Radio 24syv - Guest: Augusta Atla, artist
Baby & Boomer @ Radio 24syv. 30th August 2022. Guest: Augusta Atla, artist
Baby & Boomer @ Radio 24syv
Episode: 30th August 2022
Listen: 37:47 - 53:53 min. (Danish)
Hosts: Filiz Yasar and Nikolaj Bøgh
Guest: Augusta Atla, artist
Producer: Line Schmidt Mouridsen
FY: Ane Halsbo-Jørgensen, the Danish Minister of Culture, has decided to launch an initiative to look at the gender balance in the acquisitions and exhibitions by/in Danish art museums. According to the Minister, when it comes to achieving equality, there is a long way to go because gender balance is pretty screwed up. Currently Ministry of Culture Denmark does not collect data on the representation of gender in the acquisition of visual art by museums, but now Ane Halsbo-Jørgensen, the Danish Minister of Culture, intends to change this situation. In this context, I am happy to welcome you, Augusta Atla. As a practising artist, you are delighted about this political initiative. In fact, you regard it as necessary. Could you explain why?
AA: I may be a visual artist, but I don’t feel that I’m talking about my own cause or expressing my own opinion or my own attitudes. What I do feel, though, is that I represent a group that for centuries has been sadly under-represented in the museum world (see more). Of course I’m also delighted that the issue will come under the spotlight, and people will get to know about it. What artists want is to see an intelligent evolution of art in Denmark, and to see it included in sound research and general education.
FY: New figures from the University of Copenhagen from April reveal that in some art collections in Denmark - for example, Louisiana and Aros - the highest percentage of artists represented are male - 87.6% and 87.8% respectively. So, Augusta, my question is: If you had a little magic wand, what initiatives would you like to bring about to remedy the imbalance in gender distribution?
AA: First, I’d like to say how incredible it is that we’re even having this debate. Because two years ago – or just a year ago - this debate wasn’t even taking place in Denmark. So simply to be asked this question on radio is incredible, because so little were people aware of this bias, that no one thought there was actually a problem. So, when we went and saw a 355th Gauguin exhibition, we just thought: Oh well, that’s art history for you. The only problem is that… there are organisations in the world, and it… I travelled abroad for 13 years and saw certain initiatives in the world, where they started ferreting around in history. Major museums such as the Rijksmuseum (1) and the Prado (2) etc. started showing interest in under-represented artists from the 19th, 18th or 17th centuries - artists whose work was actually hidden away in their basements and hadn’t made it into their Gallery of Honour etc. So the change over the last two years are pretty amazing, because it’s starting to dawn on people that the history we have is not accurately written. So, by counting and looking at figures in museums, not only in terms of future acquisitions, but also looking back at their existing collections, you are actually starting to gain a different picture of history. And that includes Danish history. Eva Pohl recently wrote a book entitled Gennembrud – Kvinder i dansk kunst fra 1600-tallet til i dag - Breakthrough – Women in Danish Art from the 17th Century to the Present (3). Many of them are not represented in Danish museum collections, so it is incredibly important to start counting, because then we start to think: Hey! What is the real history?
FY: Hm. At this point I’d just like to add that this autumn the Danish Agency for Culture and Palaces will be conducting two studies. The first will sort of identify gender distribution in the acquisitions of our state museums on the basis of questionnaire surveys sent to all of them. The basis of the second study is looking at how to promote gender diversity in research under the aegis of Ministry of Culture Denmark. I know you’ve been pretty about the Conservative People’s Party, your cultural spokesman in parliament. But how do you feel about it, Nikolaj Bøgh?
NB: Well, I feel very involved. I think that the whole movement of recent years, focusing on forgotten female artists in art history, is excellent. There have been excellent exhibitions - Elisabeth Jerichau Baumann at Aros, Bertha Wegmann at Den Hirschsprungske - and several Anna Ancher exhibitions etc etc. Looking at history with fresh eyes and looking at aspects we maybe didn’t pay much attention to - I think that’s wonderful. But we also have to bear in mind that in 700 years of art history, only a tiny minority have been women. It wasn’t very long ago - 1908 in fact - that women were finally admitted on equal terms to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
FY: So we’re talking about something structural?
NB: Absolutely. In other words, somewhere between 95 and 100% of artists have been men, and you can’t change history retroactively. We have to accept the fact that the majority of art history is dominated by men. But if we have some good female artists, whom we have not thought about very much, then their work must definitely be aired, and I actually see that happening. I find that art museums are really looking at this issue. That’s why I think this initiative on the part of the Minister of Culture is a trifle superfluous. I believe the art world is very aware of this issue, and lots of these figures – you yourself mentioned some of them – we’re already aware of them. Of course, by launching this initiative, the Minister of Culture wants to send out a signal that she wants more equality in gender representation, and - as we referred to in the first hour - I don’t think this is an end in itself.
FY: Okay, so the goal isn’t fair representation of both women and men?
NB: No, it isn’t. In terms of art history, it simply isn’t possible. It will give a an artificial…
FY: One issue is what went on in the past
NB: Exactly. That’s what we were just talking about. But going forward…
FY: But then you could… If we do a count, we might discover how inert we are when it comes to giving female artists a helping hand…
NB: It’s just important that quality continues to be the criterion. It has to be.
FY: We’ve covered a lot today, Augusta. This issue of looking too closely at the physical characteristics…
AA: But that’s precisely the problem…
FY: … then we compromise quality. What do you think about that?
AA: Actually, it’s the exact opposite. If we don’t include diversity, and if we don’t start opening our eyes to the fact that we have some biased structures in relation to solo exhibitions and purchases, we are losing some quality. That’s what we’re starting to get a sense of from the books and monographs and the retrospective books that get published and describe history. We suddenly realise we’ve been so tunnel-visioned that we have missed out on an abundance of quality So my argument is actually the exact opposite. There is in fact loads of quality. I studied in London and was introduced to lots of female artists there, and that coloured my approach to research and art theory. So, I think it’s a weird argument. I can barely get my head around it.
FY: There’s some cognitive dissonance there.
FY: So, let me ask you this. As you yourself mention, there are lots of female students at the Academy. They graduate and work on some great projects etc. But there may also be many women who are bad at selling themselves to the galleries. So I ask you: Shouldn’t female artists be tougher?
AA: There is a difference between the commercial galleries and the museum world. The museum world is highly structured, so toughness doesn’t really enter into it. There’s a group of people in charge of selection. Galleries are quite different. There are certain other criteria you have to meet. But it’s kind of a strange question, because if we didn’t have this bias, then it’s not so much about being tough, it’s just about creating art and developing research. Every artist has their own research and stands by it, and the stronger it gets, and the more space they get to practice it, the more beautiful their art becomes - if they are talented. So it’s about getting space and opportunities to express yourself. Generally speaking, the more space and opportunities you get - if you are talented - the better an artist you become. Isn’t that right?
FY: Hm. So you become a better artist if you also get seen.
AA: No. If you get something to get your teeth into. It’s like a sailor without a ship. You have to be able to sail. You have to have sails. You have to have something to get stuck into in order to evolve.
FY: Isn’t that maybe a good argument for giving these artists opportunities in the state-recognised museums?
NB: Yes. I am not opposed to exhibiting more women or purchasing more art by female artists. I think that’s great. But I don’t think it should come in the shape of a strict political order from the Minister of Culture. It should be something they discover in the museums. How do these female artists relate to what we are interested in having in our collection?
FY: Why is it a sign of failure has it comes from Ministry of Culture Denmark?
NB: Well, I don’t think the Minister of Culture understands much about it. Normally, then – we are talking about the arm’s length principle in cultural policy, where we trust that the professional environments themselves decide how to make prudent use of the their government subsidy. I think it’s a bit much to apply your own priorities to the museums, also given that, as I said earlier, I believe a lot has happened and that they are actually focusing on the issue. But to mention the galleries. The museums are not the big challenge in this context. There is a lot going on. But the galleries sell predominantly male artists. And they don’t do it because they are - what’s the word? - misogynistic, but because they find that this is what sells, and you can’t really challenge that. I mean, if…
FY: Yes, if you… That’s also what we’ve talked a lot about today, I think, and which I think we should take with us when we leave the studio. The fact they do sometimes have a touch of ingrained bias and you might be more inclined to buy works by an artist you feel resembles yourself.
NB: Yes, but at the end of the day it must be a question of what there is a market for. Of course, it’s good to have a broader view of what good art is. I fully respect that… and I also think the debate is a good thing. I just think that requiring museums to schematise gender etc. is a slippery slope, because it leads towards some kind of quota thinking, which I think does nothing for quality, because…
AA: May I just say something here?
FY: Be my guest!
AA: Okay. I don’t know how much you’re allowed to interrupt. I lived for many years in Greece, and everyone interrupts there. I would just like to add something. Firstly, the Minister of Culture has not yet set a political order or agenda of quota. The ministry is merely counting. I mean it’s actually the first step. But right now it’s the University of Copenhagen who downing their own small-scale data collection. I don’t mean the University of Copenhagen is unprofessional but it isn’t a unified body doing this for us. So, it’s unstructured. … They do it in France (4) and England (5). So why not here?
NB: Yes, but she has also said that it is probably preliminary work for various kinds of political intervention. So I’m worried about the development, and I really think it…
AA: That wasn’t how she came across when I interviewed her (6). My impression was that they would investigate the issue and publish the figures, and I think that’s a good start. Then they can take it from there. Maybe the awareness will be enough. Without pointing the finger, take, for example, Heart Museum of Modern Art. Their collection is almost exclusively by male artists. And that’s supposed to be contemporary art? And also retrospective – if they don’t become aware of their purchasing bias, and it is not made public, then they may well continue for 20 years more.
NB: Perhaps. But don’t you acknowledge that female artists are getting a good deal of coverage?
AA: Yes, but it’s simply not enough. You make it sound like we’re home and dry. We absolutely aren’t. There is still a lot of inequality in the Danish art world, and the University of Copenhagen data on their website proves that (7). We still have a long way to go, even with solo exhibitions. But it is clear that such a measure, which is actually just informative and will increase awareness – there’s nothing wrong with awareness. As far as I understand, right now the Minister of Culture is doing nothing more than creating awareness.
FY: So we can gain prior understanding if we want to - right?
NB: I have nothing against people getting that information. I’m just a bit concerned about what it will be used for, and whether it will lead to some kind of informal quota approach in the museums. In any case, it is very important to make a clear distinction between art history and contemporary art, because these are two very, very, very different things.
AA: I have to correct you. Of course, men have dominated the history of art and the history of art is male-based - they wrote it - they practised it. But what is exciting right now is that organisations such as ‘Save Venice’(8) and AWA in Florence (9) are unearthing work by women artists from as far back as the 16th century. For example, The Last Supper by an Italian Renaissance artist - Plautilla Nelli (10) -, where you find out that her main work The Last Supper is in line with the one by Leonardo da Vinci. We’re living in exciting times, because we’re discovering…
FY: I’d like to ask one final question.
NB: If you can find a Danish artist - a female Danish artist - from the 16th-17th century, then I would be very interested.
AA: Well, there is. (3)
FY: Something just struck me. Don’t you think that you have ever been favoured on the basis of your gender?
NB: It… it’s possible. I don’t know for sure.
FY: But at least you’ve got some different – what should I call them? – tools for how to prevent this sort of thing. I’m afraid we are nearing the end of the programme. Nikolaj Bøgh, thank you so much for taking the time to visit my studio and, yes, to question the things I say. And thank you very much, Augusta Atla, for coming to tell us about the need to introduce quotas in the museums. It’s time to say goodbye. You’ve been listening to Baby and Boomer. My name is Filiz Yasar.