‘Women Doing Nothing’

Redressing the Imbalance of Women in Galleries and Museums

Dr. Ella S. Mills

This essay is a brief response to, and summary of, the Imbalance Redressed event organised by British artist Rebecca Chesney at the Harris Museum, Art Gallery & Library, on May 9th 2018. As part of the ‘Into a Better Shape’ programme running alongside Lubaina Himid’s current exhibition Hard Times at the Harris, Chesney organised an evening of speakers focusing on the comparative lack of artworks by ‘artist-women’ (Griselda Pollock) held in public collections.

During her opening address Chesney outlined two frustrations: both the underrepresentation of women in public fine art collections; and the misrepresentation of women who are often depicted in the artworks as, ‘doing nothing’. With her slides of paintings and sculptures from the Harris’ current displays,

Chesney illustrated the consistent imagery of middle class white women reclining, naked, with eyes averted or veiled, predominantly ‘doing nothing’. My favourite of these images was the collection of postcards in the Harris shop:

Chesney’s call to redress the imbalance of women in collections (both artist-women and images of women) is not just rhetoric. Lubaina Himid’s presentation, following Chesney, reminded the audience of the reality; that the collections are ours. Public collections are not only for, but owned by the public. We can at any time request and arrange to view any artwork held in a public collection. So, what do we want to see in our collections? Chesney wants to see artworks to which she and her students can relate, and which are made by women.

Redressing the imbalance of women in collections is a practical challenge. The range of invited speakers during the evening offered a variety of perspectives and spaces where these practicalities are at stake. Hilary Robinson, Professor of Feminism, Art and Theory at Loughborough University, emphasised the complexities of exhibiting artist-women in a series of ‘feminist blockbuster exhibitions’ over the past decade. Robinson unpacked some of the challenges of representing women in existing museum and gallery collections, drawing on the Elles: Women Artists from the Centre exhibition at the Paris Pompidou in 2010.  She also pinpointed how curator Xabier Arakistain of the 2007 Bilbao Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: 45 Years of Art and Feminism exhibition rooted all of his decisions in redressing a women/men imbalance at every level and stage of the curatorial process.

Mark Doyle, Art Gallery Curator & Collections Manager at Touchstones Rochdale has responded to the imbalance dilemma at Rochdale gallery through taking direct action. Implementing strategies across a range of the institutional aspects, Doyle has so far successfully bid for funding to buy artworks by women; is working to retrospectively fill the historical gaps in the collection, and acquire new younger artists; is working with post-graduate students specifically on women; is involving local artist-women in community work; and is organising research trips to feminist art galleries. At 7%, Rochdale’s collection has a significantly low representation of women currently in the collection, and yet despite this it has an excellent reputation for exhibiting artists who are women. This illustrates a critical point in this discussion: that it is not only having the collection that is significant. What is done with that collection, how it speaks to and for us, is equally vital for institutions to consider (if not more so?)

The final speaker, Christine Eyene, is an independent curator (alongside other roles) whose current work includes being the Artistic Director for the 4th International Biennale of Casablanca. Eyene shared with us a number of impressive exhibitions she has organised working with artists, often black South African women such as Zanele Muholi. Eyene’s presentation illuminated how as a curator who showcases women in wide-ranging shows and diverse frameworks she is still often regarded as a curator ‘only working with women artists’. For Eyene her approach is to be self-critical and ‘just do the work’. She follows her gut, not the trends. During the Q&A Eyene shared a story of her sneaking her friends into the back door of the cinema as a youth, and sees her adult curatorial strategy as having the same qualities.

We can see here then that the idea of women not being present in museums and galleries goes beyond the collections and is multi-layered. Women are not adequately or accurately represented in a variety of gallery and museum spaces. This might be in the physical museums as artists and audience, or in the images in those galleries. Or it may be in other spaces such as fine art scholarship and curating.
So, is it because women are doing nothing?
Clearly not. As the speakers emphasized throughout the evening, women are students of art, we visit galleries, we curate exhibitions, we write about artists, we are working, we are creating, we are producing, we are speaking. But where are we heard? Who is listening?
Artist-women like Chesney are making the work, but who is acquiring it for their collections, and furthermore – as Himid discussed from personal experience – who is buying it for those collections?

Chesney’s insistence to redress the imbalance of women in public art collections is one that is critical for women in all our subjectivities, situated knowledges and lived experiences. If I take my six year old daughter to an art gallery I want her to see positive images of women, and work made by women. I want her to see role models, and crucially to see a whole collection of women with whom she can have a conversation and learn from. Chesney’s demand, means for me, seeing a Sutapa Biswas, an Artemisia Gentileschi, a Mary Kelly, an Edmonia Lewis, an Ingrid Pollard, a Tracey Rose, a Jo Spence, a Mitra Tabrizian…all of whom I have my own relationship with, and to which each viewer, as Himid states, will bring their own stories. With each interaction we pivot our centres (Elsa Barkley Brown), finding shared connections while also working to understand unfamiliar experiences. Indeed, Chesney has already been thinking about another event to follow Imbalance Redressed that would focus on the particular hierarchies and very real barriers of class in the art world.

There is much, much more to be said about the Imbalance Redressed event and particularly regarding the discussions of the speakers.
But to pause for now: the imbalance of artist-women in public collections is extraordinary, but, as Himid stated during the evening, ‘we can shift that balance’.  While the fact we need to have this conversation at all is frustrating and tiring, we must keep the dialogue going and ‘lay bare the system’. Himid ended the Q&A session with a call to action as the event drew to a close: ‘Museums are not impenetrable, they are run by human beings…What difference would we like to see? What difference can I make to the world I am in?’. Chesney is a woman doing something, and making her difference – what will we all do?

Dr. Ella S. Mills
Art Historian
Black Artists & Modernism Research Fellow