some of my best friends are women

Last year, the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in Brisbane hosted a major exhibition called Contemporary Australia: Women. It brought together fifty six individuals who are making art in Australia today. Who are also women. Because women sometimes make art.

In various statements and interviews, the curator Julie Ewington called the exhibition a “celebration.” What it celebrated, apparently, was “the way women artists have reshaped, and continue to shape, the landscape of art in Australia.” Given that there are more than 11,000,000 women here, I would have thought that by now it’s a given that some of them have an impact on art in Australia. But it was a celebration, and, Ewington insisted, it was “not about complaint.” Remarks like this repeatedly shut down any potential for critical discussion.

In her catalogue text she briefly addressed the conspicuous lack of the word ‘feminism’ throughout the exhibition. “The F word was eschewed,” she wrote, “to ensure that the exhibition was open to the broadest range of people.” Why didn’t this set off panic alarms? Dear Julie: if feminism is deemed too scary for the public then the patriarchy is safe and sound.

There were other problems. Doesn’t presenting them from the outset as separate or ‘marginalised’ do a disservice to women and to the art on show? What about all the female artists who are making work that isn’t concerned with “the body, motherhood and ageing,” or any of the curator’s other designated themes? Given that it refers to around half the population, how useful is the category ‘women’ here? Can you legitimately call your show Women while only making room for such a parochial characterisation of their creative output? Isn’t the blanket at once too big and too narrow?

These are some of the rudimentary concerns that came up in conversations at the time of the exhibition, but the mainstream press was unanimously congratulatory, apparently swept up in the celebration. It was nauseating. I’m a woman. If I wrote a book and I saw my book in someone’s home on a bookshelf proudly labeled ‘BOOKS BY WOMEN’, separated from and drastically outnumbered by that person’s other shelves that revealed an overall poor representation of women, I wouldn’t congratulate them for their benevolence and courage. I would tell them their gesture was actually patronising, lazy and besides the point – and they would be better off rethinking their library as a whole.

But maybe that would make me a party-pooper. Nobody wants to get too serious in the midst of a celebration that is open to the broadest range of people – but we should know by now that any temporary incorporation of the so-called marginal only affirms the power structure it claims to overthrow. Self-professed and publically displayed benevolence can too easily mask sinister depths. It’s like saying “some of my best friends are gay” as if that excuses your homophobia.

(Tangential thought: could GoMA’s next installment in this exhibition series be called Contemporary Australia: Homosexual? No? Why not?)

To be clear, I fully support designated spaces of female inclusion and am not opposed to all-women exhibitions per se. What I found rank was GoMA’s refusal to actually look at the conditions that might necessitate an exclusive focus on women (one more quote from the curator about her exhibition: “I don’t know if it’s necessary but it’s been a hell of a lot of fun to do”), and the way it silenced any criticality by repeatedly shouting out “celebration!”

As the country’s largest and best-endowed contemporary and modern art institution, GoMA had never been particularly concerned with gender inequality in the past. In 2011 the blockbuster exhibition 21st Century: Art in the First Decade showed two hundred works that had been purchased by the museum since 2000. Only a quarter of them were by women. And after her women-only exhibition, Ewington was on the curatorial board for the museum’s current major show, The 7th Asia Pacific Triennale of Contemporary Art, which represents roughly twice as many men as women in its seventy five exhibited artists. That’s the thing with celebrations – they’re fun while they’re happening, but they end abruptly.

We already know there are lots of women making great art. A one-off presentation of some of that work does nothing on its own to address the artworld’s deeply ingrained sexism. We need sustained interrogation and serious, ongoing restructuring. The blog CoUNTess has been tallying the representation of women in Australia’s major museums and galleries for several years, and has repeatedly revealed embarrassing disparities at all levels. According to CoUNTess the numbers are getting worse, not better.

When the Centre Pompidou in Paris first staged its long-term elles@centrepompidou exhibition in 2009, re-hanging its permanent collection to show only works by women, it had at least actually changed its acquisitions budget to allocate fourty per cent (still not half) of its spending to women artists. Unlike GoMA, it was prepared to take some of the risks involved with revising the received historical narratives that have so drastically overlooked women’s contributions in art; and make steps towards forging a more inclusive future.

Happily, since Contemporary Australia: Women, the discussions that it should have generated have been taking place elsewhere. The independent initiative Janis was recently launched by Sydney artist Kelly Doley, with the explicit aim of promoting women in the arts through ongoing curatorial and publishing projects, and public forums. While GoMA was so scared of alienating potential visitors that it censored the expletive ‘feminism’, Janis wants to tackle things head-on. This weekend, Doley will chair a panel at Sydney’s Artspace as part of this year’s Art Month festival, bringing together artists Julie Rrap, Natalya Hughes and Jess Olivieri, curator Anna Davis, and art historian Catriona Moore, to discuss feminism in contemporary art under the pertinent heading If Not Why Not?

Amidst rising awareness of sexism in art today, there are some things that suggest improvements are taking place. According to ArtReview’s Power 100 list, the numero uno most powerful person in art last year was the curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. This was the first time a woman had ever topped the list; and her exhibition for the 2012 Documenta festival in Germany proved that, contrary to Ewington’s baffling remark, it is possible to incorporate both feminism and a broad range of people.

Closer to home, the next Kaldor Public Art Project is set to open in Sydney next month, and includes six women amongst a total of fifteen artists. This doesn’t sound particularly radical but let’s consider what Australia’s most celebrated patron has done for women to date: The Kaldor Family Collection that was donated to the Art Gallery of NSW in 2011 had two solo female artists to one hundred and ninety four solo male artists. Over four decades, the Public Art Projects have seen John Kaldor invite twenty male artists, three male-female duos and one solo female artist to show work in Australia. One. The honour went to Vanessa Beecroft, whose commissioned work VB40 (1999) had twenty women standing on public view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, either partially or fully undressed.

(All I can think of here is the famous Guerrilla Girls poster that asked whether women have to be naked to get into museums, since, the anonymous anti-sexism collective had found, “less than 3% of the artists in the Met Museum are women, but 83% of the nudes are female.”)

Isolated instants of women’s achievements should not be taken as opportunities to sit back and pat ourselves on the back. Julia Gillard’s prime ministership, for example, has actually underlined not how much progress we’ve made, but how deep the fear and hatred of women runs in this country. The problem is that once a celebration is under way, critical thinking gets hushed. Some things may well be starting to shift for the better, but let’s not pop the champagne just yet.

Published by Overland here