What they don’t teach you at art school

Soo-Min Shim reflects on the pool of artists

CW: gendered harassment, sexual assault, misogyny

It was revealed at the end of last year that in Australia the gender pay gap is wider in the Arts than in any other industry. It was estimated that in 2014-2015 an Australian female artist would earn $15,400 compared to the $22,100 her male counterpart would receive. The 2014 CoUNTess Report on gender representation in Australian contemporary visual arts since 2008, shockingly revealed that only 37% of the artists represented in museums are women.

Stories and statistics of this nature can often feel removed from our own reality. So how does it reflect at our very own Sydney College of the Arts? After all, the number and gender of graduates is significant as they make up a significant portion of the Arts community as they continue on to become practicing contemporary artists. Having asked a number of SCA current students and alumni, the answers generally prove that little progress has been made; perhaps we have even regressed as a University.

This may be surprising considering that the classes at SCA are female-dominated with two responders to the survey estimating a ratio of around 7:3 of female to male students in their classes. This estimate interestingly correlates with the statistics published by Countess (74% to 26%). Yet, only 34% of the creators of art shown in state museums in Australia are female. What happens in between art school to state gallery? Or does this gender bias start at art school from the beginning?

Indeed, several students pointed out that at SCA, particular teachers failed to address unconscious biases and made a series of misogynistic comments. Up to three surveyors noted incidents with teachers with tenure who have received several complaints over the years and have not faced disciplinary action. In an environment which ostensibly fosters and encourages cultural change, such attitudes are damaging. Furthermore, what message does it send when lecturers in positions of power are repeatedly not held accountable for their actions?

Furthermore, issues with the curriculum itself were exposed. Surveyors revealed that there was a class offered titled Art and Feminism which was a helpful critical theory subject. However, Dr Jacquie Millner who ran the course left SCA last year for Monash university. The fact that there was only one class (now none) emphasises the perennial debates surrounding the ‘protected categories’ of minorities in the art world. The art world still lacks a framework for consistent and engaged understanding of gender, race, and sexuality outside of a tokenistic course. One surveyor proposed a solution, emphasising the introduction of “female presence in the arts as not just  state of oppression. We need to normalise the work and presence of femme artists.”

This opinion was corroborated by several others, echoing similar sentiments such as “I also believe that there still lacks adequate representation for female artists outside of the ‘feminist’ realm of a female-identifying artists practice.” Early exposure to discourse about these issues is crucial in countering stigma. After all, much work is needed to resist centuries of historical gender bias where the Western canon is still dominated by men. But even today, as one responder observes “the art market is one of the most unregulated art markets in the world” which leaves so much in the hands of opinion and speculation, specifically, in the hands of men.

What also emerges from survey results is a general sentiment that the University of Sydney itself is unhelpful with the issues that SCA faces. One surveyor noted that “the campus is being decommissioned and we have lost many staff. With more taking their research and long service leave, I cannot see them having the resources to do anything about it.” Indeed, with SCA itself feeling undervalued by the University as a whole, another surveyor noted a disconnect between the services for women available on main campus and those at the Rozelle campus. This leaves SCA students feeling more vulnerable than ever. This leaves SCA students unsure as to, as one responder described “where to go for help if you feel harassed/ threatened by someone in the arts or at an art event.” As a University, more must be done to support students today but also in their future endeavours and professional pursuits.

The statistics presented in this article are not new or unexamined. However, more work needs to be done in examining universities and art schools. Not enough is being done to tackle gender bias from an embryonic level. We must continue to encourage female artists to pursue their careers from the get-go and empower female artists within this key institutional environment which is formative to an artist’s practice. After all, representation matters and the fact that one survey responder realised that “the amount of artists I can name still remains little to the amount of male artists” is disheartening.

The University of Sydney needs to be better at respecting and promoting the arts, culture and listening to SCA students. Only then, will we overcome the irony that arts institutions are slow to change despite their advocacy in pushing at the periphery. Only then, will the Arts truly live up to its reputation as liberal, progressive, diverse and an advocate for equality.

If you are an artist facing gendered harassment, the National Association for the Visual Arts has collated resources, from specialist police services to support services, which can be found here: https://visualarts.net.au/advocacy/campaigns/gender-equality

This article appeared in the autonomous wom*n’s edition, Wom*n’s Honi 2018.