Female artists still marginalised in UK collections as National Museum accepts “historical injustice”

New research highlights enormous under-representation of female artists in the National Museum of Wales, reflecting wider issues of gender equality across UK public museums.

Economist Clare McAndrew asserted “Gatekeepers–museums, galleries, curators, media and collectors–discriminate against women for some reason.”

The research conducted by BBC Wales revealed that works of art by men dominated recent temporary exhibitions at National Museum Wales. Between 2016 and 2018, 273 artworks by men were exhibited compared to only 83 by women. Gillian Ayres was the only female artist to be given a solo exhibition.

David Anderson, director of National Museum Wales, considered these issues “very seriously” and admitted that “[The museum has] world-class, quality art. However, it is also true that these collections embed an historical injustice.”

More than half of the female artists represented in the survey were in a single exhibition in 2018 of photographers. Going forward, Anderson plans to diversify the museum’s permanent collection. He also aims for 50% of artworks in contemporary shows to be created by women.

Explaining why gender stereotypes have hindered visibility, Welsh artist Laura Ford argued “a lot of the criticism about female artists was that a lot of female art… was too small scale – they didn’t make enough work and it wouldn’t take up a whole beautiful gallery.

“And you just think, actually give them the opportunity and you will find that they will fill that space and they will make that work.”

Many female artists, who were influential in their own time, fell into obscurity due to lack of presence in public museums. Only 8% of galleries in the UK represent more women than men, and 10% shockingly have no women in their collections at all.

In January, Clare McAndrew disclosed how more established women in art become less likely to boast gallery representation. ‘Established’ artists were defined as those whose work had been sold at auction, with artworks by women globally selling for 47.6% less.

On Artsy’s database, only 16% of established artists were women. Yet, figures rose to 36% for female artists whose work had never been sold at auction.

Attempts to readdress the gender imbalance in UK collections are increasing. In the 2016 opening of its new gallery, Tate Modern dedicated half of the space to women artists. Last year, the UK also enjoyed major exhibitions on Anni Albers at Tate Modern (which is currently holding an exhibition of Dorothea Tanning), and Frida Kahlo at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  In 2020, the RA will hold a major solo exhibition on Marina Abramović in its main galleries.

McAndrew encourages public museums to continue questioning their own collecting practices if we are to experience any long-lasting change: “we need to at least ask the questions: do we tend to value male attributes more and are artists judged as good or bad within a traditional male framework for success?”

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