Win for women, as new report shows increased gender equality in the visual arts

The new Countess Report shows that independent sectors lead the visual arts in gender equality, while state institutions fall behind.

Since 2008, when it began life as a blog, The Countess Report has held the visual arts sector to account regarding gender representation. Its findings have persistently reinforced the sector’s need to do more if gender parity is to be reached.

Today the Countess’ highly cited statistics have been updated for the first time since the organisation’s inaugural report was released in 2016.

The latest report (30 October 2019) found that there has been ‘significant gender equity gains across public galleries, artist-run initiatives, major museums and university galleries, biennales, commercial galleries and contemporary art organisations.’

But it also warned that there has been about a 3% decline at state galleries and museums.

The Report showed that state-owned galleries have exhibited only 33.98% women (down from 36.90%) compared to 66.02% men (up from 56.80%), with no data available on non-binary artists.

The Countess Report is supported by Sheila Foundation (formerly Cruthers Art Foundation).

Sheila Foundation chair John Cruthers said the research revealed a pressing need for state-owned collections and institutions to match the progress made by the independent sector in redressing the gender imbalance in collecting and promoting the work of women artists.

‘Our state and national institutions are often where we begin learning as children about Australian art and, as these spaces engage closely with our schools and increasingly large audiences, it’s crucial they tell the whole story,’ Cruthers said.

Cruther’s view is shared by Nick Mitzevich, Director of the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). As it stands, only 25% of works in the NGA’s Australian Art Collection are by artists who identify as women.

This figure is down from 27.12% in the 2016 Report, while the percentage of works by male artists in the institution’s collection has increased from 69% to 73%. Comparatively, of the 1651 artists exhibited across the six state institutions 34% were women (also down from 37% in 2016).

‘Next year we are going to see some marked changes [at the NGA], underpinned by our ongoing commitment to gender equity outlined in new guiding principles developed by the gallery this year,’ said Mitzevich. ‘Our 2020 programming is the first major step to ensure gender parity, equity and inclusiveness across all facets of the National Gallery.’

The National Gallery’s Know My Name initiative was launched earlier this year and recognises and celebrates the significant contribution of Australian and international women artists.

Key Findings

Among the key changes in the sector between 2014 and 2018, the Report highlights that parity has been met in the categories of art prizes, contemporary art organisations, boards and executive staff, and in artist-run spaces.

Women are equally represented at 50% or higher, and in terms of the top ten prizes (in dollar value) parity has also been achieved with a 50/50 split.

Artist-run spaces exhibited 61.38% women (up from 49.37%), while men sit at 34.78%, and non-binary artists at 2%. Commercial galleries exhibited 53% women (up from 39%) with women making up 43% of represented artists (up from 39%).

Overall this shows an increase in representation of women artists of between 10-20%. It is a significant shift in the sector, demonstrating that the industry has heard the message about gender inequality, and acted.

Women still dominate art school graduates, sitting at 71%.

When it comes to women leaders in the sector, Director or CEO-level roles are held by 61.36% women and 38.63% men overall. Among state-owned galleries, however, the figures are significantly lower, at 12.50% women and 87.50% men, demonstrating that work still needs to be done on breaking that glass ceiling.

At an executive staff level, women came in at 48.47%, with men at 51.52% across the sector. Of curators, 76.31% were women.

In terms of Board members, 53% are women and 46.24% men, with 0.70% non-binary across the sector as a whole. Again, at state institutions, that figure dropped significantly with 66.20% of seats at State Gallery Boards occupied by men, and only 33.80% by women.

Australia Council funded artists (individuals) saw another win. There was an increase in funding from 52% to 60% for female artists, however the Report states this may be linked to the increase in representation across the sector

Non-binary inclusion

The category of non-binary artists was included for the first time, meaning we now have a benchmark for non-binary representation in the sector.

Non-binary artists were represented at 1-2% across the visual arts industry, with no non-binary artists recorded in curated state gallery or NGA exhibitions in 2018.

‘In order to continue to advocate for the representation of female-identifying artists we believe it is important to update our statistics and broaden the 2016 categories of male and female to include non-binary artists,’ said Countess founders, Amy Prcevich, Elvis Richardson and Miranda Samuels.

A Methodology of Collective Advocacy

Over 13,000 artists across 184 organisations in total were tallied for the Report. 

Founders Prcevich, Richardson and Samuels say that, ‘while our evidence is often cited, we are not data analysts. We are artists and activists who are interested in investigating dynamics of power, value, labour, and collecting through the lens of gender. The work of Countess is both art and advocacy.’

Following on from the wide community uptake of the 2016 report, the Countess team has spent the last two years engaging with the arts sector through workshops and roundtables, has launched a new online platform with commissioned writings that respond critically to the data, and in 2020 will collaborate with the NGA as part of #knowmyname – a nationwide campaign celebrating the contributions of Australian women artists.

Read the report in full.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina