The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Australian Art World, Meet the CoUNTesses

Posted by Mel Campbell on November 25, 2008

Who here knows about the Guerrilla Girls? These New York art activists have campaigned for over 20 years for a more equitable representation of women artists and artists of colour in galleries and museums.

Now Australia has its own band of anonymous, angry art ladies. They call themselves the CoUNTesses, and on their blog, CoUNTess, they point out all kinds of gender inequality in the Australian art scene. This is the sort of research that often goes on in university or government environments, and I for one find it exciting to see it out in the open.

One of the valuable things they do is number-crunching the gender representation in art world magazines: what proportion of male and female writers and editors work for them, and what proportion of male and female artists get cover stories, features and even just mentions. Dishearteningly, while male and female editorships are equal, and women art writers actually outnumber men, the contents are still distinctly skewed towards male artists.

They also talk about the startling discrepancy between the number of female art students and the number of women being collected in major art museums or holding major solo shows. Where are all the women going?

It’s great to have some hard statistics to begin talking about a kind of ingrained, systemic sexism that can be hard to tackle. Already the commentary at CoUNTess is focusing on whether women art critics need to focus on women artists, and whether mid-sized galleries need to follow the Australia Council’s example and provide precisely equal exhibition opportunities for men and women.

Ultimately this raises the contentious spectre of affirmative action. I’ve always found affirmative action difficult to defend in practice, because it favours one aspect of a person – in this case, their gender – over other considerations like economic and cultural capital, geographic location (perhaps 24HrArt gallery in Darwin exhibits more female artists because it’s seen as peripheral in the art world), and of course, the ‘quality’ of their ideas and of their finished work. And some people who might benefit from affirmative action find it patronising, and ultimately unhelpful because it leaves them open to criticism later in their careers (“you only got this far because we helped you, not because you’re any good”).

For now, I’d like the see the CoUNTesses get the resources to do the kind of in-depth content analysis of media, and qualitative social research in the art scene, that are necessary to show that gender inequality in art is a real problem and not just the whining of unsuccessful chick artists.

One Response to “Australian Art World, Meet the CoUNTesses”

  1. Offman said

    I have a problem with the last line; “Unsuccessful” women Countess artists…embittered with nothing better to do than count up how many more men seem to get the big opportunities, the big money, the many feature articles, the sales at a younger age than women in commercial galleries…the fame, fortune and all…hm, makes me think!
    I realise the writer is putting themselves in a media person’s shoes and how the website might/will be interpreted, and its a tricky tangle. For this reason, partially anonymity is chosen.
    In fact I happen to know how hugely successful these CoUNTesses are, and how hard they have had to work to get where they are.
    The question still seems to be whether the men in power even think about providing adequate, fair and equitable resources to women artists, and if they can be alerted to some of the discrepancies then they might get off their asses and attempt to address the issue. They might find it useful to cite women artists in their essays, and be more inclusive about the entire world of art, not just what is in their easy domain. I am fearful that the future ‘Great Masters of Art’ shows in Australia will still feature mainly men, oh, and the occaisional naked chick. Come off it!

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