The NGA’s Gender Agenda

Published March 30, 2022
Ethel Spowers's 'Balloons' (c.1920), a well-chosen image for a bureaucratic report

Last week, with the fanfare usually reserved for the announcement of a blockbuster exhibition, the National Gallery of Australia released its Gender Equity Plan – a document of 48 pages, filled with glossy pictures, including a team photo of the 15-member Gender Equity working group, a procession of mission statements, commitments, and even definitions of gender terms. It is colossally boring. Anyone who has waded through bureaucratic or corporate reports will know what I’m talking about. There is a particular tone of voice in which noble principles and achievements are listed, with future agendas laid out in lengthy tables.

For example: “IMPACT AREA 5: DATA FOR EQUITY”, with a table divided into the headings: “Objective/Indicators of Success/Target/Actions/Timeframe/Responsibility”.

This table is comparatively empty, but I could have chosen any of the five “IMPACT AREAS”. Written in bland bureaucratese, most of

the “objectives” describe standard gallery activities with the addition of terms such as “gender diverse”. The “actions” are vague enough to admit almost any criteria of success.

The apparent aim is to give an impression of High Seriousness. If one reads through every word of this Plan, as I masochistically did, it sounds so empty, formulaic, and repetitious one can only marvel at the waste of time and resources it represents. It is a massive exercise in virtual signalling and self-congratulation.

The authors have made a couple of cynical calculations: 1. Such documents are meant to look impressive, but nobody actually reads them. 2. Nobody would dare criticise a plan that promises to right historical wrongs and do marvellous things for women and gender diverse people.

In brief, if you criticise this plan you’re going to be called a sexist, a reactionary, a homophobe, a transphobe, a nazi, etc. I’m willing to take that risk – not because I am any of the above, but because I sincerely believe public galleries and museums should focus on the quality of exhibitions and acquisitions without becoming immersed in the linguistic doublethink of identity politics, which intimidates rather than liberates. Such practices impose a neurotic set of rules and regulations on everybody, allowing apparatchiks with little intellectual substance or art historical knowledge to rise rapidly to the top. Regardless of gender, it’s much easier to learn a set of ideological strictures than it is to acquire scholarship and imagination.

How many cooks does it require to concoct a GEP?

The NGA’s stated goal of “40:40:20 collection development” suggests that curators or administrators will actively police acquisitions in accordance with a quota system. If these new percentages are not being enforced why bother announcing them?

It may appear that the gallery’s policy is to acquire 40% of works by women, 40% by men, and 20% by non-binary artists, but when one reads the fine print, that final 20% means “gender diverse”. This “may be comprised of people of any gender, including non-binary, gender diverse, cis and trans women, cis and trans men, and those who wish to not identify.”

In other words: 20% of whatever we like – which means the NGA could acquire 60% male or female and still be within the guidelines. The more fundamental problem is that works of art are not best judged by the gender of the artist. It’s theoretically possible, even today, that 100% of the year’s acquisitions may be by women or even non-binary artists, should their works be judged more worthy than those by males.

Is it too much to expect that acquisitions should be made on the bases of perceived quality and significance? If there is a gender imbalance it’s up to the gallery to justify itself with appropriate arguments. “We needed more women” is not an argument, it’s a statement of a political position.

The Gender Equity Plan begs the question: “Is there a crisis in the public galleries that urgently needs correcting?” It’s an historical fact that women have been under-represented in public collections, but until recently male artists vastly outnumbered their female counterparts. The sexism or misogyny of the past cannot be retrospectively corrected. All we can do is seek out works by unjustly neglected female artists and promise to do better from now on.

Nevertheless, we need to remember that great art is rare, and it would be foolish to make allowances for mediocre artists simply because of their gender.

Before we accept there is a gender problem in the art institutions we might take a look at the Countess Report, commissioned by the National Association for the Visual Arts, and delivered in November 2019. Data was collected from 13,000 artists across 184 organisations. I won’t repeat a long list of findings, but they were extremely positive for female artists and administrators, with women ahead of males in every category except representation in state galleries – a dominance that is historically based. I’m confident that if one were to look at state gallery acquisitions over 2020-21 women would be in the majority.

To speak subjectively, I can’t think of a curator in Australia today who would put together an exhibition with no consideration of gender balance and indigenous content. Indeed, if there were a show called Dead White Males in Australian Art, I daresay it would still include work by female and indigenous artists – just by way of contrast!

The grandstanding gesture of the NGA’s Gender Equity Plan arrives at a time when women – and indeed, “gender-diverse” artists, are already being widely accepted. The battle for equality is being won by a gradual-to-rapid evolution of attitudes in the museum sector. Need I emphasise it’s much better for attitudes to change by an organic process rather than be imposed as policy by an institution that wants everybody to admire its hip, progressive statistics?

Life would be a lot simpler for the NGA if it abandoned the attempt to be a Temple of Cool and set its sights on producing two major crowd-pulling exhibitions a year and a lively program of secondary shows and events. This worked well when Betty Churcher was director, and there’s no reason to believe it wouldn’t succeed today.

One gets an indication of the way the NGA is thinking from the documentary, The Exhibitionists, screened last Tuesday on ABC TV. The Gallery provided funds for this film about Australian women artists, and presumably signed off on the final product. The politest thing I can say is that it was an embarrassment for all concerned. If you think this is purely a male view, the first three calls I received about the program were from women who were gobsmacked.

The issues with this film were the same as with much of the ABC’s arts coverage: it was deliberately dumbed down in the belief that the average viewer couldn’t possibly understand something as abstruse as the visual arts. The producers seem to think they will appeal to young people and the person-in-the street by turning every arts program into a low comedy routine. By now it shoud be obvious they are only managing to patronise and alienate viewers.

The premise behind The Exhibitionists was that four women get locked in the NGA overnight and go around with flashlights admiring the works of female artists. At the end they pull a few items from the storage racks and nail them to the wall before they slip out.

I was trying to imagine what James Mollison, the NGA’s founding director, would have made of this shameless mockery of the care and security of the national collection. He certainly wouldn’t have signed off on it and said: “Well done!”  For any curator it should have been an outrage.

The Exhibitionists – four friends spend the night in the NGA, saying embarrassing things

The things the four friends said were uniformly gormless – this being the kind of dialogue the ABC attributes to “ordinary” Australians. The comments about individual works were both banal, and bad art history. The only male who appeared as a talking head was – much to my surprise – me. Or rather some old footage of me saying something nice about Karla Dickens. The big shame was that the historical footage associated with artists such as Nora Heysen and Janet Cumbrae Stewart, was fascinating. If we could have stuck with the archival material and lost the cringe-inducing comedy we might have had a program worth watching.

I’ve got to the point where I despair for ABC TV ever making a decent arts program. Over the past year, the Art Works series, the three-part Finding the Archibald, and now this humiliating documentary have set my teeth on edge. Who do they think is watching this junk?

It’s disturbing that the NGA would sponsor and approve a film that takes such a cavalier approach to the collection because it suggests the Gallery has the same ideas about its audience as the ABC. Namely: a group of ignorant, art-illiterate people with short attention spans who, by some demographic miracle, are passionately committed to gender diversity. This has not been my experience of regular gallery-goers, and it’s certainly not a true reflection of the NGA’s supporters. Almost everybody who visits an art museum has some degree of prior knowledge, their own tastes and opinions. Very few come to admire the gender equity rather than the art.


Published (in an edited version) in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 March, 2022