Gallery director Anna Schwartz. Photo: Rebecca Hallas
ACHEER went up in the Australian art world last month when the UK's ArtReview magazine named former Biennale of Sydney artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev the most influential person in its annual Power 100 poll.
The American-Italian Christov-Bakargiev curated the acclaimed 2008 Biennale of Sydney, and made many fans here and more overseas after her triumphant curatorship of this year's Documenta: the five-yearly German festival that is arguably the most prestigious contemporary art event in the world.
But the kudos is notable for another reason: it is the first time a woman has headed the 11-year-old poll.
Roslyn Oxley of Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. Photo: Jacky Ghossein
A cursory examination of the Australian scene suggests that there are plenty of powerful female players in the local art scene, from Juliana Engberg and Elizabeth McGregor at the helm of public contemporary art institutions in Melbourne and Sydney to commercial gallerists Roslyn Oxley and Anna Schwartz, and collectors, philanthropists and board heavyweights Naomi Milgrom and Carol Schwartz (who are also sisters).
Yet in both commercial and public galleries, exhibited women artists are still heavily outnumbered by their male counterparts and the major state and national collecting institutions are still almost exclusively run by men. Despite their rising power and influence, as many of the players who spoke to Fairfax Media attest, barriers to the top jobs remain.
''Nothing much has changed since Betty Churcher ran the National Gallery of Art [from 1990-97],'' says Maudie Palmer, inaugural director of both the Heide Museum of Modern Art in 1981 and the TarraWarra Museum of Art in 2002.
MCA head Liz Ann McGregor. Photo: Brendan Read
Churcher heralded the era of blockbusters and was an inspiring figure, but her appointment as the first female director of our flagship treasure house in Canberra didn't result in an opening of the floodgates at major public museums. Since Churcher broke through the glass ceiling 22 years ago, the only other woman who has been appointed at this level is Louise Doyle, who became director of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra in 2010. At the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Suhanya Raffel is currently acting director, filling in the post left by Tony Ellwood. No decision has yet been made as to his permanent successor.
In a female-dominated profession, many more fill the lower ranks of senior curator or second in command, says Juliana Engberg, who was this year appointed head of the 2014 Biennale of Sydney alongside her existing post as artistic director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne.
''Women do a lot of heavy lifting in the art world,'' she says, but they rarely reach the top jobs. These still tend to go to men and an atmosphere of male elitism persists. ''I was once told that I would never be a director because I couldn't attend the Melbourne Club,'' Engberg says.
Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Photo: Marco Del Grande
Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, who heads up the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, was on the board that selected Christov-Bakargiev to head Documenta. She says that when she arrived from the UK to take up the job of MCA director in 1999, it was definitely a man's world.
''When I got the job, I had a profound sense of discomfort as I realised that men didn't listen, especially in the business world,'' she says. Although the scene has got distinctly less ''clubby'' in the past decade, it's still more so than in the UK, the Scottish-born director says.
The recent media speculation about who would head up the AGNSW and the NGV centred on a hot-list of male candidates, a bias that she sees as ''flabbergasting''.
Frances Lindsay, former director of the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University and deputy director of the National Gallery of Victoria between between 2000 and 2012, agrees.
''It's true that in visual arts [jobs] women are in the majority in terms of numbers and if you calculated the number of women in public galleries they would outnumber men, but very rarely do they get to the top level,'' she says.
It's down to the boards who appoint the executive staff, she says, and state gallery boards reflect the larger and, as she points out, persistent imbalance on corporate boards nationwide.
While there has been a huge shift in the past 20 years in redressing the balance, a look at the state and national galleries around the country shows men outnumber women on every board, although women preside over the position of chair in two: Fiona Kalaf at the Art Gallery of West Australia and Susan Street at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art.
The controversy preceding the recent appointment of Bruce Parncutt as chairman of the board of the NGV centred on a rumoured snub to highly influential board member Naomi Milgrom, who moved over as chairwoman of the board of ACCA last year and was widely tipped to take the top role. Milgrom declined to be interviewed for this article.
The problem may be in the institutional DNA, some speculate. The flagship state and national galleries are our repositories for the nation's rich permanent collections and innovation. They are as much about conservation as innovation.
There is still a lot of locked-in tradition in the world of high-level patronage, Lindsay says, and patterns of philanthropy and boards reflect society: ''If society isn't supporting change, don't expect them to lead the charge.''
Doug Hall was director of QAGOMA between 1987 and 2007, founder of the Asia-Pacific Triennial and commissioner for Australian exhibitions at the 2009 and 2011 Venice biennales; he is credited with radically changing the gender balance at the male dominated Queensland Art Gallery, placing women in a majority of the senior jobs.
Many battles were won in the 1970s and '80s, he says, when feminist discourse in the art world was far more prevalent than it is today. The recruitment process may start with the boards, he says, but they can only select from the candidates on offer.
''I don't know the reason, but when headhunters have written to me in the past few years with regard to shortlists, women have been thin on the ground, both on the lists and those who applied,'' he says. ''It may be that they're not interested in the crap that directors have to put up with.''
Karen Quinlan, the first female director of the Bendigo Gallery in Victoria, says that a younger generation is poised to swell the ranks of contenders. But she agrees with Hall's comment on recruitment. ''If you're looking at state gallery positions, there are not enough of us out there that are in contention,'' she says.
She believes women aren't being intentionally sidelined, but that it's still hard for them to get to the top as there are so few positions, and directors tend to hang onto their jobs - she arrived in 2000. The regional gallery, which has scored hits with its design and fashion-based shows such as the recent Grace Kelly Style Icon, has greatly increased the gallery's collection of women artists, but wouldn't curate a woman-only show, as was recently the case at QAGOMA, with Contemporary Australia: Women. ''We don't need to separate the sexes out.''
Yet the art market seems to do just that. Statistics show that male artists get more exposure than women: the influential blog CoUNTess, which tallies up the exposure of female artists in key contemporary art galleries across Australia, reveals that not only do male artists outnumber women as exhibitors - 59 per cent compared with 35 per cent (with 6 per cent collaborations) - but they command twice as much text space on gallery websites. The figures have actually worsened in the past three years.
Being an artist is also twice as tough for women. Australia Council statistics from 2008 (the most recent available) reveal that two thirds of visual artists are women but that women in the arts (there are no separate income figures for visual artists) earn on average 50 per cent less than men.
Roslyn Oxley, whose highly influential Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney represents some of the country's best-known artists here and overseas, including Patricia Piccinini, Tracey Moffatt and Fiona Hall, says she sees gender bias in the marketplace all the time. Collectors tend to prefer male artists' work, and among the gallery's stable of mid-career artists, the men's earning capacity is significantly greater. ''But whatever the gender, if they make good work, they sell like wildfire,'' she adds.
It's a robust view that finds favour with Melbourne-based art critic and author Ashley Crawford. Far from being outnumbered and overlooked, he argues, the institutionalised gender imbalance in the public sector is balanced by the commercial gallery sector where women dominate.
Gallerists such as Oxley, Jan Minchin at Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne and Anna Schwartz in Sydney and Melbourne wield immense influence, he points out, representing a large number of the Australian artists in recent years at the Venice Biennale, including Shaun Gladwell, Piccinini and Callum Morton. Juliana Engberg has huge international clout, he says, as does Elizabeth Ann Macgregor. The Australia Council, led by Kathy Keele (who recently announced her departure) also has Julie Lomax, recruited from the UK last year, as its head of visual arts.
The imbalance elsewhere is generational, he argues, with a younger body of gifted curators in contention for the top public gallery jobs of the near future, including Karen Quinlan, Amy Barrett-Lennard, director of the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, Alexie Glass-Kantor, director of Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, and Natasha Bullock, curator of contemporary art at the AGNSW, with whom Glass-Kantor jointly curated the 12th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art.
The art world is highly ambitious and sometimes brutal, Crawford says, and you need international as well as local credibility to snare the prize.
But he adds that for every instance of male clubbiness, there's also likely to be a feud: it's not all roses in a man's world, either. ''Maybe men go out and get drunk together,'' he says, but then, ''half the men in the art world don't talk to each other''.