Why Don't NZ’s Top Galleries Feature Much Art by Women?

We counted 73 more male artists than females across New Zealand's galleries this year, so we asked art dealer Trish Clark what's going on. Are girls just making the wrong kind of art?

by Frances Morton
04 April 2016, 12:00am

Art dealer Trish Clark bucks the trend, representing an equal number of women and men artists at her Auckland gallery. Photo Frances Morton.

A burning desire to make a mark in the world, sure. A deep-set drive to create above all other distractions, of course. A sizeable ego, probably. But you wouldn't think having a dick would be the major advantage to being a successful artist in today's contemporary art world. So why is it that guys are three times more likely to be represented by New Zealand's top dealer galleries than women artists?

The hosts of Auckland's bFM radio show Artbank laid down a new year's challenge to six top art dealers to even up their rosters in 2016. They calculated the gap was around 58 artists. We did a quick tally at the VICE office and decided that number is more like 73 when you factor in Paul Nache Gallery in Gisborne, which recently received $16,000 in government funding to show at the Hong Kong Art Fair. Only two out the 19 artists in Paul Nache's stable are women.

Pressure is growing internationally for gender parity in the art world. Last year, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC kicked off its initiative on social change with the event, " Righting the Balance—Can there be gender parity in the art world?" In January, the Saatchi Gallery in London held its first all-female exhibition.

VICE sat down with Auckland-based art dealer Trish Clark, who the only dealer on the list whose business, Trish Clark Gallery, represents just as many female artists as male. We asked her what's going on. Could it be that girls are just making the wrong kind of art?

VICE: Hi Trish, you represent as many female artists as males. Is that a conscious effort?
Trish: I never sought to fill quotas but I've had a long awareness that women are underrepresented. I did a book with Wystan Curnow published in 1991 that was about eight women artists but we titled it Pleasures and Dangers: Artists of the 90s , because I refused to say "women artists." I refused to separate and segregate. I think as soon as you have quotas you're implicitly acknowledging the ghettoising. I've never done that. For me there is a deep awareness of rectifying wrongs, since the 70s.

What were you doing in the 70s?
I was a rabid feminist. I guess I was very privileged to have a forceful father figure who really made certain that we did not think that women were second-class citizens in any way. I was stunned when I got to university and saw that was not every woman's experience. I naturally got involved, as I got involved in the Vietnam War, or anti-nuclear things. I saw a wrong that needed righting. I've lived my life as a feminist. I don't view women artists as different to male artists. I simply see artists, and I think if work is compelling I want to work with it. It just so happens I suppose that I understand there's often a quieter emotional resonance that underpins a lot of work that women do. It's not "heroic."

A detail of work by Jennifer French. "Jennifer has a unique eye/lens/heart connection in infrequently produced bodies of work that always tug at the brain and heartstrings," says Trish. Photo via.

Is that the reason why there isn't more equal representation by dealers?
It is really. Heroic art announces itself firmly and people respond. The quieter more resonant work that is often rooted in women's experiences or women's daily lives gets overlooked. Take Louise Bourgeois, for example, who is a truly great artist. She had her first major show at 70 years old. It was deeply emotionally engaging and tremendously insightful, but that early work wasn't heroic.

Why is that that the number of female students at art school exceeds males and yet they get eclipsed by guys in the galleries?
Because I've been around for 35 years, I've seen an awful lot of people rise and an awful lot of people disappear. I think it takes a vast amount of drive, energy, insight, self-awareness, thick skin, and an enduring ability to put oneself onto an uncomfortable edge where the outcome is unknown. All of that is required by a lifetime of making art. Some people have that incredible strength of character who can do that. And some people don't. Some of them are men, and some of them are women. I think a lot of people making art realise very quickly they can't do this meaningfully for a lifetime.

Marie Le Lievre,Black (House), 2015."Strong gutsy paintings with a rigorous underpinning of painterly knowledge and technique to evoke multiple readings of apparently simple forms and content," says Clark. Photo via.

So it's not necessarily a blindness by dealers who aren't open to art by women?
Every dealer gallery is a reflection of the owner and they can't be anything other than that. So certain galleries may in fact be predominantly male in their artist roster simply because it reflects their own personal worldview and values.

How much support do artists actually need?
Vast quantities. That's why I gave up my first gallery, which I ran for five years. I had a baby and toddler and I realised I was having to give the artists more emotional sustenance than I was giving to my own children. That's why I swore I wouldn't have another gallery until the kids had left home. Quite apart from the financial more prosaic nature of business, artists require emotional sustenance because it's so hard to keep making meaningful art year in and year out because you cannot make meaningful art unless you keep propelling yourself into an area of discomfort.

Often after about 40, 45, 48 you see a real flowering of women artists and it's because their energy is more their own again. They might not have made work actively for some time. That doesn't mean they've stopped being an artist. They come back into active practice, often and there's absolutely no handicap from being out of practice for some time. It's just the trajectory of their lives tends to be different from male artists. That's for inbuilt reasons that we can't change.

Stella Brennan, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, (detail), 2002-3. "Stella is consistently producing some of the most thoughtful, reflective, conceptually developed and aesthetically compelling art, across multiple genres, made in New Zealand," says Trish. Photo via.

Do you feel that's happened to you in the rhythm of your career?
Totally. While I did 25 years of art consultancy, no client ever demanded from me what an artist needs from me. That's why I'm ready now that I have no children left at home to give it my all. In your 60s most women are ready to play a bit more tennis. I'm ready to give it my all.

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