Letter from a young woman artist (after Janine Burke)

Diana Smith writes back to Burke questioning how much has changed.

Dear Janine,

I recently read your ‘Letter to a Young Woman Artist’.[1] Even though you first wrote it to a painter named Cathy as she started her career in the 80s, it was strikingly relevant to me, a performance artist who started working more than 20 years later, in the first part of the 21st century. With some alarm, I read your comment:

Remember, at first it can be easy for an artist in Australia. (Yes, even a woman artist!) There are grants, awards, Biennales and Perspectas, galleries eager for the young artist to show. You can even think you’ve made it by thirty, you’ve been bought by a national collection, given an overseas residency...and got a part time job in an art school. And, just as swiftly, it can change. Look ahead. How many good painters are there of sixty or seventy? And how many women?[2]

I’ve had my work purchased by the Museum of Contemporary Art, undertaken overseas residencies in Korea and China, had my work shown at major institutions, and I’ve got a part time job as a researcher at the College of Fine Arts. But, having just turned 31, I find myself pondering your advice to Cathy and wondering if, as you say, things are about to change.

It would seem that I’m not the only one contemplating this. Artist Elvis Richardson has spent the last five years compiling statistics on gender equality in the Australian art world for her influential blog and archive project CoUNTess. She’s found that, whilst there are substantially more female artists graduating from art school (65 % compared with 35% male), things change after graduation. In both commercial and public galleries, men outnumber women as exhibitors by a ratio of 59% compared with 35% (with 6% collaborations).[3]

Richardson also found that major institutions in Australia tend to favour collecting the work of male artists. Between 2000 and 2010, the National Gallery of Victoria collected the works of 269 men, but only 59 women. The National Gallery of Australia collected 222 men, but a mere 43 women.[4] The recent acquisition of the private Kaldor Collection by the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) caused surprisingly little debate considering that, out of the 202 works donated, 194 were by men (and 6 were collaborations). The AGNSW’s subsequent New Contemporary Galleries opening show (21 May 2011 - 2 May 2012), mixing the Kaldor with their existing collection, exhibited 11 women alongside 127 men and 3 collaborations.[5] Given women make up 53% of the population, it seems odd that such a major exhibition in a state gallery would reduce their cultural contribution to around 14%. If we make up 65% of graduates, what happens to reduce that figure so substantially by the time we’re established enough to appear in major collections?

I wonder how different it might be if women of your generation, or even Cathy’s, were at the helm of more of the major institutions. Instead, men run the vast majority of the state and national galleries. In her recent article for The Age, Fiona Gruber interviewed leading women arts managers, with established director and Order of Australia recipient Maudie Palmer commenting, ‘‘nothing much has changed since Betty Churcher ran the National Gallery of Australia (from 1990-97)’’.[6] Since Churcher broke through the glass ceiling 23 years ago, the only other woman to be appointed at this level is Louise Doyle, who became the director of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra in 2010. The same situation is reflected in the university system. In a recent interview in Art & Australia, artist Kathy Temin noted the predominance of women art students but ponders why “there are not more female artists in higher-level positions at art schools?”[7]

For those women who do work in the arts, there’s also a pretty significant disparity in pay. Australia Council’s statistics from 2007/2008 (the most recent available) reveal that women earn half of what men earn for their creative practice.[8] This is significantly lower than the national pay gap, which has been sitting at 17.5% for over a decade according to ABS average weekly ordinary full-time earnings.[9] Despite the fact that there are more women graduating from art school, and working at the lower and middle levels of institutions within the visual arts, they don’t seem to be getting the same opportunities or pay rates as their male counterparts.

With statistics like this it’s not surprising that there has been a renewed interest in the history and traditions of feminist art practice. Certainly, in the past decade we have seen a series of major exhibitions focused on women’s art and the legacy of feminism. These include WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (MoCA, Los Angeles), Global Feminisms (Brooklyn Museum, New York), elles@centrepompidou: Women Artists in the Collections of the National Art Museum (Centre Pompidou, Paris) and in Australia our very own Contemporary Australia: Women (GOMA, Brisbane).

Feminism is also back on the agenda for women of my generation and many of my peers have been initiating creative projects, publications and exhibitions dedicated to the topic. A few recent examples include The View from Here: 19 Perspectives on Feminism (West Space, Melbourne), an exhibition and publication curated by artists Victoria Bennett and Clare Rae; and Food For Thought (2012 Next Wave Festival, Melbourne), a series of dinner parties that brought together a range of women curated by LEVEL – a female run and focused artist run initiative established by Brisbane artists Alice Laing, Courtney Coombs and Rachael Haynes in 2010. This year we have the emergence of JANIS, a project initiated by my friend and colleague Kelly Doley, which, as the manifesto proclaims: “is dedicated to enabling female voices to be heard a little louder and to take up more space in the art world, and subsequently, in the annals of art history.”[10]

I suspect you may have written something similar to the JANIS mantra in 1974 to accompany A Room of One’s Own – the all female exhibition you curated at the Ewing and George Paton Galleries in Melbourne. It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost four decades since you, as a young university student, “irritated by a course that did not mention women”, put together one of the first feminist exhibitions in Australia.[11] Forty years on, the JANIS manifesto recalls the sentiments expressed by women of your generation and the argument first posed by Linda Nochlin in her landmark essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? In 1971 Nochlin advocated the need for a “feminist critique of the discipline of art history” and the entire education system.[12] In a revised paper published in 2001, she argued that there is still much more work to be done and “we will need all our wit and courage to make sure that women’s voices are heard, their work seen and written about’’.[13]

As a woman artist, who is nearing the end of the ‘young’ part of my career, I try looking ahead – as you suggested to Cathy – but in doing so I can’t help looking back and wondering why it is that we have been saying the same thing for over 40 years. There is no doubt that an important task for the future is to connect the rich events of the past with the present and to encourage intergenerational dialogue and exchange – we need more exhibitions, discussions and critiques of our recent art history that highlight the role women have played. But I wonder, what will it take before the advice you gave Cathy over two decades ago will no longer be relevant to young women artists?


Diana Smith



  1. ^ Janine Burke, ‘Letter to a Young Woman Artist’, Field of Vision, A Decade of Change: Women’s Art in the Seventies, Viking, Victoria, 1990, p. 107.
  2. ^ op cit, p. 107.
  3. ^ ‘Educating and Exhibiting Artists’, CoUNTess, Web. 2 December 2012. 10 January 2012. 
  4. ^ ‘News’, CoUNTess, Web. March 22 2010. 10 January 2012.
  5. ^ ‘When Private Collections go Public’, CoUNTess, Web. 16 June 2011. 10 January 2012.
  6. ^ Fiona Gruber, ‘Recasting the Old Masters’, The Age, Web. 2 December 2012. 10 January 2012.
  7. ^ Kathy Temin in Julie Ewington, ‘Think big and be loud: Three Generations of Female Artists’, Art & Australia, vol. 49, no. 3, 2012, p. 450.
  8. ^ Australia Council for the Arts, Artists Careers Summary, Sydney, 2010, p. 11.
  9. ^ Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Gender Pay Gap Fact Sheet, Canberra, August, 2012.
  10. ^ Kelly Doley, JANIS, Sydney, 2013.
  11. ^ Janine Burke, ‘A Home for the Revolution: the Ewing and George Paton Galleries and the First Phase of the Women’s Art Movement, 1975-1980’ in When you Think About Art: The Ewing & George Paton Galleries, 1971-2008, ed. by Helen Vivian, Macmillan Publishing, Victoria, 2008 p. 180.
  12. ^ Linda Nochlin, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists’ in Baker, Elizabeth C. and Thomas B. Hess, (eds) Art and Sexual Politics: Why have There Been No Great Women Artists?, New York, Macmillan Publishing, 1973, p. 2.
  13. ^ Nochlin, ‘“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Thirty Years After’ in Women Artists at the Millennium, ed. by Carol Armstrong and Catherine de Zegher (eds.), Cambridge, MIT Press, 2006, p.24.

Diana Smith is a Sydney based artist and writer. She is a founding member of the performance and video collaboration Brown Council and a current PhD candidate at the College of Fine Arts, University of NSW. www.dianasmithmail.com.au