One hundred years ago, on 18 May 1921, Joan Eardley was born on a Sussex dairy farm. Eighteen years later she moved to Glasgow and enrolled in the city’s renowned art school and by the time of her death – at the tragically young age of 42 – she had won widespread acclaim as a painter of Scottish life, landscape and community.
This year she will be commemorated with exhibitions at the National Galleries of Scotland, Hunterian Art Gallery in Glasgow, Perth Museum and Art Gallery, and Gracefield Arts Centre in Dumfries, a heritage trail on the Isle of Arran, a symposium, a new book, and a raft of other events across Scotland. It’s an unusually large programme for a female artist, all coordinated by the Scottish Women and the Arts Research Network (Swarn).
Established in 2018, Swarn is one of several UK initiatives to address the stubborn under-representation of female artists (and other creatives, collectors and patrons) in art history and public collections. In a recent report, the Freelands Foundation found that just 11% of works in the Government Art Collection are by women; at London’s National Gallery, the figure is 1%, and there are further imbalances across the nation’s collections. Data for work by non-binary artists are hard to come by, but their representation in collections is uniformly low. In the Arts Council England collection, for example, they represent just 10 of 7,958 items.
As well as being scarce, many works by non-binary and women artists are rarely shown, documented poorly and difficult to find. This is not for lack of trying. Feminist art historians first raised the issue half a century ago, and curators and academics have been working to salvage women’s legacies ever since. Swarn works on the premise that coordinated efforts have more clout.
“We were all working separately and didn’t realise,” says Victoria Irvine, curator of art at Paisley Museum, which is developing special tours of its Secret Collection store for the centenary. Network members meet regularly online and exchange research and resources. “That information-sharing is great, it really lightens the burden. It is also helping to generate the impetus, acclaim and attention that Joan Eardley deserves.”
High-profile events such as the Eardley centenary do raise awareness of art by women. And exhibitions of works by female artists are popular. The proportion of non-commercial solo shows dedicated to women hovers at around 50% in the UK, with blockbuster exhibitions such as Artemisia at the National Gallery, London, and a string of Tate monographs busting the myth that only famous men can command public attention.
There is also an audience for exhibitions that spotlight female experience – provided they get a showing. Portraying Pregnancy, an exhibition by independent curator Karen Hearn that asked why pregnancy is so rarely studied in art history, was turned down by several institutions before Caro Howell brought it to the Foundling Museum in London.
The exhibition was a good fit for the Foundling, which celebrates the legacy of the UK’s first children’s charity, where “women are a real absent presence”, says Howell, the director of the museum.
The show enjoyed a successful run last year, despite being curtailed by lockdown, suggesting a broad appeal that comes as no surprise to Howell. “It’s a story about 50% of the population – it’s not niche,” she says.
However, temporary exhibitions alone are not enough to address the under-representation of female artists in UK collections and displays.
“There’s no point in making an exhibition and then that’s it – we need to change the narrative in the [permanent] displays,” says Lola Sanchez-Jauregui, a curator at Glasgow’s Hunterian and a Swarn member. “But an exhibition gives us a good opportunity to spend time researching.”
Sanchez-Jauregui is leading an appraisal of women’s histories in the Hunterian’s collection that will begin with a temporary display and end in a longer-term reconfiguration of the gallery. The museum holds just five items by female artists, three of which are by Joan Eardley, but Sanchez-Jauregui says women’s impact on art history goes well beyond authored works. “They played many different roles – they were publishers, they were sellers, they were printmakers – there are all these other narratives that are hidden,” she says.
Collection-focused exhibition projects provide time and funding to bring these stories to light, often with lasting rewards. The Foundling Museum’s Ladies of Quality & Distinction in 2018, for example, led to the discovery of a host of female music publishers in the library records (the manuscripts were initialled and everybody had assumed they were men).
“Once you go looking, you will find,” Howell says. “All the work that we did remains – two years went into the 2018 programming – in the way that we understand our collection and how we tell its stories.”
To understand the role museums have played in historical erasures and to stop perpetuating them, critique must be sustained and integrated within institutions. The Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne has just begun a three-year collaborative doctoral project on gender.
“The aim of the PhD is to investigate some of the specific reasons why women artists have been under-acquired and to place this into a wider historical and social context,” says Sara Cooper, the head of exhibitions and collections at the Towner.
Researcher Haley Moyse Fenning is working with the gallery and the University of Sussex to study the collection of about 5,000 objects (of which 18% are by female makers). The aims include retrieving and sharing neglected stories, mapping changing institutional attitudes and making recommendations on how the Towner can develop a more representative collection.
One benefit of the collaborative doctoral model is that Fenning will be embedded within the museum community, gathering insights and facilitating conversations between departments, volunteers, audiences and local groups.
“I knew this wouldn’t be a PhD where I would be at university in a library, reading the work of other people,” Fenning says. “I’d be speaking to people who want to connect with the art in different ways and finding out what they actually want from their community museum.”
This inclusive approach will hopefully widen the variety of voices that are heard and uncover local stories and perspectives rather than just reprocessing information that already exists.
When looking at gender representation in historic collections, the easiest stories to uncover are those of wealthy, white, heteronormative women with good connections. Fenning is determined to look further and reveal – or highlight the absence of – contributions by queer, Black, Asian, disabled, working class women, and others whose stories and lives are often ignored.
“I think [this research] can only be conducted intersectionally, otherwise it’s not a project about inclusion,” she says.
It’s an issue that Charlotte Keenan, the curator of British art at National Museums Liverpool (NML), recognises. “We have a habit of looking at things in quite linear and narrow ways,” she says. “There’s definitely a lack of visibility for women within LGBT+ histories and of queer histories within women’s histories.”
Her work to improve LGBT+ representation at NML has highlighted sensitivities surrounding gender in art-historical discourse. “When we’re talking about historic figures, it can be very difficult to talk accurately about people’s gender, when often terms like non-binary or trans are very contemporary.”
Take Rosa Bonheur, a French painter widely celebrated as a female trailblazer. “They lived in committed relationships with other women, but they referred to themself as the husband and they wore men’s clothing,” Keenan says. “They seemed to present themself – and to perceive themself – as masculine. We don’t know how they’d identify today. I think the best thing we can do is offer [multiple] potential readings, to give visibility to their significance to women’s histories, but also to trans and non-binary histories.”
But the approach of giving multiple readings does pose a practical problem when documenting new research. “Museum documentation systems are binary by definition,” Keenan says. “They don’t cope well with multiple genders or the idea that there might be a spectrum.”
This rigidity is also problematic when artists change names – for example when they marry. Museums can adapt their systems to resolve in-house issues, but a lack of standardisation makes cross-collection queries difficult by fragmenting and hampering research.
There are all sorts of stories that could be told that are being overlooked
“It’s another obstacle woven into the fabric of your work as a curator,” says Victoria Irvine of Swarn, whose members are keen to explore software solutions that can handle nuance. With aggregation projects such as Art UK and Towards a National Collection gathering steam, now is the time to reflect on and raise these issues.
Revised documentation is just one operational change that can improve gender representation in the long term. Another is to revisit hiring and HR policies to get a more diverse and empowered staff. “There are all sorts of stories that could be told that are being overlooked. Representation on the walls is directly linked to representation at the big table,” says Howell at the Foundling Museum.
The pandemic and last year’s Black Lives Matter protests prompted many people to reflect on systemic inequalities. “There’s a responsibility that’s felt across the organisation,” Keenan says. “At the start of any project there’s the question of how we are going to tell a whole range of stories.”
Writing commitments into policy makes representation an objective of all staff, rather than a labour of love for a motivated few. “Having that at a strategic level in terms of planning documents, tools and organisational thinking is important,” says Keenan. “It’s an expectation across the organisation that everybody’s involved with and responsible for.”
Most museums are aware of the gaps in their historical collections, but the numbers are often stacked against them. Institutions, including Paisley Museum and NML, are developing collecting policies to prioritise women and non-binary artists, but acquiring relevant works in the volume necessary to achieve historical balance is usually prohibitively expensive.
Nonetheless, targeted acquisitions can act as focus for new interpretation, events and conversations. When London’s National Gallery acquired a self-portrait by the Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi (one of just 24 works by women in the collection), for example, it built a major public programme around it, with the artwork touring venues including a girl’s school, a women’s prison and a GP practice to engage new audiences.
“That was a major acquisition for us, and something we’ve really wanted to ground in our displays and programme,” says Caroline Campbell, director of collections and research at the National Gallery.
Unfortunately, under-representation is not just a historical issue. Close to two thirds of art and design students in the UK are women, but they make up just 35% of artists with commercial gallery representation, and are consistently undervalued at auction.
Given these numbers, observing gender parity in today’s collecting programmes is important. Museum acquisitions support artists financially and lend them visibility and clout in a biased market. But a purchase alone can only do so much, says artist Rana Begum. “Ongoing dialogue is really important,” she says. “Having those questions and conversations feeds into your work and benefits audiences, too.
“It’s important for our children not just to see white male artists that have been dominating the art world for centuries,” Begum says. “How do I explain to my little girl that there are amazing women artists out there and you’re just not seeing them?”
Jo Baring is director of the privately-owned Ingram Collection of modern art, which has a long-standing partnership with The Lightbox in Woking, Surrey. Women represent 29% of the full collection, but 65% of contemporary holdings. Last year, Baring staged the exhibition Redressing the Balance, which showcased female talent while acknowledging that inequality in almost all areas of the art world still exists.
Baring cultivates enduring relationships with artists such as Begum, and museums, and believes in the power of informal networks. “Support doesn’t have to be museum shows,” she says. “Your network is incredibly powerful and using that to help other people is the least you can do.”
Museums of all kinds can support artists – even those without a remit to collect contemporary art. Temporary commissions, workshops and residencies can cast new light on all collections. To be truly inclusive, opportunities should be sensitive to the obstacles faced by different groups; in the case of women, childcare is high on that list.
When the National Gallery relaunched its artist residency last year, it included a grant for childcare costs, which the inaugural recipient, Rosalind Nashashibi, took up.
“When an artist is in the middle of their career, often they have young families or other caring responsibilities,” says Priyesh Mistry, the gallery’s associate curator of modern and contemporary projects. “It was always an ambition when we set out to ensure that there is extra support there if needed.”
There is still lots of work to do to redress the gender imbalance in UK collections, but momentum is building. With all this activity and the sharing of ideas and expertise across the sector, more artists such as Joan Eardley are likely to get the recognition that their talent deserves.
Maggie Gray is a freelance journalist