Discovering women artists of the past to support artists of present

When the Tate Modern opened its new extension back in 2016, half of the new gallery space was filled with women artists, increasing overall representation in the museum from 17% to 36%, while in 2020 in the UK the National Gallery held its first solo exhibition on a historic female artist, 17th-century Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. 

According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 51 per cent of visual artists today are women, however this number is not represented in museums, exhibitions and galleries.

The importance of women artists

Celebrating women’s art is important not just for the artists themselves, but also for the museums and the curators.

Times are changing, and art institutions need to keep up or risk becoming irrelevant and out-of-date. In the past, art was mainly the domain of rich, white, upper-class men. Now, thanks to better education, an increase in communication, a wider spread of wealth, and technological developments, art is being appreciated by a more diverse group of people.

This is why, if museums wants to attract more visitors, they need to make sure their art reflects society’s modern demographic, and that includes more women.

Museums and galleries are catching onto this change. Many are now extending their collections to include women artists and some are even selling works of famous male artists to feed the money into acquiring lesser-known pieces of women’s art.

Women artists

Rule breakers and change makers

In a male-dominated industry, often women artists are often the rule breakers and change makers using their talent to challenge the status quo.

One such group of activist artists is the Guerrilla Girls, feminists who fight sexism and racist within the art world through the method of culture jamming.

In 1985, the group was formed in response to New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition where, out of 165 artists, only 13 were women.

Since their initial protest, the Guerrilla Girls have created countless pieces of art and design to subvert the sexism encoded in the art world. Famous statements have included “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” In 1985 and 2014, Guerrilla Girls also named and shamed galleries that had little or no representation of women artists.

Lots can be done to increase the representation of women in galleries – not just activism.

There are various actions we can all take as art leaders, experts and appreciators to bring out better equality in the art world.

Unearthing women artists from the past

The first step forward is to look backwards and readdress women forgotten in history.

Shining a spotlight into these lesser-lit corners of the past shows that the culture of women in art is long-standing, as opposed to being a niche novelty that sits on the margins of canonical art.

Revealing this rich history of women’s artists will prove that it’s a lack of visibility, as opposed to a lack of content, which has set women’s progress back.

Supporting women artists in the present

In celebrating women of the past, we can’t forget the artists of the present.

Women artists often receive less financial support than men. They also get less opportunities to exhibit in galleries, and are at the edges of the critics’ radar when it comes to showcases and reviews.

Museums need to acquire more women’s art at auctions; writers need to pen more pieces about women artists; members of the public need to visit more exhibitions that include women’s art.

Supporting the careers of women artists creates role models that can inspire other up-and-coming artists, both men and women.

Women artists

Understanding the root cause of the problem

As with most issues of gender equality, it’s important that art leaders, experts and institutions look at the root cause for this lack of representation.

Is it because of education in schools, traditional stereotypes, lack of financial aid, or general social inequalities?

Enforcing 50/50 gender quotas is not the solution – it merely brushes the issues under the carpet and creates a false image of quality. For the best women artists to succeed, they need to be given support from the very beginning so that they can compete with men in a fair and natural way.

Attending exhibitions of female artists

Like the arts in general, museums are financially struggling, particularly in countries where entry is free. This means that curators like to stay safe with their exhibits and churn out a cycle of famous male artists to attract the crowds. The same goes for donors and collectors, who know that it’s easier to make money with known male names.

Curators need to be more adventurous and paint a richer picture of art’s past, present, and future – one that includes women.

It seems obvious, but ultimately it’s up to art lovers and museum visitors to make a difference. Museums are only responding to demand, and if we don’t attend exhibitions of female artists, their works will just keep gathering dust.

Bringing women from the margins to the centre

Women have had, and will always have, a huge presence in the art world, from artists to curators, patrons and muses.

Now, this presence needs to be pushed from the margins into the centre

It’s clear that women are pushing for change and that art institutions are responding, and hopefully soon the art world will honour a more accurate representation of history, and create a fairer picture of the future.

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