Are female artists worth collecting? Tate doesn’t seem to think so | Helen Gørrill

The museum preaches diversity, but its annual acquistions suggest that great art is mostly created by men

The dire situation for equality in the British visual arts has been laid bare. We’ve reversed back into the Victorian age, where women can’t paint and women can’t write. My research suggests that female creatives are less likely to succeed now than they were in the 1990s. Today, when men’s artwork is signed, it goes up in value; conversely when work by women is signed, it goes down in value, and the addition of a woman’s signature can devalue artwork to the extent that female artists are more likely to leave their work unsigned. Hysteria, the female-specific Victorian malady, has returned to the UK, with women accused of being mad and out of control if they don’t conform to gallerists’ often unreasonable demands.

Pulling greedily from the public purse, our great institutions are largely to blame. This summer, Tate has offered a lively programme of events to entice young people to delve into its collections and ensure the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport continues to be the bedrock of its funding. Museums are responsible for our future histories, which look spectacularly masculine as far as Tate is concerned.

We cringe at the voices of famous male artists and critics declaring their disdain for artists who happen to have been born female: women can’t paint! There’s no such thing as a great woman artist!

And Tate appears to align with these views by collecting only a token proportion of work by women, who form the 74% majority of our fine art graduates. The young people who visit the museum this summer will learn that art’s future is mainly masculine.

Maria Balshaw, centre, and the directors of the four Tate galleries.
‘Tate fails to mention gender or equality in its collection policy.’ Maria Balshaw, centre, and the directors of the four Tate galleries. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

While Tate appears to have a 30% cap on the collection of female artists, its allocation of annual budget is even worse, with as little as 13% spent on works by female artists in recent years. This perpetuates the dominance of male artists in the collections and suppresses the value of women’s work. It has been proved that Tate’s collections affect the art market – its former director Alan Bowness even wrote a book on the subject.

The great inequality machine continues to churn and force women out of practice, while the institution’s publicly funded PR department works tirelessly to demonstrate its apparent support for female artists. Last year, Tate announced the progressive appointment of its first female director, Maria Balshaw, but it wasn’t a great start when she offered a trivial response to sexual harassment, perpetuating a blame-the-victim mindset.

Tate’s support of the activist art collective Guerrilla Girls is a clever tactic that gives the illusion of equality, yet politically correct press releases from the likes of Tate championing female artists could actually be doing more harm than good. It could be argued that museums raise the question of whether female artists are worthy of collection at all, because no similar promotional material or articles discuss the worthiness of male artists. With gender income gaps for artists reaching up to 80% in the UK – among the worst in the world – this issue needs to be urgently addressed.

Tate fails to mention gender or equality in its collection policy, seeking only to collect works of art of outstanding quality as well as works of distinctive aesthetic character or importance. Taking this policy and Tate’s acquisition data into account, it can be reasonably assumed the museum perceives that great works of art are mostly created by men. Its diversity policy inadequately addresses gender, yet the board of privileged directors are clearly aware that it is a key issue – and are happy to congratulate themselves for paltry efforts to equalise collections.

Meanwhile, annual acquisitions continue to have a stark gender disparity. The imbalance at Tate is particularly important given the role museums have played in defining and subverting gender roles and identities throughout art history. According to the Museums Association, public galleries such as Tate are also responsible for reducing inequalities between the rich and poor. Public service equality duty should therefore apply, yet the Equality and Human Rights Commission remains ambivalent.

Our great universities are also failing to address equality issues in their research. One research funder told me their master would never allow the use of his tools to dismantle the master’s house. As the self-proclaimed master of our nation’s art collection, Tate should make urgent efforts to reflect the diversity of the population in its collections and allow female graduates the same life chances as men. Do not waste any more of our money on persuasive PR. We know the collections are unfair and unequal. We need to encourage our daughters as well as our sons, and we need to provide role models for everyone.

Come on Tate. Put our money where your mouth is.

Helen Gørrill is the author of the forthcoming Women Can’t Paint: Gender, the Glass Ceiling and Values in Contemporary Art (IB Tauris/Bloomsbury)


Helen Gørrill

The GuardianTramp

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