OPINION: One of my favourite paintings in the Art Gallery of New South Wales is Emanuel Phillips Fox’s Art Students. It’s a particularly notable series because all the Melbourne Art School students pictured are women.
In the late 19th century, as the first generation of women to go to school reached maturity, art school was seen as a ladylike alternative to more serious pursuits and so began the dominance of women in art studies.
Well over a century later women are still the majority of visual arts students, but the cream of the leadership positions in arts organisations remain firmly in male hands. In 2012, of the 98 students enrolled in the graduate Art Administration programs at my university, 86 were women. In the last two decades I have taught classes with 100% women but never a class with even 25% men.
Outstanding graduates include Melissa Chiu (Senior Vice President for Global Arts and Cultural Programs at the Asia Society), Louise Doyle (Director of the National Portrait Gallery), Wayne Tunnicliff (Head of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales) and John Kirkman (executive Director of ICE).
When describing successful students there is an instinct to choose equal numbers from each gender. Where women students are in an overwhelming majority, dividing the spoils by gender means they are discriminated against. In a class with two men and 28 women, the visually different (i.e male) find it easier to have their names remembered. It helps to stand out in a crowd.
Opportunities and individual attention tend to engender confidence. As American social psychologist Amy Cuddy has shown, the kind of self-affirmative physical stance taken by baboons, alpha males and even Wonder Woman increases both testosterone and self-confidence.
Women graduates are more likely to apply for “realistic” secondary positions, and this is what they are given. Self-confidence is infectious. It is the hardest thing for a young artist to approach a commercial gallery about an exhibition, or a new graduate to think she may become an Assistant Director rather than an administrative assistant. Fortune is more likely to follow the bold than the shy.
In the first half of the 20th century the artist Margaret Preston became known as “mad Maggie” but her assertive personality meant that she was one of the few women artists to achieve a high professional profile for most of her career. Her quieter colleague,Grace Cossington Smith had to wait until she was over 80 to see a major exhibition of her work in a public gallery.
Women creative artists are now much better placed to achieve success than in the past. There is a critical mass of women exhibiting in commercial galleries and having their work selected for public collections.
It is also worth remembering that men who are non-assertive or from less than privileged backgrounds do not find success easily. Ralph Balson, who was only able to paint full time when he became an old age pensioner, spent most of his life in relative obscurity.
Because of the cost of childcare, the greatest barrier to women taking leadership in any field is the birth of children. Here the arts create an extra hurdle. Because our work time is other people’s playtime, the most important part of a working day may be between 6pm and 8pm. This is when exhibitions have their openings, when introductions are made and deals are quietly brokered in front of an exquisitely presented exhibition.
No employee who wants to be taken seriously can avoid working at that time, but it coincides with the jungle hour for young families. Unless they are in the most senior of positions, people working in the arts tend to have salaries that equate with genteel poverty. Most childcare centres close by si