Women to Watch UK: Metal
Berkley Square, London.
Last Tuesday evening proved to be an interesting encounter with the West End London art scene.
A word of warning, always thoroughly investigate random suggestions for events which may be of interest when scrolling through ticketing websites.
Things started to seem strange when our names weren’t on the list.
There may have been mix up between the venue’s people and the event organisers.
And that the event in question was not free as advertised, but actually £45 per person.
At this point, internal alarm bells were sounding and an ensuing tactical retreat implemented;
Er. I don’t think this is for us. We’re just art students…
Followed by attempts to keep us there and polite haggling;
It is a charity event, would you like to donate something and stay???
Since you are students, how does £20 for both of you sound?
The event in question is one of many worldwide co-organised at the behest of the National Museum of Women in the Arts*, in Washington DC. The aim was to short list one female artist who works with metal as a medium, to participate in a group show of the same theme planned next year in the US. In addition to this, there was also a panel discussion to help create dialogues around the issues faced by female artists working within the industry.
And we were decidedly out of place and dishevelled looking having come from a long day spent at university. In retrospect, the location really should have been a huge tip off. It was odd to be somewhere so upscale with only the interest in gender imbalances truly binding all attendees.
The exhibition itself was amiably customary, displaying a fittingly curated group of works from artists Rana Begum, Alison Wilding, Sara Barker and Claire Barclay. Apart from the jaw dropping price tags (Again, where did we find ourselves? Or was it more a case of this all being ‘for a worthy cause?’ Perhaps more likely BOTH), what I found interesting was the works were actually rather gender neutral. Assigning gender to the artist through their pieces would have been impossible had the question been posed, and one didn’t know the exhibition was solely of works by female artists. Which might be sexist in and of itself to try and analyse why that would be important to even do so in the first place.
The panel discussion was insightful to a degree, but essentially functioned more to merely point out discrimination or inequalities against female artists and describe scenarios of such, without providing much commentary as to why those may be so, or offer real tangible solutions to tackle them. Perhaps it was a case of having limited time, and the greater mission and actions undertaken by the organisation being easily accessible to anyone interested.
Points covered were of gender imbalances in all types of collections, gallery and biennale representation skewing favourably to art made by male artists. The prices paid for works also being skewed, an example was given to highlight the disparity; the highest amount paid at auction for works made by a deceased artist is weighted toward men by more than a factor of 100 (Leonardo da Vinci £341 million vs. Georgia O’Keefe £28.8 million)
The cynical side of me immediately thought it was also convenient to point something like that out, and rile up potential buyers to push for sales of the works in the exhibition. But would that be such a bad thing? After all, there is a reciprocal relationship between creating economic demand, advocating artists and funding their practice, which would ultimately serve to reduce the imbalances in question.
Also from a socio-economic standpoint, in terms of where this discussion was taking place and the figures being thrown around, what are the various gender imbalances and their extent when moving along the different tiers of the art market? It is also important to note, no discussion was made with respect to racial inequalities and how that fits in with all the dialogue exposited.
Experiences had by the artists as women in educational institutions and further practice were also discussed, ranging from facing incredulity and scepticism due to their medium choices, to protectionist concern, encouragement and praise bordering on condescension. One artist spoke of her time at the Royal College during the 70’s as being the only woman in the sculpture department (and one of 3 women in the broader course), and feeling like she had to act like “one of the boys” to be accepted. Another spoke of being asked daily if she “was ok” by a workshop technician at Chelsea, and postulating that it might have been because of her slight stature and being outnumbered by male counterparts.
The night ended on generalised assertions of “times being different now in universities” and “barriers exist if you make them so”, which is perhaps the case but did not really provide a satisfying finish to the dialogues generated.
(*) The NMWA is an institution solely dedicated to the promotion of women artists, with aims to tackle the inequalities faced by them within the industry and society at large. It’s collection boasts some 5,000 works by women artists, and undertakes many initiatives and projects to engage a wider audience with respect to their work.
Lora Nikolaeva Nikolova.