Representation of Women Artists in Britain

March 1, 2022

‘Representation of all women across galleries and senior creative roles is not indicative of those either studying or in the public.

As part of our research into social issues and systemic change in the creative sector we’re looking at ‘Representation of Women Artists in Britain During 2020’, the 6th report commissioned by the Freelands Foundation. This edition takes a look at the way that gender, ethnicity and socio-economic factors intersect and impact on the career outcomes of female artists.

The report builds on findings from ‘Getting on and Getting in’ from PEC & NESTA (August 2020), which we discussed back in October. Research from PEC and NESTA highlighted issues with social mobility across the creative sector, found to be ‘a greater issue for the creative industries than across the wider economy’.

Reading Dr Kate McMillan’s introduction, the phrase that particularly stood out for me was, ‘The enthusiasm for the arts that is shared by young people is not echoed in equitable opportunities for success in the higher echelons of the sector’.

There is a disproportionately lower representation of women and black and brown people across the creative sector, than those studying to A level and degree level. This is also reflected in the statistics across gallery representation and creative roles.

In 2020, 73% of graduates studying art and design were women, but a lack of detailed reporting means that the ethnic breakdown is not clear. Despite this high figure, representation of all women across galleries and senior creative roles is not indicative of those either studying or in the public.

  • –  …in the United Kingdom’s culture sectors, only 15% of women under the age of 35 are in senior roles, compared with 31% of men, Arts Pay Survey.
  • –  Tate in 2019–20: of 180 artists collected, 20 (11%) were Black and Brown women, Freelands Foundation.
  • –  In 2020, the National Gallery purchased no works by women artists, Freelands Foundation.
Left Image: Sonia Boyce, David Levene, The Guardian. Top Right Image: Sonia Boyce, Darren O’Brien/Guzelian, The Guardian. Botton Right: The Audition (detail) Sonia Boyce, Courtesy Manchester Art Gallery Banner Image: The Audition (detail) Sonia Boyce, Tate

In order to maintain creative industries reflective of our culture we need to better understand the factors contributing to the gap between demographics of graduates, and those represented in galleries, auctions and management. 

The precarity of creatives’ incomes, amongst other factors, limits success to those able to ‘take risks for the longest period’. For example, the Graduate Outcomes survey shows that one-third of creative arts graduates were working in non-permanent employment, meaning a significant number were working on fixed-term and zero-hour contracts, and were more likely than their peers to be freelance or self-employed.’ 

It comes as no surprise that this lifestyle is often not sustainable or desirable, and will contribute to many leaving the sector. 

After two years, Naiomy Guerrero, 26, left her ‘successful’ job in the art world. As ‘the daughter of two immigrant parents, she chose financial stability’ writes Artsy. 

“I grew up poor, and I never want to be poor again,” she says, even if “that means not working in the art world because there isn’t a stable enough position.” 

Anecdotal evidence suggests decision-makers and those in higher positions in arts organisations are likely to believe in a meritocracy, reasoning that pure talent will always rise to the top of the pile. 

But if you aren’t a white middle class man, you aren’t even getting to the pile: 48% of the population fall into the low-income categories and are unable to join the pool. Creative arts graduates can expect to join the part-time, self-employed gig economy, a career that lacks financial security. 

As national insurance, energy price and rents rise, the wealth gap increases, along with the disparity between gender, ethnicity, class and opportunity. We can continue to expect this to be reflected in the positions held and artists represented. 

So how can we ensure that the stories told through British collections include a range of experiences and perspectives? 

Whilst the answers are not clean cut and much research is going into the problem and possible solutions, a common theme is the issue of financial security and visibility. 

If we can work to support the provision of affordable creative workspaces, ecosystems that advocate for intersectionality, visibility and opportunity, we can start to mitigate the risks and precarity of roles in creative industries. 

CLT’s mission is to enable artists to build sustainable careers through the provision of affordable space, helping them to achieve stable income, in turn reversing the trend for people leaving the sector – as well as enabling opportunities for a more diverse groups. 

Our aim is that through making space for art and artists to take creative risks, challenge the norm, and be quizzical we can begin to address global issues and drive societal transformation. 

About the author

Rosie Niblock, Marketing & Communications Executive at Creative Land Trust.

Rosie Niblock is Marketing and Communications Executive at the Creative Land Trust. Rosie joined the organisation in its early development, managing all stages of branding relating to our business, activation of space and portfolio. Rosie now manages events, marketing and PR including the Trust’s philanthropic strategy.

Rosie graduated with a degree in Fashion and Marketing before supporting organisations working to make a positive impact on people and the planet. Alongside her work she has secured a diploma in digital marketing and is currently working on a certificate in fundraising. Rosie is particularly interested in public art and art for social cause.