The Painted Ceiling: Where do all the Women go?

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My History of Art degree at the Courtauld had a predominantly female intake. By ‘predominantly’, I mean that in a class of eight people, seven were women. On my first day, as I gazed around the lecture theatre at that year’s intake – roughly 150 students – I could count on one hand the number of male students. What was somewhat harder to count was the number of students called Pippa, Rosie, or Maisy.

In my subsequent internship at a London-based arts publishing house, I sat on a floor of other editorial staff who – apart from the commissioning editor and one other senior editorial staff – were entirely women. On the floor above, the managerial level, the women were largely, if not entirely, secretarial staff. On one particular day, we gathered in the kitchen to slice a cake for a colleague’s birthday. A secretary from upstairs asked where all the men were before correcting herself, “Of course, they’re all out! Directorial training day.”

I now work for a private arts company. My office is, save one wonderful man, all wonderful women. My company’s highest tiers, however, remain male-dominated. The oft-used statistic that there are more CEOs called John than there are total women CEOs hardly feels untrue when the senior positions in my company have just been filled by Joseph and Jeffrey.

So, what happens between the time of studying the arts at university and the higher tiers of the working world? What gendered filter comes into place? When? And will naming my sons James and Joshua ensure myself a plush old folks’ home? 

The art world is riddled with institutional prejudice. Unpaid, London-centric internships are not only elitist and presumptuous – the graduate being informed matter-of-factly in their interview that “unfortunately the state of the industry at the moment restricts payment of interns” before being expected to work for free on overpriced projects – but the internships’ reputations are preceded by rumours of blatant class judgement (questions such as: “And what do your parents do?”), which further discourage those who fall outside of the typical social background to apply. However, the hierarchical sexism which pervades the industry is less easy to pin down, sitting at odds with what is widely-perceived as an effeminate field.

Of course, there are those art world women who undermine this subtle discrimination. The new director of Tate, Maria Balshaw; the recently-appointed director of Tate Modern, Frances Morris; the chief curator at the Guggenheim, Nancy Spector…

These are all important positions in the arts filled by women with first-class minds and trailblazing enthusiasm. However, the fact that the appointment of each of these women has been so widely covered indicates the rarity of their relative successes. Put bluntly, the proportion of female students who complete creative degrees is not reflective of the proportion of women who head the creative industries.

The black hole into which professional 30 and 40-something women seem to disappear has yet to be located. Perhaps with each rung, the professional ladder becomes more slippery. One truth remains steadfast: that no matter which museum you look in, women will always be present – or, rather, presented – within the painted parameters of the artworks they have so consistently inspired. Beautiful bodies portrayed, brilliant minds overlooked.


Ellen Hochberg, Who does she think she is? poster in the style of Barbara Kruger





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