When Politicians Take the Lead with Regard to Diversity and Equality in the World of Art
Column published in Kunsten.nu. 24 March 2023. By Augusta Atla
Column published in Kunsten.nu. 24 March 2023. By Augusta Atla
Perhaps the reason for the greater advancement of diversity and equality in the art worlds of France, England and the United States is the fact that some of these countries’ politicians have been putting it on the agenda for several decades. Is the Danish Ministry of Culture’s new equality prize a sign that politicians in Denmark are about to wake up from their long slumber?
On 8 March this year, International Women’s Day, the Ministry of Culture issued a press release stating that they were now introducing the very first equality award in Danish cultural life.
The award is named after the first female minister of culture, Bodil Koch (1903-1972), who was a member of the Social Democrats (Socialdemokratiet) – a political party whose introduction of this award is an indication that they seem to be keeping up with the times.
There have been many ministers of culture since Bodil Koch in 1966, but not one of them has dared to initiate any real measures to address the lack of diversity and equality within the field of visual arts in Denmark - not until 2022 with the press release about a new project regarding data collection on gender in museum practice and collections (the statement of which we are still eagerly awaiting) – and now in 2023 with an award for equality in cultural life.
It could well be that most people consider Denmark to be a land of equality and that we have a good reputation as a justice-seeking nation. However, in relation to contemporary art and the museum world, this is not the case, and we are way behind the rest of Scandinavia.
As a result, art professionals and museum directors in Denmark have been proven to be behind their colleagues in the other Scandinavian countries. Art professionals both in Denmark and elsewhere in the world retain troubling limited points of view and angles: partly because of the dated historical overview of artworks that favours male artists and gives a skewed and imprecise picture of the past.
Not only because of wrong assumptions – for there were actually female artists in the past – but also because some of these female artists who were very successful in their lifetimes (Rachel Ruysch, Artemisia Gentileschi, Marisol etc.) were subsequently written out of history, or indeed never mentioned in any history of art reference books. They were simply rendered invisible in the ideological and cultural narrative of history.
Fortunately, an increasing number of measures are now being taken to rectify this erroneous narrative about the art profession and the past.
And this is necessary because, in general, in the West, and especially in Denmark, we lack media (TV, films, documentaries, podcasts, library departments, books) about this ‘new’ category: ‘Female Artists from 1500 until Today’. What we need is a new TV programme for the major European art metropolises that will show the history of art from angles other than those of the patriarchy, and documentaries that spotlight female artists.
In her famous feminist essay ‘Women and Fiction’, Virginia Woolf writes about what we actually know about women and their production of literature:
“The answer lies at present locked in old diaries, stuffed away in old drawers, half-obliterated in the memories of the aged. It is to be found in the lives of the obscure - in those almost unlit corridors of history where the figures of generations of women are so dimly, so fitfully perceived. For very little is known about women. The history of England is the history of the male line, not of the female. Of our fathers we know always some fact, some distinction. They were soldiers or they were sailors; they filled that office or they made that law. But of our mothers, our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers, what remains?” (Virginia Woolf, ‘Women and Fiction’ (1929)).
For me, the Ministry of Culture’s new equality prize is long overdue and something that has been largely lacking in Danish art life. Surely we cannot just wait for all museum directors to get up to date in their profession of their own accord, when clearly nothing has happened yet? With Denmark suffering academically, and the potential of an entire culture on the back burner, we are sinking into a time warp – of which the likes of HEART - Herning Museum of Contemporary Art and Cisternerne (in Copenhagen) are ‘good’ examples.
But perhaps the reason for the greater advancement in diversity and equality, as far as art is concerned, in France, England and the United States includes the fact that some of their politicians have been putting it unequivocally on the agenda for several decades now. The EU too gives an award to an entire city at the forefront of equality and diversity, and also has an equality award for academics.
There are many examples of how in England, the United States and France, the state has asked those in charge of its cultural life to be visionary and to respect virtues such as diversity and equality. In the UK, for example, Arts Council England has a mandate to promote equality, while Tate Britain is currently rehanging its entire permanent collection to provide female artists with approximately half of the wall space, and London’s Whitechapel Gallery (with financial support from the fashion company MAX MARA) has launched an annual prize to honour a female artist.
Other examples include former US President Barack Obama, who borrowed a work by Susan Rothenberg from the National Gallery of Arts to hang in his office, and acquired a work by Alma Thomas to join the White House Collection in 2015 – the first-ever work by an African American female artist to be granted that honour. Meanwhile, in France, a government council has been set up to keep a watchful eye on the diversity of the country’s museums funded by the state.
There are no guarantees that things will change on their own – on the contrary, this myth has been proven to be untrue. In the last 20 years, more women than men have graduated from the Danish art academies, and yet the dire record of representation in Danish museums and galleries persists. To get things properly moving, we must have data on all state-subsidised museums and their art purchases, collections/archives and repertoire – and these figures (on the gender of the artists) must be put online for everyone to see. There is also a lack of reassessment of the permanently exhibited museum collections. As long as there is no action on the part of politicians vis-à-vis the country’s museums, or the state does not set requirements or disseminate information as to its values, very little will change. Things will creep along or even come to a complete stop.
Let us hope that a new era has now finally begun, in which the ‘form idealism’ of both several centuries and Generation X is finally seen for what it is: unconscious gender discrimination and professional short-sightedness. An era in which the world around us makes so many ethical demands on us that politicians start daring to be far-sighted.
On the Parliament’s website, I find a proposal for an investigation of the gender balance in the arts at Christiansborg, dated 2 March 2023, from the Gender Equality Committee. I do not yet know whether this political discussion will materialise or not, but it is a much needed and sweeping initiative. After all, it is difficult for the state to ask for change, if it does not first take matters into its own hands.
According to the proposal: “The Danish Parliament is not an art museum, but an open parliament, visited every year by more than 100,000 citizens and foreign guests, and thereby the Danish Parliament presents many different works of art to the public.”
The Gender Equality Committee suggests taking a careful look at the guidelines to ensure that artworks have equal gender representation, starting with the areas of the building that are accessible to the public. In that case, it would signify an inventory, based on the artist’s gender, of works of art that are represented on the walls of Christiansborg, in areas to which the public has access. However, in terms of the gender of the artists, we would still lack an overall inventory of all the artworks in the possession of the Danish Parliament and the ministries – those kept in internal offices and meeting rooms.
The committee continues: “In addition, the majority will ask for a statement of how many male and female politicians are portrayed in paintings, busts etc. in the meeting rooms corridors and halls of the Danish Parliament, to which the public has access.” If this project materialises, we can finally plant our feet in the future!
Similarly, the Danish Court (Kongehuset) and could score some points by publishing data on the gender of the artists of their works of art and interior decorations.
Cultural life is, of course, more than just the visual arts, and the new award covers the entirety of cultural life – theatre, film, literature, ballet, visual arts, music, poetry and dance. I have some doubts as to whether the prize also applies to the country’s libraries and universities. Both England and the United States have diversity and equality awards for their universities. Incidentally, an equality prize could also be introduced for the country’s professors, leaders of education, researchers and teachers whose work promotes gender research and equality through their methods, communication and research.
The University College London’s website has this to say about gender:
“Both gender balance and gender inclusivity are important to the Department. History of Art is a subject in which there are more female than male students and academics, and we are keen to bring more balance to this. However, it is also a subject in which female artists have been historically excluded or overlooked from the canon, and we are dedicated to rectifying this, too.”
Neither the Royal Danish Library nor the Danish National Art Library has an existing physical department with a gender division of artists. This is extremely odd, because without sections devoted to ‘women artists’ and ‘art theory and gender research’, we will never acquire a methodological overview of the categories of artists and theoretical positions that we need to integrate in art history, art theory and museum collections: for example. ‘Female artists from 1500 until today’, ‘LGBTQIA+ artists’, ‘Gender perspective and art history writing’.
As the examples from abroad show, it is essential for equality awards to establish a new strategy in terms of what Denmark will endorse. The idea of a diversity prize, which I myself proposed to the then Minister of Culture Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen in my interview with her last year, was to block the continued gender discrimination in cultural life, thereby helping to ensure not merely professional innovation in culture, but also sustainable human development.