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Another amazing year for female artists. So why are they still stifled and impoverished?

It has been a fine year for looking at, hearing and smelling work by women artists. My highlights of the last 12 months include violent installations by Cornelia Parker; featherlight knotted wire sculptures by Ruth Asawa; old textile scraps animated by family bonds in the hands of Louise Bourgeois; Carolee Schneemann’s daring performances of sexuality, gender and sickness; Magdalena Abakanowicz’s fleshy woven sculptures; Allison Katz’s cerebral paintings; tapestries and tussocky mounds of coloured fibre by Sheila Hicks; and Vivian Maier’s sly street photographs.

There have been moments of triumph. Last week Veronica Ryan was announced as winner of the Turner prize from an all-female and non-binary shortlist. In April, Sonia Boyce won a Golden Lion for her British Pavilion exhibition at a Venice Biennale in which the magnificent central exhibition – Milk of Dreams – was dominated by women artists, current and historical.

This is the fifth year that an editor has commissioned me to hymn the present moment as a great one for women artists. In the version written four years ago, I interviewed a young social-media-savvy curator making waves with an Instagram account called The Great Women Artists. In the intervening period Katy Hessel has become a multi-platform sensation, her book The Story of Art Without Men was just named Waterstones book of the year, and and she now writes a column for the Guardian.

So … job done? Should we stop worrying about gender balance in the art world? Is it really a great year for women artists? (Can we call the year in which Roe v Wade was overturned a good year for any women – artists or otherwise?)

In her podcast Death of an Artist, curator Helen Molesworth explores the art, life and death of Ana Mendieta, who fell 34 floors from a window. Her husband Carl Andre was charged with her murder. An engaging storyteller, Molesworth uses the true crime format to explore power structures in the art world and ask whether you can ever consider art separately from the artist. She details the trial that followed Mendieta’s death, during which Andre’s lawyers portrayed the Cuban-born artist as a hot-blooded drunk who dabbled in occult practices. The art world closed ranks around Andre, who was acquitted and whose work continued to be shown. Molesworth evokes a milieu in which the legacy of male genius is prized over the life and work of a woman.

But that was in the 1980s. Surely things have changed? The podcast’s final episode is led by art writers Charlotte Burns and Julia Halperin, whose Burns Halperin reports in 2018 and 2019 analysed data relating to African American and female-identifying artists. Despite the popular belief that the artworld has become more inclusive, they found that much apparent progress was superficial. Museum acquisition of work by female artists peaked over a decade ago, then declined. Why do museum acquisitions matter? Because this is the art judged important enough to conserve. Exhibitions are temporary – they do not reflect changes in a museum’s collection.

Burns and Halperin’s new report will be published this month. So, was this a great year for women artists? “Put it this way: if these were the figures for male artists, they’d be viewed as a crisis,” they say. “Overall, the data shows a systemic apathy and complete disengagement with the scope of the problem, especially among museums. The art market has seen a marked improvement for works by women in recent years, but they remain so deeply undervalued it will take generations to catch up.”

For Burns and Halperin, celebratory articles compound the problem: “They’re selling a tempting version of reality that is unfortunately a false one, encouraging readers to believe in progress that simply does not exist.” Looking at data rather than the prevailing mood, they “have begun to understand that most media coverage of progress in the art world is based on emotions”. The bottom line, for Burns and Halperin, is that the art world considers itself more progressive than it is.

Figures released last week by Freelands Foundation tell a similar story in the UK. Women and non-binary artists accounted for 32% of the works acquired for Tate’s collection in 2021: a small improvement that does little to address the historic gender balance. The National Gallery acquired four works in 2021, all by men.

Art historian Eliza Goodpasture argues that it takes more than unfettered enthusiasm to secure a place in the canon. “Continuing to group ‘women artists’ together as this category across time distinct from ‘artists’, isn’t as progressive as it may seem,” she says. Goodpasture takes issue with the current tendency to “copy and paste” women artists into existing art historical narratives, rather than asking why they might not fit the existing story, and why this difference is worth exploring. “It’s much harder to write things, or curate exhibitions, that engage with that nuance. I find it frustrating that the things that we do get to read and see about women artists are often very ‘girlboss feminism’: they’re very marketable and less critical.”

For the last seven years, Freelands Foundation has pushed to change the art ecosystem with an annual award supporting an exhibition by a mid-career female artist in a gallery outside London. Two of the four artists on this year’s Turner prize shortlist – Ingrid Pollard and Veronica Ryan – were nominated for their Freelands award exhibitions. I contacted Pollard and Jacqueline Donachie, the first winner of the award, to discuss its impact.

“Freelands undoubtedly made a huge difference to me,” says Donachie. The organisation has provided supportive infrastructure in London and, since her 2017 exhibition at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket, has pushed to get her work in Tate’s collection. Nevertheless, as an artist based in Glasgow, she feels invisible to the London art world and its commercial galleries. “I haven’t taken off commercially,” she says.

Donachie’s experience is echoed by Pollard, who is based in the north-east. Despite a Baltic artists award, a Paul Hamlyn award, the Freelands award and this year a Turner nomination, Pollard is not represented by a commercial gallery. “There’s always been that London bias,” notes Pollard. “Gallery representation has an enormous influence, because it also gets your work seen outside the UK.”

A commercial gallery is important not just for sales but to support an artist’s participation in biennials and institutional shows. Without the backing of a commercial gallery, an artist is far less likely to receive a high-profile exhibition. Currently, while 66% of art students on postgraduate courses are female or non-binary, 67% of the artists represented by commercial galleries are male.

At 69, Pollard has been around long enough to be sceptical about what her Turner nomination will bring. “I wait to see what happens afterwards. There has been a shift – certainly things are opening up for younger artists of colour, and non-binary artists. But sometimes it feels like there’s a lot of air around and then normal service resumes. I don’t want to sound like a downer: there is change. I hope I live long enough to see how it’s going to work out in 10 years.”

As the year draws to a close, Making Modernism, a show of early 20th-century German artists that includes Paula Modersohn-Becker and Käthe Kollwitz in its all-female line up, is drawing crowds at London’s Royal Academy. The show is “the first group exhibition of women artists the RA have put on since 1999,” curator Dorothy Price tells me. The previous one, 23 years ago, called Amazons of the Avant Garde, was meant to be a turning point. But no turn came. So it goes: the work of bringing women back into art’s story has been a long one of “highs and lows, troughs and peaks”.

If we are to capitalise on the energy of the current moment, “institutions need to be braver: they need to take some risks”, says Price. And even if they can’t afford to acquire works, “they need to keep doing those exhibitions. It can’t just be a flash in the pan.”

Price’s own show is the result of 30 years’ teaching and research. None of the current wave of exhibition-making and scholarship has happened overnight. It comes on the back of over 50 years of deep research by earlier generations of feminist art historians. Eminent scholars including Griselda Pollock and Linda Nochlin unearthed the names, identified the work and proposed new theoretical structures for a more inclusive art history.

I asked Pollock whether she thought it was a good year for women artists? That was not an interesting question, she told me, but what did it say about our society that we still needed to ask it? “Think how much creativity has been stifled, how impoverished our world is if it’s only one-sided. Behind the word ‘women’ lies this much more fascinating complexity: each one is a singular contribution to the accumulating wealth of what culture offers as a way of understanding our world.”

Equality is not just box-ticking. Pushing for diversity in our collections and exhibitions matters because art is an expression of human thought and experience. An art world that remains biased not only fails to reflect the richness of society – it eloquently expresses whose ideas and feelings that society values.