The public awareness campaign comes as the Countess Report measured a turnaround in women’s representation within the contemporary art sector since the last report in 2016 – with the exception of state galleries.
Researchers counted the contributions of 13,000 exhibiting artists, Australia Council arts funding recipients and staff and board members of arts organisation in 2018. Women are now equally represented in art prizes, art fairs, biennales, among commercial galleries (52 percent up from 30 percent in 2016) and contemporary arts organisations (58 percent, up 10 percent), with women dominating artist-run spaces and collectives (61 percent).
The gains have put the Australian contemporary art sector ahead of Britain and the US in terms of gender equity, report founder Elvis Richardson said.
Numbers of women artists increased between 10 and 20 percent in the last two years across artist-run spaces, commercial galleries, contemporary art organisations, public galleries, major museums, and university galleries.
But progress on gender representation has been stagnant and regressive among the nation’s leading taxpayer-funded state galleries, with the proportion of exhibited female artists falling overall in this sector from 37 to 34 percent.
The discrepancy prompted John Cruthers, the chair of the Sheila Foundation – which funded the study and is committed to eliminating gender bias in the arts – to express concern about the message being sent to visitors to state galleries, particularly children
“Our state and national institutions are often where we begin learning as children about Australian art and, as these spaces engage closely with our schools and increasingly large audiences, it’s crucial they tell the whole story,” Mr Cruthers said.
The National Association of Visual Arts questioned these taxpayer-funded institutions’ commitment to progress.
“If you want to create change, you will drive change. I find it really hard to understand that institutions that took the biggest backward step have wanted to make change,” NAVA’s executive director Esther Anatolitis said.
Acknowledging its shortcomings, the NGA’s assistant director Alison Wright said: “From the National Gallery of Australia’s view, the most important thing it can do for Australians is to make a commitment to gender equity and draw a line in the sand.”
Worst performing of the state galleries was the National Gallery of Victoria, with female artistic representation falling from 44 percent in 2016 to 24 percent two years later. The Art Gallery of NSW performed better with 60 percent of solo shows by women, a biennale and several major prizes split between genders, but it didn’t fare so well on curated shows.
The report found that 71 percent of art school graduates are women and winners of the 10 richest art prizes were equally split between males and females.
The swift improvement across the sector has been attributed to the agility of commercial galleries and artist-represented bodies to seize on increased public consciousness around gender.
State galleries and museums typically had longer program lead times. “Because they are large organisations they need people, boards, executives to make decisions to exhibit and engage more women and non-binary artists,” Countess co-editor Amy Prcevich said.
In addition, an increase in Australia Council for the Arts funding of female artists (up from 52 percent to 60 percent) may be linked to increased female representation.
The Sydney Morning Herald‘s art critic John McDonald said he thought gender quotas are ridiculous unless there is real prejudice that needs to be confronted. “A 50/50 demand is an ideological imperative that doesn’t deal with the fundamental issue of quality. Women make good and bad art, just like men. It’s the role of the institution to make informed choices, not to tot up two columns.”
To ensure the latest results are not a short-term spike in data, the Countess report will publish again next year with an emphasis on art media and state gallery acquisitions.
Linda Morris is an arts and books writer at The Sydney Morning Herald