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Women's work: National Gallery's latest acquisitions balance the gender scales


The National Gallery of Australia tipped the gender scales in its 2020/21 acquisitions, with significantly more works by female artists entering the collection.

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Of 204 works acquired over the 12-month period, 163 – nearly 80 per cent – were created by women, and 41 by men, plus seven by groups or collectives.

In terms of value, too, works by women artists exceeded the total value of works by male counterparts.

Assistant director of artistic programs Natasha Bullock said the results are indicative of the gallery’s commitment to redressing historical gender inequality.

“Our recent acquisitions demonstrate and reinforce the national gallery’s pledge to elevate the work of women artists in Australia and around the world,” she said.

“The national collection should be rich of diversity and represent artists of various voices and cultural backgrounds in order to expand our knowledge of art history.”

Works to enter the collection include a dazzling canvas and bark painting by Gumatj woman Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, shell necklaces by Launceston-based Aboriginal artist artist Lola Greeno, paintings by the late Boorljoonngal (Phyllis Thomas), and weavings by sisters Margaret Rarru Garrawurra and Helen Ganalmirriwuy Garrawurra.

Also entering the collection is Requiem, a “memorial to the environment” by Australian artist Janet Laurence, moving image works by American artists Dara Birnbaum and Kara Walker, and a canvas sculpture by Spanish artist Angela de la Cruz.

A new gender equity action plan, to be approved by the gallery’s council later in 2021, encompasses collection development and artistic programs as well as public programs, education and digital content.

“Our vision is to lead a progressive cultural agenda,” Bullock said.

“We do that by elevating women artists, promoting First Nations perspectives and engaging nationally through touring and education.”

“These pillars drive our vision and are embedded in our corporate plan.”

As more art by women artists enters the national collection, she added, the collection will start to tell different stories.

Works of art earmarked for acquisition are presented to the collections committee, a sub-committee of the gallery’s council, which comprises philanthropist and collector Judith Neilson, artist Sally Smart and curator and author Alison Kubler.

“They endorse the acquisitions, which are then tabled at council for final ratification, and off we go,” Bullock said.

The gallery council currently comprises five women and six men, while the foundation board consists of five women and 20 men.

Bullock confirmed that the gallery is striving for gender balance at the council and foundation board level, and in all areas of the organisation.

A quarter of Australian art in the gallery’s collection is by women, while one third of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art collection has been made by women artists.

Looking at international art, the figure drops to 7.5 per cent.

The total number of works in the gallery’s collection is 155,000.

London’s National Gallery can count more than 2300 paintings in its collection, many of them masterworks, and 21 of them were painted by women.

In 2016, when the Switch House extension of London’s Tate Modern opened, the gallery announced that 36 per cent of works on display across both buildings would be by women.

Three years later, Tate Britain unveiled a new, albeit temporary, display of about 60 works by 30 women artists from 1960, as part of an ongoing commitment to increasing the amount of work on display by women.

A study into acquisition practices at 26 American museums between 2008 and 2018 revealed 11 per cent of acquisitions had been created by female artists.

Drilling down to individual institutions, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art managed 16 per cent, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 12 per cent, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York 23 per cent, while the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston managed four per cent.

Back at the NGA, some acquisitions are already on display in the second instalment of Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now. The exhibition runs until January 26, although the gallery is currently closed due to COVID restrictions.

“The acquisitions continue to build on the gallery’s ongoing Know My Name initiative, to advance gender equity across the Gallery, including collection development, artistic programs and general operations,” Bullock said.

Co-curated by head of Australian art Deborah Hart and curator of Australian art Elspeth Pitt, the exhibition explores the work of 250 artists.

“It doesn’t follow a chronological trajectory from start to finish,” Hart said. “Rather, within each room, there are resonances of the past in the present, there are conversations in each room.”

Highlights include a painting by Dina Jajetty, an installation made from hundreds of silver balloons by Mikala Dwyer and a cyanotype by Mazie Karen Turner.

Pitt describes Jajetty’s painting as “a vast work that really draws on the legacies of modernism and abstraction as evidenced in Australia”.

“And the circular forms of Dwyer’s installation refer to the artist’s mother, a modernist jeweller who typically worked in sterling silver,” she said.

Turner’s cyanotype was ‘shot’ on the roof of her Bondi flat in the early 1980s.

“She had just had her first child, and the work incorporates her child’s toys and domestic paraphernalia and this beautiful pattern,” Pitt said.

Hart reiterated that Know My Name is about “well-known and lesser-known artists”.

“It’s not about one or the other, but it is about getting women into the forefront of the conversations in the culture of this country.”


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