For our series celebrating the achievements of women in the arts, the Director of Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, shares her experience of working in the museum sector, the many women and colleagues who have influenced her and provided professional support and what steps need to be taken to tackle unconscious gender biases.
My own story is not one of hard luck. I had access to a good (mostly free) education at a time when there were fewer university graduates (and fewer with a curatorial focus) so there were more opportunities and less competition for jobs. For more than 20 years, I have worked with lots of inspirational women and men who have been amazing mentors, shared their knowledge and created opportunities for me and many other young women. Rose Lang and Bala Starr at 200 Gertrude Street in Melbourne took me in as an intern and taught me a great deal. Jenepher Duncan, then Director at Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), where I now work, and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), first employed me and has always been very encouraging. One of the earliest projects I worked on was artist Kathy Temin’s low-fi, Frank Stella-inspired floor sculpture Indoor Monument … Hard Display at ACCA in 1995 which was a powerful demonstration to me of how women artists can occupy space and be bold and provocative in doing so. ACCA’s later directors, Juliana Engberg and Kay Campbell, and Maudie Palmer, Director of TarraWarra Museum of Art, each taught me a great deal and I continue to be inspired by the ambition of their thinking and commitment to artists and art practice.
There are so many fiercely independent, intelligent, committed and extraordinarily capable women artists who have profoundly influenced me – for example, Megan Cope, Agatha Gothe-Snape, Bianca Hester – and who constantly redefine art’s borders and negotiate new ways of working together. I have been thrilled by the ambition of the sculptural practices of Nairy Baghramian, Fiona Connor, Mikala Dwyer, Alicia Frankovich, Monica Sosnowska and Justene Williams, again to name just a few. They have led me to be more conscious of the ways in which we occupy space, and guided my approach to commissioning art in the public realm.
Being thrown into the deep end in my late 20s as Assistant Director at a small independent art space, 200 Gertrude Street, was the best thing that could have happened to me. With the-then Director, Rose Lang, going on maternity leave, I was entrusted with the organization and got to sink my teeth into running it. I had wonderful support from a staff of two and many interns and volunteers. We worked hard together and achieved a lot.
Rose once said something to me that I often share with others: if you don’t know something or are unsure of what to do, just ask for help – there are many people out there who are happy to assist. I have called on numerous people over the years and continue to benefit from the support of colleagues. I hope that I am one of the people that others can call on, too. Collegiality and reciprocity are the things I value the most.
I worked semi-freelance for around ten years, thanks to the support of many colleagues. It was great for my family life and allowed me to be project-focused in a creatively enriching way. I acknowledge, however, that I worked without much income for an extended period, and that this is the reality for many women across all work sectors when they have children. I have to include my mum in this narrative, as I wouldn’t have been able to install projects or travel (which is a bigger deal in Australia than in many other places, especially in a job where to be connected means a lot) without her support. From early on, she looked after my daughters when I wasn’t around, and I am forever grateful to her.
I took on a new director role soon after having my first daughter, a combination I wouldn’t recommend and later felt compelled to put a disclaimer to – I didn’t want to become the poster girl for ‘we can do everything at once’! I love both my work and my family, but it has always been an ongoing negotiation between the two and they are not always easily reconcilable. We do seem to be moving to a model of relationships in which partners play a more active role in early parenting and the responsibilities of family life are better shared. On a practical note, that there is legislated maternity leave in Australia combined with some available government/employer paid maternity leave is a big step forward. There remains, however, the issue of prohibitively high childcare costs, which is an acute problem, especially for women without regular employment.
There are problems at an institutional level, too. I recently participated in a museum leadership program run by the Getty Leadership Institute in which 31 out of the 37 participants were women. With the high proportion of women working in museums, it is logical to assume that many of them are seeking further training. But I believe that there is a bit more to the numbers than that. Despite the fact that women are well-represented in the arts – as in most other fields – not many have been promoted to the most senior roles in Australian museums and elsewhere.
This imbalance means that the career paths for women are less visible than they are for men. Many women (and other people who are subject to the many forms of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination) believe they need to up-skill to qualify for a more senior role, while their male colleagues tend to more readily believe themselves to be role-ready.
The best employers have wised-up to this disparity. There are many ways we can tackle indoctrination and unconscious bias: we can be clear about our organizational values and seek to redress the gender, generational, racial and cultural imbalances of who is involved in decision-making. But I think it also requires a deeper shift in thinking, which moves away from the idea of a sense of confident authority being the key entitlement to a position of greater responsibility. This puts the onus back on us to change the systems and structures in which we work, to ensure that they are inclusive and fair.
Gender and related issues of inequality have always been a concern to me but have become more pressing in recent years – partly through my own maturing, I suspect – but they have also been influenced by broader cultural shifts and non-shifts. I am not necessarily always in favour of quotas, nor for stand-alone feminist or women artists’ group exhibitions, although I recently saw a wonderful exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, ‘We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85’ that I’ve been thinking about. For change to be enduring it has to be integrated and pervasive. Whatever approach we take requires constant vigilance, as what works at one time may not continue to be the best approach in the future. It is on the record that Australian women artists earn on average 30 percent less than their male counterparts. In my current role, one of my first priorities was to work on improving the gender representation in Monash University’s art collection and to address historical imbalances. While we have been able to improve the number of women artists and the number of their works represented, I am now also looking at our acquisition plan from the point of view of evenly distributing the budget to attempt to better counterbalance inequalities in the art market.
Artist Elvis Richardson’s CoUNTess blog, which assembles data on gender representation in the arts in Australia, is an important analytical tool. It shows that gender remains one of the key determinants of an artist’s opportunity/profile/representation, although there have been some improvements. Richardson’s site has had a strong impact on the arts community here and has raised awareness about how we must continually be alert to inequalities and recognize how entrenched they can be.
Having a voice and finding the right way to advocate and debate issues publicly is one of the most important things we can do. We need to create new ways of communicating that don’t just mimic well-worn and, at times, disingenuous formats. The best example I can think of is the comedian Hannah Gadsby’s recent show Nanette, which is available on Netflix. It is emotionally intense, bravely raw and vulnerable but also expertly crafted and articulated, bitingly critical and provocative – a commentary on misogyny, violence against women, stereotyping, and much else. It is compelling viewing.
The great thing about #Metoo is that it is public and pervasive. It sends a clear message about what is and what is not acceptable behaviour. I am less sure about the public outing of men before they are convicted but appreciate that there are huge disparities in how legal systems manage such cases. I want to have faith in the Australian legal system but that may not be realistic in all constituencies. A recent confluence of events has led to increased media attention in Australia to our own disturbingly high rate of violence against women and reported incidents of sexual harassment. I have two teenage daughters and I don’t want them to grow up fearful – and they shouldn’t have to. Universities in Australia are proactively addressing this challenge on campuses. Many more people are speaking up, including politicians – seemingly from a genuine desire for change rather than just to attract women voters.
We need more advocates across gender lines. But we certainly need to be emphatic leaders in our museums and galleries in creating safe and inclusive, supportive and generative spaces. To effect real change and to make sure that #Metoo isn’t just a slogan, we need to do more than just talk.
Main image: Charlotte Day. Courtesy: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne