Conversations with (regional) Sheila
By Fiona Sinclair
[This blog is based upon a talk I delivered at the inaugural networking event of The Sheila Foundation, held at John Curtin Gallery, Perth, in July 2021. It coincided with final days of the groundbreaking exhibition The Alternative Archive, WA’s first survey of contemporary visual arts practice in regional WA for more than twenty years]
In preparing to write about the current experience of women working in WA’s regional visual art sector I decided to do some anecdotal research. I sent a quick email with a series of questions to over 40 women. It went across artforms, ages, levels of experiences and types of engagement.
From the responses I received, I discovered many things. Some answers confirmed beliefs I already held to be true, yet others confounded me. In the process I realised I’d been harbouring assumptions about what was THE story for regional women in art. I discovered I’d been projecting homogeneity onto the sector that didn’t really exist and became aware of the obvious: there is no ONE ‘regional arts woman’ and no ONE ‘regional female arts experience’. We are as diverse as the physical and cultural landscapes within which we live and work. We cannot be contained within a singular ‘type’ but deserve to be examined and celebrated for our nuance and ongoing evolution.
On some topics the voices in my ‘survey’ were uniform. There was an agreed sense of optimism about our current cultural shift; relief that traditional tropes of female experience were in transition. While there was disagreement about the speed and/or extent of the change, there was consensus at least that it WAS occurring.
There was consensus too, that women are more supportive of creativity in others, when compared to men. This manifests in tangible support for the aspirations of other artists and/or nurturing creative experiences in the broader community. Male practitioners in general – although certainly there are exceptions – seemed to be more competitive, less collaborative; inclined against actively encouraging the career of others in fear of diminishing their own.
It was widely agreed that women (regional or otherwise) better understand the value of art in creating connections that lead to personal wellbeing and community flourishing. Whether this capacity to support, collaborate and network was innate or learned was not studied in any depth, it was just acknowledged that in this domain we are expert. Unsurprisingly it was felt that this expertise did not guarantee income commensurate with men. Most respondents said female arts professionals were underpaid and repeatedly unpaid (after all, we prop up an entire sector with our altruism). When I drilled into this further, I found that the more established an artist’s practice – the longer her experience in the field – the more certain she became of gender income disparity. At the novice end of the spectrum payments for artworks and art positions seem to equitable. As prestige increases, so does the gendered pay divide.
Adding salt to the wound for more established and/or ambitious regional arts professionals is the oft-quoted ‘tyranny of distance’. Separated by geography and often significant cultural difference, arts professionals in the regions can suffer a disconnect from their city-based professional peers. While advancing technology is helping ameliorate the effect, it can still seem a gaping abyss. Deprived of the cultural complexity of city life, with limited exposure to artists, exhibitions, curators and opportunities, regional arts practitioners often need to commute vast distances at great expense to transport artworks (and themselves) to retain relevance in a metro market that appears indifferent to their challenge. It’s hard enough to be a female arts professional in the city but being the only artist in the village is next level difficult!
I had expected all my regional respondents to agree with me on the existence of structural inequality. But some did not. Possibly they choose not to notice it or have just been fortunate enough to have been sheltered from its sting. I was really surprised at how any woman could be unaware of the prevalence of women in our sector. The ubiquity of women at any regional arts conference, on any board, working in any organisation or exhibiting in any gallery (except perhaps a state or national one) seemed to me so commonplace. And yet more than one woman questioned my assertion. Perhaps our ‘over-representation’ is just taken for granted? Perhaps we can’t see the wood for the trees? In the 2018 Regional Arts WA survey there were 75% female respondents. In the recent exhibition at John Curtin Gallery, The Alternative Archive, the work of 40 artist was included, 33 female and 7 male. These were selected from a larger pool of 206 artist (165 female and 41 male) and 26 curators (24 female and 2 male). These few statistical references reflect the findings of the national 2019 Countess Report citing 71% of university visual arts graduates and 76% of all curators being female. In the visual arts women are everywhere.
Is it possible in regional communities this is more pronounced? There’s not a single man in the sole arts organisation in Lake Grace. And that’s not an exceptional story. It’s also not isolated to small Wheatbelt towns. In the city of Albany, in regional WA’s longest running Artist Run Initiative, Mix Artists Albany, the organisation currently has 27 members, many of whom have solid professional arts standing, and yet only one of their members is male. In fact, across its 22 year history, there has only ever been 4 male members. Is perhaps a gathering of strong women a deterrent for men?
Several respondents believed the lack of men is due to a prevailing ‘bloke culture’; the need to conform to stereotypes of historic masculinity. These notions may be increasingly redundant in urban centres but still hold sway in many (most) regional towns and cities. Women lament the limited range of options for their sons, husbands and friends as regional men are compelled to choose between sport and social obscurity. It is still more acceptable to be locked into a life of workaholism, alcoholism and sporting tribalism than join an arts group and explore self-expression and social engagement. Arts practice that is reflective and connective (and frequently run by women) was not considered a respectable profession – or even pastime – for a regional fella. At best, they could join a Men’s Shed, but an arts group was beyond the pale.
For men that defy the trend and undertook a studio practice, they often benefited from the labours of regional women banding together to organise venues, exhibitions, and whole ‘organisations’. These men can be lavished with support and singularly admired (because they are so singular), sanctioned as lone operators, steadfastly furthering their own careers without a sense of obligation to support the organisations that enable them. Broome based artist, Naomie Hatherley likens them to the footy stars basking in glory while a legion of women cut oranges for the juniors and raise funds for the club by selling food in the canteen. But what happens when a female artist chooses a similarly focused route? Is there a similar level of ‘spoiling’? Sadly, it’s possible she’ll receive criticism for not being more community minded enough.
So, is this reason enough for women in the arts to steer clear of the regions? Not at all. Several women in my ‘study’ began life in the city. Upon moving to the country, they found the higher levels of connection and the support of strong women. This empowered them to pursue a richer arts practice. Combined with the affordability of regional housing and access to Nature, the ‘tree changers’ often claimed a win-win experience.
Yet for others, the move to the regions is a plummet into isolation, with careers stagnating until they’d overcome parochial mindsets and found a way to minimise the costs and complications inherent with distance.
A lack of childcare, even in large regional cities, was listed as another inhibiting factor for professional regional women. In all but a few communities, 8am-6pm childcare is non-existent. Consequently, qualified and experienced mothers can’t attain or maintain positions of influence. They are forced into positions of flexibility (and usually decreased wages and reduced opportunity). For practicing female artists, with a studio at home, the circumstances are different, but the crush is the same. The demands of domesticity overwhelm the demands of art practice. Even in so called ‘modern couples’, the woman is left in the ‘layby of care’ while the fast-lane of professional practice pass her by. The cost of this gendered leadership ladder is not just upon the individual, but the community more broadly. In regional WA, Local Government Authorities and corporations are overwhelmingly male top-heavy, reinforcing the interests of women as secondary.
This was not a startling discovery. This is the story perpetuated by the patriarchy everywhere.
What did surprise me was a response from my First Nations friend in Kalgoorlie, Deb Carmody. She reminded me that within the oldest living culture on Earth patriarchy is not the dominant paradigm. She said that First Nation’s artists “are all traditional story tellers who all have a cultural, social, religious responsibility to share and tell stories. From their cultural perspective male and female storyteller/artists have always worked together in the telling of stories through art. I think this is because we have defined male and female roles that are related to social cultural and religious responsibilities, and each role works in unison with the other. So, we have men’s painting then women’s painting and then we have paintings that are done by both men and women. Because of our cultural Laws and practices, we do not have men’s artworks dominating our art practices.”
This illustrates again the wisdom of First Nations peoples and the insight we can glean from their millennia of cultural refinement. I took hope from this and drew inspiration from solutions proffered by colleagues on how we can create the change we’d like to see. Women in regional WA are strong, connected and creative. Together we can tell a new story. It begins by having conversations.
Some suggested steps to a new story for the visual arts in regional WA
As shared by women from across regional WA in July 2021
So as not to be overwhelmed we can perhaps tasks ourselves with a few strategies at a time, aiming to work our through over time. This list is by no means exhaustive. They’re just steps in a new direction.
- We can create more positive role models for the whole of society to encounter (male and female). We can take the lead in sharing women’s success stories, ensuring articles are written, podcasts recorded, films produced etc. People need to see (and believe) it is possible for professional female arts practitioners to thrive; to see them well paid, well collected, and well celebrated. Male children, youth and adult men (particularly in communities with dominant ‘bloke-ism’) need to see and hear stories of men being creative, to witness men acknowledging the value of arts and culture; to see alternatives to sport for social connection and personal recreation.
- We can encourage artist-mothers to be publicly pregnant, breastfeeding and mothering as they go about functioning professionally. After all, these aren’t mutually exclusive.
- We can create new paradigms of arts operation, eg. explore and support models of funding that are more collaborative and less competitive, advocate to all levels of government that current systems could change and provide them with ideas for solutions (not just complaints about problems).
- We can own our own ambition. While it’s wonderful that regional women are such great champions of creativity in others, it’s important to be our own champions too. Suppressing our own creative urges to create opportunities for others comes at great cost (not just for ourselves but our organisations and communities). We can strive for balance between the solo path and the group one: supporting fellow women to take periods of time (maybe a whole lifetime) to focus on their own creative pursuits. Always ‘taking one for the team’ can be harmful to our wellbeing.
- We can be creative with new approaches to engaging men in our organisations. When we accept that men don’t contribute to our organisations because ‘that’s the way it’s always been’ we allow this in-balance to continue.
- We can create mentorships – paid and unpaid – for established arts professionals to mentor emerging practitioners along their career pathway. These can be specific to target groups, eg older arts-mothers giving hope to younger arts-mothers, experienced curators supporting emerging curators, metro-based trans women supporting regionally based trans women. Mentorships can be intra-regional, inter-regional, inter-state and international.
- We can provide more female, family and disability friendly spaces and programs (eg. ensuring there are childcare options, accessible and flexible opening hours, providing some activities that are female-only, and offer services at a range of affordability).
- We can present the arts (particularly to young people) as a professional industry for all genders, with viable and sustainable career options.
- We can be proactive in our exhibition programming and collections, aspiring to gender equity. This is not just the business of major institutions but just as imperative for small not for profits in tiny regional towns.
- We can advocate for better childcare services in regional communities to ensure that regional women have comparable access to professional career paths as city women.
- We can be kinder to the many regionally based ‘late-emergers’ (the middle aged, semi-retired and retired women) who are establishing or re-establishing an arts practice after decades of caring for others. Their delayed professionalism can be seen as a symptom of structural prejudice. Whose benefit does it serves to denigrate their contribution?
- We can advocate directly to regional LGAs, corporate and private sector for more equitable gender representation in their executive.
- We can be more observant and curious about life around us. Not making assumptions about the ‘truth’ we think we know about the women (or the men) in our communities or the sector within which we work.
- We can become women that write about art and talk about art – ensuring a balance of gender in arts criticism.
- We can join organisations like The Sheila Foundation that help give collective voice to our individual experience.
Fiona Sinclair has worked within the regional arts sector within WA for over two decades across a broad continuum of engagement (from artist to curator, gallery manager, cultural tourism developer, advocate, board member and more recently a regional arts hub coordinator). She is passionate about the intersection between creativity, culture and community.