Where Are All the Women?

Montreal Artist Calls Into Question the State of Women in Art

  • Art by Lacey Jane at the Woman x Women exhibition. Photo Courtesy Maxime Charron

Disparities based on gender aren’t exempt from the art world.

It’s a fact some scholars and artists are trying to understand: just where exactly do cisgender women in art stand?

Artist Mira Silvers, founder of street art collective Sugar 4 Brains, was invited to the New Zealand street art festival Spectrum, where she quickly detected an imbalance in the number of artists who identify as female.

“I was looking at the lineup and made an offhand comment,” Silvers said. “It’s so strange that out of the nine headlining artists, there was only one woman.”

Her plan to curate an all-women show was born: Woman x Women, featuring around 30 artists tasked with fulfilling the theme of reappropriation of the female body.

“The show that Mira was doing was something that was on our mind for a long time, but we just hadn’t put enough time aside to put in the research in curating the show,” said Adam Vieira, co-owner of Station 16, the street art gallery that hosted the show, which took place from July 29 to Aug. 8 of this year.

“Other galleries weren’t aware of what I’d previously done, and they were very wary to do a show like this,” Silvers said. Some sponsors and venues told her the project was “very political.”

Woman x Women featured a range of painters and street artists in a space typically dedicated to muralists, a community in which women are underrepresented.

“Women in street art and graffiti are a bit of a minority,” Vieira said. “Whenever we see someone who’s exploring muralism or graffiti or street art, we tend to be excited about it and jump on it.”

Out of the 19 muralists listed on Mural festival’s website for its 2015 edition, only three identified as women. The annual outdoor art festival along St. Laurent Blvd. hasn’t done enough to include women, according to Silvers.

“That’s unacceptable,” Silvers said.

So many women enroll in fine arts classes or are doing art, she said. “It’s weird. What happens to all those women?

“Not every artist goes to school, but the ones that do—there’s a big gap from students to professionals,” Silvers said. “There’s a huge gap. I don’t know why.”

In the 1980s, the Guerrilla Girls, feminist icons of the modern art world, counted paintings in the Metropolitan Museum to prove this point.

“Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 4% of artists in the Modern Art section are women, but 76% of the nudes are female,” reads one of their most famous posters.

Their work is still an inspiration, 30 years later, but the Guerrilla Girls couldn’t comment on the situation of Canadian art.

The nine-day Woman x Women exhibition by Silvers was paid for out of her savings when she realized few sponsors would work with her.

Even so, the event was considered a success by its host gallery’s standards. The Woman x Women exhibit brought in 900 people, with “quite a few sales,” according to Vieira.

Now, Silvers is working on research, Guerrilla Girls-style, with no support from galleries and museums.

“It depends on the kind of institution you’re talking to and also the kind of questions that you’re asking,” said Anne Whitelaw, the Associate Dean of Research at Concordia’s fine arts faculty.

“If you look at a lot of small galleries across the country, there are a lot of women working in them,” she continued. “But once you get to the larger institutions, it’s less prevalent.”

Women artists, including contemporary artists, are still underrepresented in public collections and in the exhibitions that could lead to significant success, according to professor Joyce Zemans and PhD candidate Amy C. Wallace in their paper Where Are the Women? Updating the Account!

In 1971, StatsCan reported that visual artists were mainly men. By 2006, census data showed 56 per cent of professional visual artists are women, but Hill Strategies Research, which specializes in stats about the arts, found women earn on average 28 per cent less than men.

“I think it’s changing, but it’s changing more slowly than I like,” said Whitelaw.

“Even if [museums] have a woman directing the gallery or museum, very often they have almost 90 per cent men on their board of trustees or board of directors,” said Katrina Caruso, an Art History Master’s student whose thesis focuses on the role of women in power in art institutions.

“The director of the gallery or head curator—they’re not really in the position of power that you expect them to be, because they still have to be accountable to their board,” she continued. “If their board is mainly white dudes around the table, it sort of changes the conversation.”

Manually counting the representation of female-identifying artists in galleries—like what the Guerrilla Girls did, and what Silvers is working on—is difficult because a lot of it involves guessing an artist’s gender based on their name, Caruso said. “It’s a really hard thing to look [at] objectively, without have a whole team of researchers behind you.”

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is showcasing six Canadian and Quebecois female painters in Elles Aujourd’hui, until August 2016. The collection coincides with an exhibition on the Beaver Hall Group, whose history was rewritten by feminists in the 60s to be an anomalous group dominated by female artists.

The Beaver Hall Group was a modernist collective in Montreal during the 1920s, often described as an all-female counterpart to the Group of Seven—though women made up less than half of the Montreal group.

“The art world is a progressive place,” Caruso said. “Why, then, does it not trickle up to management of these institutions?”

“It’s true that there are not so many women that lead big museums,” said Nathalie Bondil, the current director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and the first woman in the position.

The MMFA ranked 58 of the museums with the most visitors in 2014—the highest in Canada—according The Art Newspaper’s annual survey. Of the top 58 most-visited museums, Bondil counted only 10 female head curators.

“Of course there are many women who work for museums in the world, especially in Canada,” Bondil said. The number of museums has doubled over the last 30 years, solidifying their place as important authorities in culture. That raised status also means the leaders of these institutions have more cultural power.

“The fact that museums are becoming more important and central in our cultural life, it also attracts more men,” Bondil said.

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