Dear Gallery Director,
Thanks for having me at your media preview. It was nice to get a list of works and a little bottle of water and to wander around the show, to have access before the unwashed masses. The opportunity to be the first to flood Instagram with snaps of the install, that sort of thing.
It’s funny, you know, the more of these events I attend, the more it becomes apparent that media previews are an opportunity for an institution to explain to the media how they want us to write about the show. Key Themes, Important Works, Interesting Facts, Historical Relevance and Names That Must Be Included (curators, corporate sponsors and partners, funding bodies, directors, artists, corporate sponsors, partners…).
I’m not sure how major institutions feel about this, but commercial gallery directors, artist-run directorates and most of the artists I speak to are discouraged by the lack of ‘critical dialogue’ around Australian art these days. Apart from a few mainstream media outlets that commission weekly reviews of major institutional shows, and a couple of write ups at the backs of art magazines, most art writing is essentially soft promotion. As if the status of art in our society is so precarious that we all just need to encourage more people to go and see art, at all costs. More cynically, perhaps it’s just about keeping the advertising galleries happy with thinly-veiled advertorial, so that we can afford to continue publishing at all.
There are, of course, other factors contributing to the current state of art writing. It is problematic when no-one is ‘just’ a reviewer anymore. Most of us are also artists, or curators, or part-time gallery staff – embedded in the community. Artists are our peers, our friends; it is personal. In this context, I don’t know that we are robust or removed enough to give and take bad reviews. Even media previews do not feel like an appropriate place to ask difficult questions.
So, back to the media preview of your season blockbuster – an exhibition of ‘Masterpieces’ from an international collection – I couldn’t help but notice that there was not one work by a woman artist. In over 80 paintings and drawings, I couldn’t see a single work. As various gallery representatives discussed the show – in wild rapture, of course – this fact kept pressing in from the periphery until it was all I could see. Surely it was as glaringly obvious to everyone else there.
Eventually, during the walk-through, I gathered the courage to come up and ask you the question. You paused for a moment. You had been holding court, beaming as journalists and PR staff sang your praises and photographed you in front of key works, laughing with happiness. When I approached you and asked my question, your face fell and your smile disappeared, and I gathered I was the first person today who had not come up to you simply to congratulate you on a job well done.
You paused when I asked you if there were any works by women artists in the show, and appeared to do a mental calculation. Eventually, sounding somewhat surprised, you admitted, “no, I don’t think there are any.” “Not a single one?” I pressed. You confirmed the absence, and went on to blame the institution from which the collection was borrowed – that your hands were tied, your choice limited by what they had available. Suddenly, rather than lauding this elegant collection, and your institution’s incredible fortune at having access to this treasure trove, you turned on it.
I couldn’t quite believe it – not only did you admit to staging an exhibition with dozens of artists and not. One. Single. Woman. But you also had no reasonable explanation for this – you hadn’t even thought about it – and shifted the blame to the very collection you had been celebrating. You then went on to tell me about how your gallery was doing other interesting things with women artists. Rather than engaging with the issue, you tried to redirect and placate me with other programming where women were treated more favourably. You sought absolution through this deflection, whilst simultaneously deferring responsibility to another institution for the problem.
Put simply, there is no excuse for failing to consider diversity in your exhibition program. And if you want to stage a show that perpetuates Euro-centric, male-dominated narratives of art history, all I can say is…yawn. Use your role, and the power of art, to start rewriting those narratives. Look elsewhere for your loans, refuse to tell the same staid stories over and over again! Find out what was happening in other parts of the world while white men were writing a singular tale of (European) history, and if you find it hard to access the information and material, you know you’re on the right track. Bring on the ‘minorpiece’, the interstices, art from between the lines, or from another book altogether. Show the public things they don’t know, things that don’t just reinforce the same staid stories for the comfort of reciting myths and fairytales. Wake up. You’re lulling your audience to sleep. Perhaps if writers – myself included – had the guts to say what we actually thought, audiences would take note and institutions would be taken to account.
Drawing to your attention the fact that this show is all about men is the tip of the iceberg. I’m not saying that all your exhibitions need to be 50% men, 50% women (although I can’t say I would hate that), but that if you don’t start at least considering this sort of equity, you will get nowhere near the really interesting stories. The things that people don’t already know about, that they won’t find through an online search for ‘masterpieces of art’. Give people a reason to get out of their houses, and across the city, state or country, to see the fascinating stories you’re bringing to light.
I went home from that media preview and did some research. It’s true that women artists were thin on the ground in that collection, particularly in the era this show covered. Nonetheless I found several. Some were beautiful works by quite well known artists; others were more obscure. I suppose they may not have fit into the ‘Masterpieces’ descriptor, with the promise that the works, or at least the artists’ names, would be recognisable. Oh wait. Gosh, I’m such an idiot! The truth was in the title. Masters.
And therein lies the rub. Mainstream stories dominated by white men have enabled your career, landed you this job. The wheels turn through the same ruts and we go around in circles. White male artists supported by white male curators and directors. Alive, dead; who cares! Perhaps it is absurd to think it could be any different.
It’s idealistic, I know, but I do think it could be different. To me, the problems are inextricably linked: the lack of so-called critical dialogue; the re-telling of staid histories dominated by white males; the sidelining of alternative stories and voices. If institutions stopped telling the same stories over and over again, we could stop paraphrasing the same press releases ad nauseum. If genuinely interesting and challenging stories were put forward, we could perhaps engender genuine interest from audiences. Rather than re-selling them the names they vaguely recall from art history – and lets face it, apart from institutional critique, there is little critical dialogue to be had around that work – we could focus on constructive and enlightening criticism that actually enhances the way we read and understand challenging and exhilarating art. Give us something worth thinking about and contributing to. Because we’re good for it. We’re ready. You just need to meet us halfway.