Women in Public Spaces: Why we need more women in public art.

Public art, it’s in our town squares, at our bus stations, plastered on billboards; but think of the last public commission you saw – chances are it was created by a man.

Take for example London’s Forth Plinth, out of the eight artists who have won, according to Greater London Authority, “the most talked about contemporary art prize in the UK” only one has been a woman. Written about in international media, seen by an estimated 15 million people each year, and even given a live tele-cast on Sky Arts (during Antony Gormley’s One and Another artwork in 2009); this space is one of the most prominent platforms for contemporary public artworks in the world, and yet we, the public, are asked to believe only one woman artist has deserved for their work to be displayed on this podium.

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In fact, even when you’re not looking at site-specific commissions but rather other pre-existing artworks displayed in public, female artists are still in the minority. Art Everywhere UK, in which the treasures of British art history are displayed on posters and billboards across the country, in 2014 took the country and media by storm. Yet only a fifth of artworks displayed where created by women. Are we meant to suppose that there are simply not enough female artists to be represented equally? Or perhaps that women do not produce the right kind of art to be displayed? However you attempt to look at it, there is an underlying sexism that is negatively impacting the future faces of the art world.

Once female artists ruled the public art landscape, exemplified by the 1987 The New York Times article titled “Women Are Reshaping the Field of Public Art”. Under-represented by arts institutions, women artists in the 1970s and ‘80s took to the streets to display their work.  But look now at New York City’s Art in the Parks project, 2014-2015, only 20% of the established artists participating are women. The East London Fawcett Society in 2013 discovered only 5% of London galleries show an equal number of male and female artists, so with institutions still neglecting female artists, and even the streets out of their control, women are being ignored and young women are bring discouraged from attempting to enter the visual arts.

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With over 5.3 million reported visitors going to Tate Modern each year, it would be easy to assume that everyone is interacting with art; everyone is visiting galleries and appreciating artworks from artists such as Tracey Emin and Louise Bourgious. Yet in a 2014 survey from The Alternative Art Fair, it was revealed that one fifth of Britons have never visited an art gallery, and 61% claimed that they knew nothing of contemporary art.

The 1989 Guerrilla Girls’ poster declaring “Do women have to be naked to get into the MET. Museum” has become an icon of the 21st century cultural landscape. And whilst everyone can appreciate the sentiment of getting more modern and contemporary female artists into major institutions, it is becoming clear that the majority of people are not visiting galleries. The way people interact with art on a daily basis is in the streets. An under-representation of female talent here only stresses the isolation many feel from contemporary art. By placing or performing public art in its, necessarily, highly visible place the works become in their nature anti-exclusionary. But as only white middle-aged men have their work displayed, so will only white men see a future for themselves in contemporary art.

Art has the power to change people’s lives and perspectives, but we are allowing only one perspective to be shown. At its best art can change the world, however without differing perspectives there is no progression.  I have the greatest respect for Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, but the cultural landscape needs more than their homogenous voices; with every balloon dog and gestating foetus sculpture, female and minority artists are being overlooked.

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Sculptor Sarah Lucas told The Guardian in 2011, that “When [she] was at college [Goldsmiths, between 1984 and 1987], sculpture was definitely seen to be macho. In the welding department, my tutors were all men – people like Richard Wentworth. I had a prevalent sense that people looked at women’s art differently. But I don’t feel that now.” Far be it from me to question such a feminist art icon, but she is one of the lucky few not isolated from the world of sculpture. Perhaps it is due to her lack of interest in major public art commissions, but it is hard to believe that for every Rachel Whiteread there are four Antony Gormleys. Art collages may do what they can, but more sculptures will not be made by women if women don’t see they have a place in the sculptural world of public art.

Women deserve a public space to show contemporary artworks – better representation encourages minorities, the young and the culturally insecure to see that there is space in the art world for them. Public artworks are a billboard, both metaphorically and literally, for the future of contemporary art: they need to promote everyone equally or we will be left with an art landscape with nothing to say and eventually with no one looking at it.

Commissioned by dfynorms.com

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