Creating value around women artists: the chief curator’s view

Moca’s Helen Molesworth explains why the gender imbalance in museums persists and what can be done to remove it


In our May print edition, we examine new initiatives in the US and UK that aim to promote female artists—and ask curators, collectors and artists whether such philanthropic endeavours can make a difference. According to research by the Freelands Foundation and The Art Newspaper, female artists in the US and UK receive fewer than 30% of all solo shows at major museums.

We spoke with Helen Molesworth, the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art (Moca), Los Angeles, for the story, and felt her responses were worth printing in full. Molesworth has written extensively on feminist issues in the art world. She also walks the walk: over the next two years, Moca will host solo shows of mid-career female artists including Barbara Kasten, R.H. Quaytman, Mickalene Thomas and Anna Maria Maiolino.

Molesworth spoke with us about why the gender imbalance in museums persists, why we must expand the definition of “genius” and what hard choices institutions must make in order to create a truly balanced programme.

The Art Newspaper: Recent studies in both the UK and the US found that women get around 25% of the solo shows at major museums. Why do you think this disparity still persists today?

Helen Molesworth: People always stay “still today” as if something happened to change the patriarchal system that we live under. As far as I can tell, the patriarchal system is still firmly in place. Since the movement in the early 20th century to get the right to vote, we haven’t had that long a battle in terms of changing the institutions that shape our culture. That’s why the percentages are the way they are—in the Senate and the House of Representatives and Fortune 500 companies. I don’t think the art world has any special purchase on patriarchy.

But people talk about the art world being progressive, a place for ideas—as if it should be ahead of other institutions.

It is a place for ideas and we are a progressive and liberal community, but that doesn’t set us apart from the larger cultural forces at play, which have for the past several hundred years promoted the idea that genius and men and power and money are all very intertwined with one another. Unravelling centuries’ worth of discrimination doesn’t happen overnight, or even within decades.

Do you think these new philanthropic initiatives to support female artists—like Barbara Lee’s foundation, which funds exhibitions, or Valeria Napoleone XX, which provides gifts and funds new work, or Elisabeth Murdoch’s prize—can make a difference?

I think that those initiatives are extremely positive. All museums are trying to make a balanced schedule between introducing artists to the general public and showing the public things they already know. When you make a list of the names of artists that are recognised by the general public, there are very few women on that list. It is Louise Bourgeois and Cindy Sherman, essentially. Any attempt on the part of museums and these women to create visibility for other women is going to be welcome. It introduces a kind of spotlight and funding assurance around names that might not be so well known.

But the real burden, at some level, is on the curators and directors across the country. When you look at your schedule and you see that you have mostly men, you actually have to push hard against that. You have to insist internally that you are going to put women on the schedule.

I feel like that is an accepted idea. So why is it so hard to accomplish in practice? Is it curatorial laziness? A lack of funding or incentive to look beyond the obvious?

The only way you get diversity is to actually do it. That means that certain men don’t get shows. There are only X number of slots every year on the calendar and the number of artists always exceeds the number of slots. If you are going to be equitable, some of the dudes don’t get shows that year. That’s what’s hard about it.

Most museums still maintain a commitment to an idea of the best, or quality, or genius. And I’m not saying I don’t agree with those as values. But I think those values have been created over hundreds of years to favour white men. One of the things you have to say as a curator is “We are not going to present the value that already exists; we are going to do the work to create value around these woman artists and artists of colour that would just come ‘naturally’ to the white male artist.”

Charlotte Bonham-Carter, who completed the UK study on behalf of Elisabeth Murdoch’s Freelands Foundation, said that the major problem is that women lack the “support structure” to achieve a “pinnacle achievement”, such as a mid-career solo show. Do you agree?

I’ve worked with many women artists, and women artists who are also mothers. Often you’ll see in the career a kind of dip or a slowing down during certain years of child-rearing. That makes a lot of sense to me. Take an artist like [the Canadian photographer and video artist] Moyra Davey. Moyra has all the hallmarks of what is beginning to be a progressive body of work and an interesting career. In the late 90s or early 2000s, she has a child. Then, her number comes up again in the mid-2000s, when her child was able to go to school and she has free time again to make art. When you hear about women not having the same support structure as men, one of the things to think about is that there is no [federally funded] childcare in this country. That’s one of the reasons why the mid-career point happens later for women than it does for men. I always think we think of ourselves as so separate [from the rest of the working world], but artists must deal with all of these issues.

In some ways artists have less support than other working people, who might have maternity leave or health care through their employers. Artists are freelancers.

Yes, they are outside of the whole system at that moment. I also think there is a certain kind of angry young man that is very appealing for the art world—and that doesn’t feel the same way on women. There is a certain kind of career trajectory that starts off all hot for male artists. But those myths don’t attach themselves to women in the same way.

Can museums improve their statistics independently of the art market, where there is arguably an even greater gender gap in terms of prices? Both entities are fuelled by people in power; it seems like one can’t get better without the other.

Most people buy art that in some way reflects their version of the world. Most men—and I hate to take this generalisation—but most men think that men make universal statements and women talk about women. You think you’re a universal subject—that is white male privilege. Since the market and the museums are largely still operating under the idea that art needs to communicate universally, this takes a super-powerful toll. When Mary Heilmann makes an abstraction invested in the sphere of the domestic, that’s not a woman thing; that’s everybody. Everybody goes home and stares at a towel. We have a lot of work still to do to show that work by men is just as specific to their concerns and may not be universal. And, contra, that work by Lorna Simpson, for example, is just as universal as work by a white man. Most market conversations don’t really allow for that much complexity.

How do you think things have changed over the past five or ten years? I spoke with the artist Deborah Kass about this, and she said that things have only got worse since art became an asset class.

The rise of art as an asset class has made a lot of things worse for a lot of people—women and men. It’s a low moment in the development of Western civilisation. But I do think some things are better and I think there have been really important shows of work by women. A handful of people around the country make diverse schedules. We could have had this conversation 40 years ago but I wouldn’t have been a chief curator and you wouldn’t have been an editor. That progress is slow and the ascendancy of art as an asset class has only slowed that progress down.

Why should museums open up their ranks?

Two reasons. First, I believe that museums reflect the ideas and values of the culture that they live in, so they need to expose us to all the possibilities and diversity of that culture. The second, more important, reason is because museums in the West are bound up with democracy. The Louvre became the first public museum in the wake of the French Revolution. They help people understand where they come from, where they are and where they might be going. I don’t understand how we can get any better at being democratic if we aren’t making a programme that represents the fullness of human capacity.