Art world's attitude to women

SO, BIG Sue has had her moment: the 1995 painting of her by Lucian Freud was sold last week for GBP17.2m, breaking the world record for money paid for the work of a living artist.

By Joanna Moorhead (Life)

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Published: Wed 21 May 2008, 8:40 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:32 PM

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping shows the voluptuous model Sue Tilley — whose day job is running a London job centre — reclining naked on a dilapidated couch.

It's a remarkable amount of money, and many would argue that it's a remarkable painting. But what it makes me think about is the inequalities that infuse a world that likes to think of itself as cutting edge and avant garde, but is in fact way behind the times when it comes to how it treats women. Of course Freud has painted men as well as women; and of course he's an amazing artistic talent. But somewhere inside I feel uncomfortable about the fact that the woman at the centre of this story is passive, low-paid and incidental while the man at its centre is powerful, wealthy and a big-shot player.

For centuries women have been the subjects, the muses, the models of the art world, while men have wielded the paintbrushes and sculpting tools. And while we might be heartened by the news that three of the four Turner prize finalists this year are women, there's still a long way to go. Tracey Emin is one of many women artists to have voiced the view that men's art is taken more seriously than women's, and that their work sells for more money.

Things need to change on all sorts of levels to make the art world more equitable from a gender point of view: but a good place to start would be to look at the under-representation of women in senior positions in British art galleries, and on trustee boards at major artistic institutions. At the British Museum, six out of 21 trustees are women. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, just three out of 11 are women. The Tate board fares slightly better — four out of the 11 there are female. Of course, the women on these boards are exciting, well-informed, impressive characters — but they're still in a small minority, and they may not have reached the critical mass women have to achieve before they can start to make a difference on any board.

At any rate, the institutions the boards control aren't yet doing all they could to further women's art: Tate Modern recently came under scrutiny for the fact that, of 2,914 artists in its collection, only 348 — less than 12 per cent — are women. What's more, only two of 39 major works bought over the past two years were by female artists.

Visit an art gallery today and you'll see a lot of women looking around the collection and the exhibitions — women are very well-represented among the museum- and gallery-going population. If you join a tour, you may very easily find the person who shows you around is female. In the cafe you'll probably be served tea by a woman, and in the shop you'll probably buy your postcards from a woman. But the chances are you'll find the gallery director is a man: of the people running the country's museums, galleries and theatres, fewer than one-third are women. And that matters: because having women in charge of galleries — and in equal numbers on trustee boards — changes the dynamics, and will in time change collections and exhibitions.

According to Sue Tilley, in the days since the sale of the Freud painting she has been inundated with offers from media organisations wanting her to take her clothes off and recreate her naked pose. She's turned them down — but I wonder whether she might feel the same were she to get a call from someone offering her a seat on the Tate's board of trustees. Tilley is no shrinking violet — I bet she'd be one of many women who'd have great, feisty ideas to share about where they should go with their collections.

© Guardian News Service

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