Gender imbalance in museum collections is widespread, as exemplified by London’s National Gallery, which recently increased the number of works by women artists in its collection to 24 – 1% of its holdings. There are fewer still by women from diverse backgrounds.
Towner Eastbourne is doing better than most, with 18% of its 5,000-strong collection representing women-identified artists.
There is a growing consensus that regional modern and contemporary collections such as the Towner’s could be an ideal starting point for redressing gender inequalities that have marginalised women artists as contributors to the art historical canon.
Towner, in partnership with the University of Sussex, and to coincide with the gallery’s 2023 centenary, is hosting a three-year doctoral research project that seeks to rebalance the inequities of gender representation within its collections.
In October, I started a critical analysis of Towner’s repositories to illuminate the vital roles women have played in the museum’s collecting and exhibition history. This research will highlight the important legacy of donor support from women, such as the 50 works collector and gallerist Lucy Wertheim gave to the museum in 1971 (which will be part of a major exhibition in 2022).
The gender imbalances present across the collection underline the need to interrogate and dismantle a systemic devaluing of the contributions of women – as artists and patrons of artistic practice.
The research and exhibition present an opportunity to build on legacies such as Wertheim’s in tandem with the necessary acknowledgement that systemic racism, educational bias, classism and ableism perpetuate a cycle of exclusion in this field.
If projects such as this doctoral partnership are to promote equality, they must be underwritten by intersectionality, and counteract the erasure of the contributions of women with co-marginalised identities: trans-women, women of colour, working-class women, and women who are disabled.
Towner’s commitment to growing its international and contemporary holdings offers opportunity for inclusive practice, specifically to realise new ways to engage audiences. For example, the project will trace links between British women artists in Towner’s collection and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki.
My research coincides with Towner International, the gallery’s first biennial exhibition of contemporary art (until 10 January 2021), which showcases 24 artists. It is a project that will reinterpret works in the collection, and connect with a wider network of living women artists for future acquisition, display and public engagement.
The success behind any statistical improvement informed by this research will be the creation of such a network and how this can be met with improved engagement and representation among a diverse public. This project is a collaboration in multitudes, a conversation between artists, institutions, academics and audiences. And I am honoured to facilitate it.
Haley Moyse Fenning is a curator and educator based in Brighton. Her PhD, a Chase Doctoral Training Partnership, has been facilitated by the University of Sussex in collaboration with Towner Eastbourne