Happy International Women’s Day! But as any mother working in the art world can confirm, the sector’s attitude towards children is often more akin to that of King Herod. Even though more women are gaining prominence as artists or art workers, motherhood is still seen as a career challenge rather than cause for celebration. Which is why last week’s online conversation on "How Not To Exclude Artist Mothers", convened by the writer Hettie Judah and hosted by the Freelands Foundation, was so necessary and important.
It was moving and inspirational to hear the artists Cally Spooner, Laura Ford and Rana Begum share their experiences—both positive and negative—as artist-mothers and for Fiona Bradley, director of the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh and Laura Smith, curator at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, to offer their thoughts on how how arts institutions could better accommodate artists and their offspring.
Subjects ranged from Laura Ford’s account of giving public talks and teaching her students while breastfeeding to Begum’s feeling “guilty” at mentioning her premature baby to the galleries she was working with, while at the same time not wanting to be excluded from major projects. Cally Spooner revealed that she embraced “being a bit dismantled” when she had her twins, and decided to use their arrival as an opportunity to make art that was “a bit less production-heavy.”
The original impetus for these discussions came from Full Messy and Beautiful, Judah’s essay on the impact of motherhood on artists which formed part of the Freelands Report on the representation of female artists in Britain published last year. For her research, Judah interviewed more than 50 artists, many of whom praised Bradley and Smith as rare beacons of family-friendliness for artist mothers negotiating the all-too hostile terrain of institutional exhibitions, residencies and commissions.
Both Bradley and Smith made the fundamental point that an acknowledgment of family requirements needed to be as crucial to an artist-centred ethos as any aspect of an artist’s creative activities. Both agreed that it was essential to promote a culture where artists were actively encouraged to ask for what they needed. This could be anything from tying in residencies to school holidays to offering the option for more child-friendly lunchtime or weekend exhibition openings, rather than the traditional evening private view and sit down after-dinner. Overall, everyone was in accord that for institutions big or small, the flexibility to meet family needs should be standard practice in all dealings with artists.
While all these discussions were rich and informative, arguably the most significant outcome from this event was its offering of a practical takeaway in the form of ten guidelines for both institutions and residencies on "how to not exclude artist parents"—the term was expanded to acknowledge that, increasingly one hopes, fathers are also often at the rockface of childcare. The guidelines were drawn up over the past month by Judah and an additional 30 artist-mother advisors, and they provide a neat summation and expansion of all the issues covered over the course of the talk.
They are as follows:
1. As an organisation, be explicitly welcoming to artists with families.
2. Make it standard practice to establish an artists's parenting circumstances at the outset of a project and have structures in place to accommodate their parenting responsibilities.
3. Assume that any artist parent may need to travel with their children and a partner or other caregiver and provide for this.
4. Agree with the artist at the outset what is expected of them and when, given enough lead time so that they can plan accordingly.
5. Consider having a specific budget for an artist’s childcare costs.
6. Schedule exhibition openings and special events with artist parents in mind.
7. Be aware of term dates and program around them: offer artists who need to travel with children the option of installing a show over half term, for example.
8. Re-think or remove age limits for residencies and awards so that they become inclusive of artists whose careers have been interrupted by having and caring for children.
9. Work with artists to adapt residencies to fit around their parenting needs.
10. Don’t read gaps in a CV to indicate lack of commitment or effort. Artists' careers come in many shapes and can be paused for many reasons, parenting among them. Emerging artists are not necessarily recent graduates.
The list, with additional stipulations, can be read in full on Judah’s Instagram.
So with this manifesto in mind, let’s hope that when museums and galleries are eventually permitted to re-open, they will take heed of these easy to achieve goals and put artist parents and their children at the centre of any new normal, whatever form it may take.