotearoa is much higher than in the US in a similar time period. Data collated by In Other Words and artnet News and reported here found that only 14% of the artworks exhibited at 26 prominent American museums over the past decade were by female artists.

Including Objectspace, a public art gallery dedicated to craft, design and architecture, also shifts the scales further in favour of a balance as they have a 110 female to 51 male ratio. Whether or not to include that data is a question that gets to the heart of this discussion, which is ultimately about how the value of artworks is generated.

Dealer gallery representation

The most enlightening result of this research, however, lies in the dealer gallery representation, where women are still underrepresented, especially by male dealers.

After sending a BCC email out to approximately 30 galleries in Wellington and Auckland asking if they could please tell me how many female, male and gender-diverse New Zealand artists they represented between 2003 and 2018, I noticed that, overwhelmingly, female directors responded, usually positively, to my email within hours, whereas male directors usually didn’t respond at all (I used their websites to collate my information where I could). Intrigued by this, I did two things. First, obviously, I made a graph:

Then I analysed the gallery representation data in terms of the gender of the gallery directors.

As you can see, looking at just female-run dealer galleries gets us close to an equal rate of gender representation (again, it still doesn’t approach the art school ratio), but if you look at just male-dealer run galleries, females make up just over 25% of artists represented. Galleries run by both, or collectively, achieve 37% female representation, which, interestingly, is the same percentage as for average female representation across all the dealer galleries sampled.

What this shows is that it is dealers like Anna Miles, Melanie Roger, Two Rooms, and Bartley and Company who, by over-representing females, are partially correcting the hefty bias left by many of the male-run dealer galleries. One male dealer currently represents five women and 28 men. This suggests that for female artists to really have equal opportunity, male dealers must change their approach to representation.

Guerrilla Girls, Dear Art Collector English, 2007, from The Guerrilla Portfolio Compleat 1985-2012 + Upgrade 2012-2016, 1985-2016, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased with funds from the Elise Mourant Bequest, 2018.

Money, money, money

Why are women under-represented in visual art in New Zealand? Most people I put this question to, from all sides of the discussion, said, first and foremost – money.

Sarah Hopkinson, director of Hopkinson Mossman, a dealer gallery that grew out of an artist-run-initiative, told me that while she and co-director Danae Mossman are super conscious of gender representation and try to advocate against conservatism, in running a business, the reality of the market also comes into play. “Ultimately, galleries are constrained by the market and in New Zealand that is still pretty conservative,” she said. “I probably do have to work a little harder to sell work by women. The popular myth of the artist-genius is still more easily associated with men.”

Fiona Jack, an artist and senior lecturer at the Elam School of Fine Arts, observes that as the key regulatory principle of representation, market forces also commonly point back to big money, and historical money. In an article called Issues of Representation published in Counterfutures last year, she examined acquisitions to the Chartwell Collection, one of the largest private collections of contemporary Australasian art which is on long-term loan to the Auckland Art Gallery. From 2009 to mid-2017, the Chartwell Collection acquired 392 works – 74% by male artists and 25% by female artists.

A brief look at secondary markets also shows that monetary forces go deep in influencing values on the primary market. In 2016 Art + Object sold Colin McCahon’s eight-panel painting, The Canoe Tainui for $1,621,620 – the highest price ever paid for an artwork at auction in New Zealand. In 2018, Rita Angus’s Storm, Hawke’s Bay sold for $696,695 – the highest price for a female artist reached at auction in New Zealand. The McCahon is a much larger work, however the evidence and trends recorded by the secondary market are stark. Art + Object’s sales by male artists in 2018 totalled $21,855,668, while their overall sales by female artists was $3,445,427. Sales data for 2017 and 2016 was similar. ‘We would like to think that these statistics may greatly improve in the future,’ commented Managing Director, Leigh Melville. ‘New Zealand has many superb contemporary female practitioners including the new generation of Venice Biennale artists, Judy Millar, Francis Upritchard and Yuki Kihara along with a number of other ground-breaking female artists like Gretchen Albrecht, Kate Newby and Fiona Connor. It would be heartening to see these highly collectable artists reaching new heights at auction in time to come.’

Public galleries and museums also acknowledge the constraints and historic forces at play in their collections. Head of Art at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Charlotte Davy says, ‘It may be shocking, but unfortunately not surprising, that only 15% of the national art collection is created by female artists.’

These trends are true globally. ‘Curators say they struggle to convince their acquisition committees to pay up for work, particularly by older, overlooked female artists, who frequently lack an auction history that might be used to validate the asking price,’ comment the writers of the In Other Words report.

Another potentially influential economic factor – and this relates directly to the question of attrition – is that of domestic work and childcare, which still overwhelmingly falls to women in New Zealand. Census data from 2013 showed that women aged 25-40 were three to four times more likely to be unpaid family workers than men, and spend almost twice as much time as men doing unpaid work. And, as Creative New Zealand’s recent research of creative professional earnings has shown, emerging artists (and truth be told, even many late-stage career artists) don’t earn money in the way that, say, teachers do, so they can’t ‘go back’ to work after a year or so of ‘maternity leave’ and pay someone else for childcare. I theorise that this is one reason for the massive drop-off from female graduations to representation as this stage of a career often coincides with having children.

Guerrilla Girls 30th Anniversary NYC Stickering Campaign, 2015. Copyright © Guerrilla Girls and courtesy of guerrillagirls.com.

Are things changing?

Globally, gender consciousness has increased dramatically over the time period I was looking at, even at an institutional level, as evidenced in a standard medical form from the San Francisco public health system, which includes eight different gender categories.

This shift is anecdotally evident in Aotearoa’s art world, even if the figures have not caught up. “Ten years ago I often had female students writing texts that only referred to male artists,” Fiona Jack told me. “That has changed.”

Hopkinson has also observed changes in the conversation around gender representation, which she says is an issue more regularly discussed among dealers now than it was ten years ago.

However, artist Judy Darragh is not convinced that an increased consciousness has had a significant impact. She has been in the scene for 40 years and says that since first-wave feminism, while there’s been some shift, a lot remains unchanged. “That’s why we started Femisphere,” she told me, referring to the zine she and fellow artist Imogen Taylor launched in 2017 with the goal of presenting a structure to support diverse conversation around female artists’ work from the past, present and future. “We were all talking about what it’s like – Imogen, who is 20 years younger than me, and Anne Else who started Broadsheet in the ’70s and is 20 years older.

“Three generations, and the same conversation, the same challenges.’

Perhaps this has to do with the deep roots of the issue. We are talking about centuries of prejudice. Our society’s infrastructure is steeped in patriarchal superiority, so that bias is always there, as part of the fabric, unconsciously informing our decisions, tastes, and perceptions, even if we are critically aware of it.

“We work in a rich creative tradition, filled with important works, but it has excluded much of what is ours…” says Hopkinson, “and it takes generations to change such potent cultural narratives. It’s going to be a long time until we redefine a culture that speaks a different language.”

Guerrilla Girls: Reinventing the ‘F’ Word – Feminism!, (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2019.

Who’s got the power?

In a talk given in 2018, Anna Miles described the dealer gallery as a “point-of-view business” and explained that she established her gallery after deciding it was “more productive to be a champion than a critic”. She says the dealer can present a vision of what is significant that is different to the status quo.

Changing the point-of-view on art by non-males is critical to changing the market forces which drive representation. Miles is right to recognise that art dealers – perhaps especially male ones – have the power to do that, as do those making decisions about acquisitions and exhibitions in public galleries and museums.

The problem is that those with the power are not necessarily interested in or concerned about more diverse representation. As the authors of the Other Words and artnet News research put it, “Those with the most power to create change seem to be the least interested in doing so. Several influential figures we spoke to, including museum leaders, were reluctant to acknowledge the gravity of the situation.”

I didn’t find this to be as strongly the case in New Zealand, but it was true that gallery directors and dealers were for the most part uncomfortable, at least initially, talking about the numbers. Almost everyone I spoke to cautioned me about the problems with a data-based approach to assessing gender balance. But the reality is that focusing on the numbers is one of the simplest ways to change any imbalance. Gallery owners Michael Dodds at 12 Gallery and Scott Lawrie at The Vivian both told me they have 50% + female representation policies in order to counter the inbuilt bias toward males while at the 2019 Art Fair, dealer Trish Clark made a point of showing only female artists at her booth, although she currently represents males and females equally. Head of Art, Charlotte Davy says that over the past five years Te Papa has had a highly active acquisition strategy in place to address the imbalance in their collection. ‘While we work toward our long term goal of shifting the ratio of gender represented in the collection we use our exhibition programme to ensure that a high proportion of work by female artists is shown at Te Papa,’ she explains.

Auction houses can also have some limited influence. At Webb’s, the Manager of Fine Art, Adrienne Schierning says, ‘We are making a very conscious effort to actively consign works by women and promote them with a bias. While what comes to market is out of our control we as a team think about the issue and how we could help to shift this imbalance.’

If more directors and dealers commit to such targets and strategies, representation will change. Market forces would likely follow.

Guerrilla Girls, You’re Seeing Less Than Half The Picture, 1989, from The Guerrilla Portfolio Compleat 1985-2012 + Upgrade 2012-2016, 1985-2016, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased with funds from the Elise Mourant Bequest, 2018.

Diversity targets

There is discomfort around the brutal logic of diversity targets, of course, and a fear that it leads to tokenism. When I asked owners of dealer galleries how they would feel if a percentage target was mandated for female representation, they squirmed. I think public directors would probably feel similarly. Although, as Hiraani Himona, director at Te Tuhi, commented, “does it matter if in the end it achieves the outcomes?”

Himona worked in arts administration in the UK for 15 years and told me that in her experience the general awareness of diversity, particularly in publicly funded organisations, is much higher in the UK than in New Zealand. I followed up on this. The Arts Council of England has a dense report on diversity in the arts which you can download and read. There are diversity targets for just about every part of the arts sector, though not for the representation of artists themselves. New Zealand has nothing of this weight. Museums Aotearoa advised me that all museums set their own policies but that Te Papa’s documentary guidance for determining policies refers to inclusiveness. Creative New Zealand advised that while they don’t have any specific targets relating to diversity, their “Statement of Performance Expectations for 2019/20 includes a commitment to reporting diversity data in accordance with their Diversity in the Arts Policy 2015.”

Better female representation in administrative and curatorial work, however, does not equate to better gender representation. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki graphed their own exhibition history since 2011 as part of the Guerrilla Girls show, and as the poster notes, they were surprised by the extent of the gender bias in the gallery’s exhibition programme. Dr. Sarah Farrar,, head of curatorial and exhibitions, told me that “Interestingly, many of the people making the selections and decision-making about exhibitions at the gallery are women.”

IT’S JUST AS BAD AT THE AUCKLAND ART GALLERY TOI O TĀMAKI!, POSTER PRODUCED BY AUCKLAND ART GALLERY TOI O TĀMAKI IN COLLABORATION WITH THE GUERRILLA GIRLS, 2019.

She also said they were “reflecting on how they will achieve more positive results in their future programme and broader activities”. But when I asked directly whether she thought the gallery should have gender ‘targets’ for exhibitions, collections, and acquisitions she skirted the question. “The Guerrilla Girls’ work demonstrates the power of data in revealing bias and discrimination,” she replied. “It is one way of keeping all of us accountable. Another way is to learn to be self-critical and to examine the work we do and the choices we make.”

But is being self-critical enough? Along with Rotorua, Auckland had the worst ratio out of the 14 public galleries I surveyed for the time period, at 29% female to 71% male solo exhibitors.

Rothko & Sheila

Other public galleries around the globe are fighting data with data to try and change their history of representation, setting numerical targets and defining deliberate policies to diversify in terms of gender.

In one approach that made headlines in the US, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFF), the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art all sold off work by canonised white men – a single Rothko sold for over US$50m — to help fund the diversification of their collections. According to Other Words research, PAFF’s acquisition rate of art by females is now at five times that of the national average in the US. Baltimore’s entire 2020 programme will feature female artists only.

Closer to home, the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra plans to show only works by female artists in its 20th Century Gallery of Australian Art from May to October next year. It’s part of the gallery’s larger campaign called #knowmyname (not to be confused with Chanel Miller’s hashtag), which aims to raise awareness of gender bias and takes its inspiration from a question posed by Washington’s National Museum for Women in the Arts to the public to name five female artists. Try it now: #5WomenArtists.

Collectors and philanthropists also play a significant part in shaping the market and therefore ultimately in addressing representation.

In Australia, art consultant John Cruthers this year launched Sheila: A Foundation for Women in Visual Art whose goal is to “paint Australian women artists back into our history, and assist and celebrate contemporary women artists”. In 2007 his mother, Lady Sheila Cruthers, donated what is the largest collection of work by Australian female artists to the University of Western Australia. As well as supporting female artists by purchasing and commissioning works and hosting an annual symposium on female Australian art, the foundation is conducting a nationwide study to recover lost female artists. A preliminary New South Wales study conducted in 2015 uncovered 431 artists. Writing lost female artists back into history is a powerful response to the argument that there were no women artists until recently.

Sheila also supports The Countess Report, an outstanding resource put together by Elvis Richardson that “compiles and analyses data on education, prizes, funding, art media, organisational makeup, and exhibitions” in contemporary Australian visual art in 2014.

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Beginnings

When I spoke to Fiona Jack about the gender gap in New Zealand visual arts she mentioned that galleries say men seem more comfortable self-promoting than women. It’s an interesting observation and one that has stuck with me throughout the writing of this piece. While not quantifiable in the way that representation is, the idea that men simply ‘believe in themselves’ more readily than women, and that this helps them to succeed more readily, rings true – at least in my experience. (An article in The Atlantic called The Confidence Gap explores this concept well).

Jack noted in our conversation that “Elam is currently taking steps to better train students in professional practice and connecting into art industries”. But New Zealand artist Kirsty Lillico, who taught at Massey’s College of Creative Arts for 15 years, told me she thinks that university might be too late. She recalls a first-year class where a very talented student, a female, was extremely reticent in sharing her work, while less hard-working male students were extremely confident in putting themselves and their work forward. She said that this was common. I think she’s probably right, and that redressing gender imbalance involves addressing issues at a societal level and much earlier on, for example in primary school, when a worldview and corresponding sense of entitlement is first established.

This morning, just before finishing a draft of this piece, that was confirmed for me when I walked my six year old up the hill to her school. We were talking about art class and she said this: “I was excited because we were going to do Frida Kahlo, but guess what, we’re doing Don Pendleton again.” She’s a chipper personality, so said it was okay “because I love the squares and patterns that he puts underneath his skateboards”. Last year, for her school’s bi-annual art exhibition, her Year 1 class produced art in imitation of Don Pendleton, Andy Warhol, ThankYouX and Peter Gossage. The class was not given any female artists to study or ‘imitate’, so for most of those five-year-olds, female artists don’t yet exist. My daughter knew who Kahlo was though. Her name is Frida.

Anna Knox and daughters contribute to, ‘I’m not a feminist, but if I was, this is what I’d complain about…,’ 2019, (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2019.



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