When it was announced in January that Frances Morris was to be Tate Modern’s new director, much was made of this being the first time a woman had led the organisation. What difference would this make to the work shown in the gallery? Would it mean more opportunities for female artists? And along with other director appointments in the visual arts – Sarah Munro at Baltic, Kate Brindley at Arnolfini, Beth Bate at Dundee Contemporary Arts – was this proof that the traditionally male institutional bias of the UK’s top art galleries was on the wain?

Gender inequality has been a long-standing issue in the art world. In New York, the anonymous artist activists Guerilla Girls famously drew attention to it in 1985 in response to the Museum of Modern Art show, International Survey of Painting and Sculpture – an exhibition that featured 169 artists, of which less than 10% were women. Over 30 years later, female artists are still losing out to their male counterparts – when launching a new award recently for mid-career UK-based women artists, Elisabeth Murdoch of the Freelands Foundation explained that women were “still woefully under-represented in the art world”.

Morris has already done much to address this at Tate in her previous job as curator, with major retrospectives of women artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama and Agnes Martin. Speaking to The Guardian recently, she explained that, when she started working with the Tate collection a decade ago, she noticed how excluded women artists were. “I realised what a deficit there was. And then I was in a position to do something about it. I encourage colleagues to dig a little more when they see interesting work by a woman artist they haven’t heard of before, or to be aware of where women have been overlooked.”

Morris clearly intends to use her position to address women’s place in the art world. According to Fawcett Society research from 2013, women artists are given fewer solo shows and commercial galleries represent fewer women than men. And high-profile appointments aside, the bias against women continues in the world of arts administration.

Women overwhelmingly make up the majority of the workforce in museums and galleries – 70% according to academic research by Professor Kate Oakley and Dr David O’Brien. But according to research reported in The Guardian in September 2015, within galleries getting annual funding of £1m+ from Arts Council England, just 37% of director or chief executive roles are held by women. The same research claims that women lead 40% of Scotland’s best-funded galleries and 50% in Wales. At director level, then, our visual arts institutions remain overwhelmingly run by men.

Internationally, things aren’t any better. The New York Times reported in March 2014 that women run just a quarter of the biggest art museums in the US and Canada, and earn less than a third of their male counterparts. As Alexandra Schwartz, curator of contemporary art at New Jersey’s Montclair Art Museum comments: “In any field where there are so many women in general and so few women at the top, you have to ask structural questions about why that is.”

While a woman – Christine Macel – has been appointed as artistic director of the 2017 Venice Biennale, Sarah McCrory, director of Glasgow International, points out the overwhelmingly male bias within biennials of art. She says: “The same men, time and time again, are still recruited to run the major biennials and institutions,” adding that “gender equality in the arts should be easy: make shows, galleries, biennials, institutions, at least 50 per cent women”.


What do other women at a senior level in the visual arts feel about the sector’s gender balance? “There are times when I do get a little disheartened about it all,” says Kate Brindley, director of Bristol’s Arnolfini and before that head of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. “I look at the national institutions of this country, and think, I’m never going to work there, and it saddens me. There is a reality where you realise that it isn’t a level playing field. This country has not made enough strides in this way.”

Sarah Munro, who moved from Glasgow’s Tramway to become director of Baltic in Gateshead, is slightly exasperated by how much attention was given to her gender when her appointment was announced last August. “The press really picked up on me being the first woman director; it should really be irrelevant, but it isn’t. On the one hand, you’re saying, isn’t it annoying? But at the same time, you do have a sense of responsibility and I’m certainly interested in understanding what this difference means.”

Katrina Brown, who set up Glasgow-based gallery and visual arts organisation The Common Guild in 2006 and was previously deputy director at Dundee Contemporary Arts, is also very aware of being within a male dominated environment. “The higher up the food chain you go, the more male it tends to be,” she says.

“I have encountered sexism, particularly in production meetings, which does tend to involve a bit of gender stereotyping; the men think women don’t understand anything technical. But it remains deeply shocking that things don’t seem to have changed very much for women. We work in an office that is lined with books, and all the fat books have men’s names on them. It’s a constant reminder of what the challenge really is.”

Fiona Bradley, director of the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, takes a less clear-cut position. “I meet a lot of women who are in positions of authority,” she says. “I would say that contemporary visual arts isn’t too bad. There are truisms – there seem to be more men in senior positions rather than men in junior positions. It seems that men float to the top quicker. It’s still true that it’s easier to focus on your career if you are a man because you don’t have the same family responsibilities. It’s quite difficult to have a big job and small kids, as a woman.”

But, she says, she does encounter ‘everyday sexism’. “Our gallery manager is a man and people do talk to him sometimes instead of me, as if he’s my boss. I handle it by pretending it’s not there, working through it, trying not to be dispirited.” All agree that they encounter sexist behaviour by individuals. “I don’t think you would talk to a woman anywhere who hasn’t encountered it,” comments Bradley.

Enduring and stubborn

Given that nearly every arts organisation has an equality and diversity policy – and that gender discrimination is illegal – why is this gender bias in the visual arts so enduring and stubborn? “Traditionally, running really big institutions is kind of a consuming thing,” says Munro. “Sometimes I think that women have better things to do – we’re better at balancing our lives. I have a friend who is also a director of an art space and we are run ragged.”

Both Brindley and Munro cite the power of organisational boards of governance, which often take a key role in hiring the director. There is a substantial body of research that evidences the tendency of boards (and other employment decision makers) to hire in their own image. If boards are dominated by white middle-class professional men, then it is more likely that they will hire someone with a similar profile and outlook.

Brindley asks: “When a board chooses a leader, maybe they’re looking for the wrong things? I wonder if the assessment criteria are right? Is it a level playing field? I think it’s a diversity issue as much as a gender issue. It’s a monocultural approach, which is true of several sectors, not just ours.” Munro agrees: “Boards need to be more gender and class balanced themselves.”

Another major issue is that of childcare, juggling being a mother with having a high-flying career. “We still don’t have proper childcare,” comments Munro. “If a woman goes off on maternity leave, we need to be really clear on those policy frameworks and be absolutely rigorous about that person not being disadvantaged by having done that. We also have a culture where we are 24 hours ‘on’, of working late, which I think is wrong.”

Many arts organisations do strive to have flexible working conditions, but there is an endemic culture where many events – openings, talks, education programmes and more – are still programmed to take place outside office hours. Sometimes this is to do with reaching audiences and catering to their availability, but it remains the case that being present eats into family time and can require childcare arrangements.

Brown comments: “I do think the art world is quite a difficult place for women who have children. It’s not the most inclusive environment. At Common Guild we are very aware of when events are scheduled and who is expected to be there and take part, otherwise it can be an unaccommodating place for women with children.”

Bradley also recognises that “flexible working situations” are required. She feels fortunate that although she became a director when her eldest child was 18 months old, and her second wasn’t born, she was able to influence the working practices and polices of the Fruitmarket. But as she points out: “It’s important that this is made available to everybody.”

Approach to leadership

Brindley has been at Arnolfini for nearly two years. “It’s quite a challenge working in the public subsidised art sector at the moment… We’re all having to look carefully at how we fund ourselves and adjust as a sector, but it’s also about relevance: how we are relevant to the next generation. I think that’s the key leadership challenge. How we change as an organisation to meet the 21st century audience and to be more relevant to our communities, balanced with how we fund ourselves. They are intrinsically linked because you will not survive otherwise.”

Many arts organisations, says Brindley, aren’t built for the challenges they face, and she is unsure whether “as a sector we’ve modelled the change at the pace we need to.” She cites a number of organisational characteristics that need addressing. “We have a tendency to work in tramlines, whereas I think people are more interested in inter-disciplinarity and broader culture; there is a bit more flex needed… How do we reflect or adapt to be more responsive to our changing demographic and how people want to engage with culture? Sometimes inherent protectionism can stifle innovation, we can be so conservative.”

Munro has a similarly holistic viewpoint. “I work from a position that is different from the image of the male leader, the larger than life ego and persona,” she says. “I’ve been someone who has always preferred the more devolved method, trying to distribute it down the organisation. Which doesn’t mean that you don’t have a really clear vision of where you want to get to, but I’m aware it’s not all about me. I’m trying to create a culture of reflection and discussion.”

She thinks it is important to utilise the knowledge and experience available across the organisation. “One of the things that I’ve done very quickly is to create working groups that bring people together across departments and pay grades. I’m starting with the organisational structure.”

Munro is still relatively new in post, having taken up the position last November. “At my previous job at Tramway in Glasgow we actively tried to set a 50:50 gender balance over a five-year cycle. So in my first week I requested a gender split of all exhibitions since Baltic opened in 2002 to 2015. And what was interesting was that this question hadn’t been asked before”

The gender balance of shows at the gallery is revealing. “In terms of group shows, we presented 66% male to 34% female artists,” says Munro. “In solo exhibitions, the figures were 63% male to 37% female. Level 2 can be seen as our project space, and in that we have shown 77% male artists to 23% female. In Level 3, which is the gallery which has the main environmental control systems and therefore our ‘museum quality’ shows, the stats were pretty much 50:50.

“The thing that was surprising was that in Baltic 39, which is a smaller space that we manage in Newcastle and which has been open for six years, the total number of male artists exhibiting has been 102, with 71 female artists. But in solo shows in this space, we have had five male artists and zero female shows.”

While these figures are perhaps unsurprising, they should raise eyebrows. If 60% of art school graduates are women, why have they been given significantly less exhibition opportunities at a major publicly-funded space? “The debate that we then had with the team enabled us to consider these figures, and question where we are comfortable and where we are not,” explains Munro. “I find that there are so many women making so much fantastic work that I would expect to be exhibiting a lot of women anyway. But we’re immediately aware of a deficit in female solo exhibitions at Baltic 39.”

There is a notable difference in Munro’s approach at Baltic than her predecessors, who perhaps concentrated on creating an idea of Baltic as a nationally and internationally significant gallery. Munro had an extended role at Tramway as head of arts for the entire city and this has helped develop her approach. “I took a lot of learning from Glasgow and the breadth of what we did, and I’m trying to apply that at Baltic. I’m creating greater conversation between our constituent citizens and the sense of being an important civic space. We’re not primarily a visitor attraction although we have that function as well.”

Women supporting women

Brindley has been part of the Women Leaders in Museums Network since it was founded in 2007 by Virginia Tandy and Diane Lees. “It’s been fabulous,” she says, “we rotate the chair, we rotate organising, and we do a 24-hour retreat once a year. It’s been a great model of support for women. There are now lots of other women’s networks that have been seeded as a result.”

Brown cites curator (now writer) Nicola White and Andrew Nairne (then director of Dundee Contemporary Arts, now director of Kettle’s Yard) as “people who gave me opportunities early on”. She says: “It’s worth saying that the Common Guild is an all-female team, which hasn’t necessarily been by design but it does feel like a supportive and mutually respectful environment. And I’m quite proud of having been able to support young women coming through the organisation.”

All the women I speak to are conscious of gender inequality in the arts and their own responsibility as leaders of their organisations. “I do actively try to mitigate against the difficulties that women face in gaining senior positions,” says Brindley. “I’m incredibly mindful of having a more diverse artist pool when looking at our future programming, and my women curators are incredibly hot on this and will tell me if they think I’m not doing enough.”

Brindley also talks about the “problem for women’s succession if they are not nurtured by a woman. If they don’t see good role models how do they know that they can be assertive in their role? Women need to see women modelling good leadership which can be different from male leadership.” She says that while there are a lot of entry level jobs for women in the arts, they need to be represented in all layers. She adds: “An important strategy that I’ve employed is to make sure we are promoting and employing from within, of women who have shown loyalty and who might find it difficult to move geographically for another job.”

An example of how she puts her awareness into practise is Arnolfini’s recent participation in the Arts Council England Change Agent programme. “I’m always very keen to go into the dark corners and say, I know this has to change, even though the outcome might be difficult for us. I think it is important to have a culture that promotes fair and good behaviour, not just in relation to gender but across the board. We can too easily fall into favouritism and behaving in ways that replicates invalid behaviour.”

Munro is also quite clear: “I go into it quite politicised. I don’t think of leadership as a gender neutral space. Leadership is about changing the institution as a whole; how do we curate the institution and how do we open it out in different ways.” Brown is equally clear in her advice to women who want to rise through the ranks. While stating that “being nice and patient gets you a lot further than being demanding,” she adds: “Don’t be afraid of having a family life and don’t be apologetic about it. Be persistent.”

While there’s still a long way to go before true gender equality is achieved at a senior level across visual arts organisations, recent appointments in the UK are an encouraging sign that things are changing, and that more women leaders are emerging in the sector. The issue, though, goes much wider than the arts. As Munro puts it: “We also need to be able to create the conditions externally where women can thrive and have a meaningful working life.”

1. Sarah Munro, director, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: courtesy Baltic
2. Frances Morris, director, Tate Modern. Photo: courtesy Tate
3. Kate Brindley, director, Arnolfini, Bristol. Photo: courtesy Arnolfini
4. Fiona Bradley, director, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh. Photo: courtesy Fruitmarket Gallery
5. Katrina Brown, director, The Common Guild, Glasgow. Photo: Alan Dimmick

More on a-n.co.uk:

Women and contemporary art: why gender inequality is still an issue

1 Comment