Gender equality in the museum: The Cruthers Collection of Women's Art

kathleen o
Kathleen O'Connor Self Portrait, c. 1928 Cuthers Collection of Women's Art, University of Western Australia

Arts institutions are making an increased and highly public effort to address the poor representation of women’s art in their collections. Frances Morris, director of the Tate Modern in London,[1] and Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles,[2] have discussed the need to achieve an increased diversity of representation in their collections, particularly in relation to gender, and the last decade has seen a number of large‑scale curatorial projects examining women’s art and its status within the museum. Of these, Modern Women at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2010, and elles@centrepompidou at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 2009 are often noted for their scale and groundbreaking ambition: the former reconsidered narratives of modernism through symposia, exhibitions and an extensive publication exploring women artists already held in the MoMA collection, while the latter re‑hung the entire Pompidou collection to feature only work by women, with substantial effort made towards augmenting the existing collection through acquisition. 

These recent projects offer a temporary spotlight on art by women and imply ongoing, revisionist approaches to institutional curatorial practices that redress the imbalance in representation. In contrast, other projects have sought to create a permanent—and segregated—institutional space for collections of women’s art. In 1986 New Hall College at Cambridge in the UK, founded to boost unacceptably low numbers of women undergraduates at the university, sought donations of works of art from one hundred women artists to form the New Hall Art Collection. An impressive response rate of over seventy-five per cent was attributed by art critic Marina Warner to the willingness of women artists to address their marginalisation in the art world by any means.[3] New Hall’s growing collection continues to be built on donations from artists, often made without financial compensation, a fact that often chafes artists approached by collection curators.

Miriam Stannage Self Portrait, 1978 charcoal and photographic collage Cruthers Collection of Women's Art The University of Western Australia Courtesy the artist's estate
Miriam Stannage Self Portrait, 1978 charcoal and photographic collage Cruthers Collection of Women's Art The University of Western Australia Courtesy the artist's estate

In the United States, Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts was founded in 1987 as an extension of the collecting of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and Wallace F. Holladay. The museum now holds a collection of five thousand objects and is described as the largest of its kind. Within the Brooklyn Museum, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art uses the Sackler Foundation’s donation of Judy Chicago’s iconic Dinner Party (1974–79) as a lens through which to examine the achievements of the women featured, as well as presenting an ongoing programme of temporary exhibitions and events exploring feminist art. 

In Australia, the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art at the University of Western Australia operates with a similar methodology, basing an ongoing program of exhibitions, publications, acquisitions, public and academic programs on a foundational donation of four hundred artworks offered to the University of Western Australia by Sir James and Lady Sheila Cruthers in 2007. The CCWA is currently Australia’s only public collection of Australian women’s art, although in 2010 the S. H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney presented Slow Burn, the showcase of a private collection of comparable significance developed under the direction of art dealer Eve Breuer, to whom the exhibition and publication are dedicated. Identifying themselves only as “two women collectors,” these anonymous women have described their collection as being “in its infancy,” and have also expressed a desire to eventually find for it a public home.[4]

Linda Nochlin’s foundational essay of 1971, “Why have their been no great women artists?” expresses scepticism towards the notion of a common femininity in women’s art: “In every instance, women artists and writers would seem to be closer to other artists and writers of their own period and outlook than they are to each other.”[5] Nochlin’s case has been thoroughly argued by feminist art historians, and among artists whose work is held in gender‑specific collections, support and misgivings for the idea are expressed with equal veracity. 

Regardless, the focus in these collections on women’s art or feminist art creates, either deliberately or by implication, a space in which either becomes observable as a category of unified difference. As many are underwritten by the tastes and ideologies of private collectors or philanthropists, many also suggest specific and focused interpretations of what themes, experiences and media are common within this category. But while these interpretations are obviously partial in the context of a private collection, they can operate somewhat differently, and with some friction, in the realm of the public museum.

Installation view, Look. Look Again, Lawrence Wilson Art gallery, 2012,(left to right) Freda Robertson, Standing Nude (self-portrait), 1994; Mary Edwards, Self portrait with hibiscus, 1949; Barbara Robertson, Self Portrait, 1951; Dorothy Braund, Barbara Brash, 1967, Photo: Robert Frith

 Having recently celebrated ten years as a public collection the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art offers a useful case study of how the nuances of gender‑specific curatorial and collecting practices can play out within the institution, particularly as the Cruthers family deliberately skewed their attention towards particular themes and genres. Best known among these is the CCWA’s focus on self‑portraiture: just over one hundred of the collection’s current total holding of roughly six hundred works fall into this category.

Initially attracted to the oblique self‑determination and individuality of modernist self‑portraits—examples by Western Australians Elise Blumann and Kathleen O’Connor were among her first acquisitions—Lady Sheila Cruthers developed her interest into an overarching strategy applied across both historical and contemporary art that she referred to as “the artist and her work.” Self‑portraits were collected and hung in the family home alongside another non‑self portrait by the artist. Where self‑portraits could not be located, the Cruthers would prioritise figurative works that depicted the artist’s extended circle—family, friends, or peers, ideally women—in an expanded, biographical interpretation of the genre of self‑portraiture. 

This gathering of “modern women” forms what Juliette Peers describes as “the public face of the Cruthers Collection” for both “art professionals and the general public,”[6]but additional themes and genres were identified by the family—like “the artist and her work”—for their emphasis on women’s biographical history and roles in society. In the catalogue accompanying In the Company of Women at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, a showing of the collection as part of the National Women’s Art Exhibition (1995) curated by Joan Kerr and Jo Holder, this thematic focus is left somewhat implicit, loosely articulated around the discussion of individual works, although John Cruthers notes that “the exhibition marks the first time these themes have been comprehensively explored” and asks rhetorically: “Do the concerns of earlier work really connect to contemporary practice?”[7] But by 2002, when negotiations to find a public home for the collection first began, this question was much less rhetorical.

A briefing document circulated by the family notes that: “other themes in the collection are those most evident in women's art—still life, domestic life and family life, gender issues, the body, politics and the environment. Works have been consciously selected that fit these themes and for how they sit in the collection overall.”[8]In Into the Light a 2012 publication documenting the collection in its institutional form, these themes are further reinforced, with the suggestion that such a thematic focus made the collection “a strong and persuasive alternative reading of Australian art.”[9]

Acknowledging the persuasive potential of their vision, the Cruthers family had stipulated a number of guidelines be observed in the collection’s function as a public resource. The Deed of Gift signed with the University in 2007 requires that the collection be kept together as a single, separate entity, whilst also identifying that a key goal of the public collection will be “to maintain the selective, idiosyncratic and unique attributes of The Collection and to maintain the themes and subject areas established in the collection by the Family.”[10] Consequently, the Acquisition Policy for the CCWA at the University specifies that acquisitions emphasise the following themes where relevant: “personal identity as expressed through self‑portraits and portraiture; still life; the domestic environment; children and family life, including birth and death; the body; gender issues; politics and political action and the environment.”[11]

Miriam s
Miriam Stannage Still Life, 1974 acrylic and objects on canvas Cruthers Collection of Women's Art The University of Western Australia Courtesy the artist's estate

It is perhaps where the domestic appears in the collection as subject that the friction aroused by a thematic reading of women’s art is most evident. For example, one of the earliest works purchased by the Cruthers family on this subject is Miriam Stannage’s 1974 painting Still Life. Stannage consistently used a serial format to critique the multiplicities and fugitive qualities of meaning in photography and painting, and Still Life is itself part of a greater series in which a number of canvases are painted to resemble Kodachrome slides, enacting a playful critique of a number of art‑historical tropes—the nude, the artist’s studio, the Situationist “derive” and the still life—in their central “photographic” window. Writing in Westerly Magazine in 1975, Patrick Hutchings describes the series as follows: “Whether the frame “Kodachrome Transparency Processed by Kodak” surrounds an elegantly efficient piece of trompe l’oeil, or an array of plastic flowers, or a hanging of kitchen implements, the meaning of the thing is typically the same. The frame defines the intention, announcing “this image/array/collection is about imitating picturing, painting.”[12]

It is difficult to know precisely when the Cruthers began to set areas of thematic interest for their collection, or began to think of it as a collection specifically devoted to women’s art, but the purchase of the work by the family came to sit uneasily with Stannage, who discussed her feelings with Lee Kinsella during research for the recently published monograph, Miriam Stannage: Time Framed (2016). Kinsella notes that the artist “remains resistant to having her work interpreted on the basis of being a female artist, and so it was a source of irritation to her that Kitchen Still Life (1974), the only Kodak Slide painting that referred to a domestic space, was acquired to be included in a collection of women’s art.”[13] Although the artist never corrected the new credit line in her lifetime, the slight alteration in title to further emphasise the work’s domestic content, dating from the a loan agreement with the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 1989, is also of note: the original title is noted in the artist’s hand on the work’s verso. 

Both the publication Into the Light and the companion exhibition presented at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at UWA in 2012, Look. Look Again formed a particularly close relationship between Still Life and other domestically themed works from roughly the same era, Helen Grace’s Christmas Dinner (1979) and Jenny Watson’s My Mother’s Kitchen (1977). Stannage rarely pictured the domestic space, but women’s work and the suburban house are more prominent as themes in the work of both Grace and Watson—although both, like Stannage, have described their use of the domestic space as embedded in broader discourses of politics and representation. Watson’s My Mother’s Kitchen, which appears to have been made originally as a gift for Janine Burke, can be connected to her paired large‑and‑small painting series of suburban houses from the same era, described as being influenced by feminism as well as the representational games of Joseph Kosuth and Jasper Johns.[14]

installation look. look again
Installation View, Look. Look Again Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, 2012 includes works by Miriam Stannage, Helen Grace, Narelle Jubelin, Ruth Tuck and Jenny Watson. Photo: Robert Frith

Helen Grace’s documentary series of photographs use domestic space to critique capitalist labour relations, although the nineteen photographs of her female family members preparing dinner were exhibited in Look. Look Again without the Letraset panel included on their materials list, which contextualises this political dimension. An excerpt: “… the value which domestic labour acquires is moral rather than economic. This may be a great comfort to many people but you can’t eat morals.” Grace remembers that it was her decision, made in discussion with John Cruthers—the curator with Felicity Johnston and Lee Kinsella of Look. Look Again—that the panel be omitted due to its overt didacticism. But, she also notes her ambivalence about the domestic space as feminist space: “My interest has been in a non‑romantic, anti‑essentialist, anti‑sentimental depiction of it, but what appears anti‑sentimental at one moment can look romantic at another moment. This is the nature of the image, whose meaning changes according to context—and time itself is part of the context.”[15]

This statement might be usefully applied to the CCWA itself, where context—the family home vs the art museum, for example—significantly alters both the readings of works and the hierarchy of criteria by which they are interpreted. For Watson, Grace and Stannage, and for other contemporary artists held in the collection working with the domestic environment as a subject, even tangentially, this focus in specific exhibitions and under the parameters set for the collection risks flattening the particularities of individual creative enquiry. Nuanced criticality can become overwritten by the accumulation of like images, and institutional re‑enforcement risks sentimentalising and naturalising the domestic sphere as a realm of essentially feminine enquiry.

For curators working with gender‑specific collections, such thematic guidelines might therefore create a number of interesting paradoxes. A collection might aim to assemble bold statements of women’s subjectivity and agency—stories of their individual lives—but in practice does so under conditions that potentially homogenise those individual statements into a category of institutionalised difference: women’s art.

Difference might be celebrated and valued—in the case of the CCWA, for example, supporting an alternative view of art history or the heterogeneity of the women it represents, from Irrunytju artist June Walkutjukurr Richards to Edwardian watercolourist Emma Minnie Boyd to the multi‑disciplinary practice of recent NAVA fellow Michelle Nikou. But thematically, the kinds of stories that might be told about these various women’s lives are limited. The negotiation of those limitations is played out in curatorial practices, in public exhibition and framing of the collection and ongoing acquisitions, mediated in the case of the CCWA by two small but significant words in an Acquisition Policy: “where relevant.”

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Michelle Nikou, Untitled, 2005, five cast bronzes, Cruthers Collection of Women's Art, University on Western Australia 

The under‑representation of women within public art collections and exhibitions is a problem for which there is no single solution. Perhaps, as feminists continue to critique and fight for gender equality within public art institutions, improvement in the numbers—notably tracked within the Australian context by Elvis Richardson through CoUNTess[16]—may see the existence of a segregated women’s collection become a redundant luxury. But as long as inequality persists, specialist collections of women’s art built by passionate advocates will remain an important, and viable alternative. What they provide is two‑fold: a response to a history of blinkered institutional vision, and an opportunity to critically examine how useful the categorisation of “women’s art” is for us as feminists, as women, as artists, and as an audience or as a society.

Both in the institution and beyond it, the direction and urgency—and perhaps too the breadth—of our vision will shift with academic and social conventions and with the economic or practical pressures that write the terms and conditions of our lives. In the meantime, to speak from within the institution from a position of marginality, even with a voice of dissent, involves invoking its authority to categorise and to canonise. In her essay No Man’s Land, Peers paraphrases Joan Kerr’s indictment on Australia’s “intellectual culture” to “self congratulate on its revolutionary outlook, despite promulgating a reality that was different.”[17] Such is the curatorial challenge for women’s art within the museum: how to build a new world using the stuff of the old without reproducing its cocoon.


  1. ^ Andrew Taylor, “Tate Modern director Frances Morris on why the art world is still a boys’ club,” Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 2016: 
  2. ^ Julia Halperin’s May 2016 interview with Helen Molesworth for The Art Newspaper is no longer accessible, but an excerpt remains published on e-flux conversations: 
  3. ^ Quoted in Joanna Moorehead, “A gallery of one’s own,” The Guardian, 28 July 2008: 
  4. ^ Introduction, two women collectors, Slow Burn: A Century of Women’s Art From a Private Collection, published on occasion of the exhibition of the same name, National Trust S. H. Ervin Gallery, 2010__ 
  5. ^ Linda Nochlin, “Why have there been no great women artists?,” ARTnews, January 1971
  6. ^ Juliette Peers, 2012, “No Man’s Land: Or, The King is Dead, Long Live the Queens,” Into the Light: The Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art, Perth, UWA Publishing Custom, p. 17 
  7. ^ John Cruthers, 1995, “Undone By Art”, In the Company of Women: 100 years of Women’s Art from the Cruthers Collection, Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, 1995, p. 28
  8. ^ The Cruthers Collection: Collection overview and objectives, February 2002, internal document, 2002  
  9. ^ John Cruthers, “Sheila’s Sheilas: A Private Collection Goes Public,” Into the Light: The Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art, University of Western Australia Press: Custom, 2012, p. 9
  10. ^ Deed of Gift between Sir James Winter Cruthers and the University of Western Australia, 2007
  11. ^ University Policy on: Art Acquisition Policy for the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art at the University of Western Australia, Policy UP 14/16. Date approved: 01 July 2014: 
  12. ^ Patrick Hutchings, “Miriam Stannage: Kodakist,” Westerly Magazine, Westerly Centre (formally Centre for Studies in Australian Literature), The University of Western Australia, no. 3, September 1975, p. 49
  13. ^ Lee Kinsella, “You are here,” Miriam Stannage: Time Framed, edited by Lee Kinsella, University of Western Australia Publishing, 2016, p. 36
  14. ^ See Jenny Watson in Anne Gray (ed), Australian Art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002
  15. ^ The author in email conversation with Helen Grace, 22 November 2016
  16. ^ See Elvis Richardson’s blog at and CoUNTess Report, an online resource at 
  17. ^ Peers, Ibid

Gemma Weston is Curator, Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, University of Western Australia. 

A version of this essay was presented at the 2016 AAANZ Conference held at the Australian National University, Canberra, as part of the session Domesticating Institutional Critique, chaired by Jacqueline Milner and Catriona Moore, from the Contemporary Art and Feminism project based at the University of Sydney. 

Card image: Kathleen O'Connor, Self Portrait, c.1928, Cruthers Collection of Women's Art, University of Western Australia