Visible Women

Meet the woman tackling the art world’s shocking lack of gender diversity

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Moya Crockett
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Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women who are making a difference to society. This week, we’re speaking to art historian Kate Bryan, the curator of an art fair exhibition dedicated entirely to women artists.    

Kate Bryan is looking forward to a time when she doesn’t have to talk about the art world’s problem with women.

“I hope the whole story of women being overshadowed by men is out of date in my lifetime,” she tells Stylist. “You know, I’d love to talk to someone in 50 years’ time who says: ‘Oh, when you were young you used to champion women artists!’, as if it’s this really archaic thing. I can’t wait to look like a complete dinosaur.”

For now, though, Bryan is “prepared to be the one who keeps talking about this issue”. The art historian and curator is the force behind Not 30%, a “part exhibition and part protest” at London’s upcoming Other Art Fair, which will see work by 30 emerging female artists gathered in one place. The project’s name refers to the recent statistic that just 30% of solo shows at London’s major institutions are by female artists, as well as the fact that this is The Other Art Fair’s 30th edition.

“At best, women artists get 30% of the action,” Bryan says. “And that really is at best.” The same research that uncovered the 30% figure also found that more than three-quarters of London galleries represent more men than women, and just 5% represent an equal number of male and female artists. Against this dire backdrop, Bryan sees it as imperative that she keeps banging “the bloody drum” about gender parity in the art world.

“I think it’s so important to highlight that there really is a problem with women artists’ work not being seen,” she says. She cites another survey that showed that 63% of creative arts students in 2016 were female, a figure that doesn’t tally with the dearth of female representation in top galleries. “It’s like, where are these women artists? Why don’t we get to see them?” 

Sarah Maple’s Gloria Steinem-inspired self-portrait Not 30% will be on display at The Other Art Fair

Most people could reel off a handful, if not a lengthy list, of names of famous male artists, Bryan says. But if you asked them to name five women artists, they’d likely struggle. She is adamant that this isn’t the fault of individuals. Rather, she believes that the art world’s gatekeepers have a responsibility to do better. A lot of art collectors and dealers “are wealthy, older white men,” she says, and she suspects that many of these men are “presented with predominantly male artists” by gallerists.

“And then that’s what they buy,” she says. “It’s a vicious circle.” Her advice for gallery owners and curators? “Diversify the work that you’re showing, but also diversify your client base, because we need more women collecting art. We need the art world to be as diverse as the real world.”

Bryan is undeniably an art world gatekeeper herself. As her day job, she is global head of collections for Soho House, which means she’s responsible for purchasing the artwork installed in the luxury chain’s hotels and clubs around the world; she is also an arts broadcaster and judge on the Sky Arts series Artist of the Year. A self-described “hardcore feminist” from a working-class background, her awareness of the art world’s many biases plays out in witty, spiky ways.

Last year, for example, she worked on the launch of The Ned, the Soho House-owned hotel and members’ club in the City of London. Bryan filled a room with works by 93 women artists, including Jenny Holzer, Tracey Emin and Maggi Hambling, and seven men. The ratio was an exact inversion of the most recent FTSE 100 data, which showed that 93 of the UK’s biggest 100 companies were headed by male CEOs, compared to just seven led by women.

“What really struck me [before the launch] was how many people said to me, ‘How are you going to find 93 women artists?’” Bryan says.

“And they meant it innocently; they meant it sympathetically. But I was like, ‘What?! There are so many women artists. I can find 93.’”

High Noon by Samira Addo, another artwork on show at Not 30%

Bryan is also currently working on a book, Crazy in Love, which explores romantic relationships between artists. “I love the idea that two people who are artists would be in a relationship. That is completely idiotic,” she laughs. One facet of the book involves highlighting female artists whose work was overshadowed by that of their male partners, such as the Russian constructivist artist Varvara Stepanova, who is usually only referred to in the context of her husband Alexander Rodchenko.

“Stepanova made the first ever sustainable fashion,” Bryan says enthusiastically. “Today, she’d be Stella McCartney’s best mate, but she was doing that in 1918.” She’s encouraged by the fact that many people do really seem to want to know more about history’s forgotten women. “It’s really exciting. It feels like there’s a big audience now that wants to learn all this stuff.”

She might get frustrated by the art industry’s lack of gender diversity, but Bryan is also optimistic that things are changing. “It feels like we’re living in a really forward-thrusting moment for women in many different respects right now, particularly in the art world,” she says. “And it is really exciting. But I just think: well, let’s hurry it up.”

The Other Art Fair opens a second site dedicated entirely to women artists, Not 30%, from 4-7 October at The College, Old Central St Martins, Southampton Row, London WC1. 

The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Courtesy of The Other Art Fair