Information is what gives value to artists and their work. Interview with curator and art historian Camille Morineau by the Danish artist Augusta Atla


Female artists and writers have been forgotten, they have not been heard, their works have not been shown, or they have simply been erased from history.
Camille Morineau (Founder of AWARE)

Today, the question is whether, despite first-wave feminism and women’s right to vote, Europe is ready to accommodate works by women. Is our Western visual culture geared to allow women’s active creativity, their creative aspirations and participation in power, thereby also allowing women, as visual artists, to help create images for our collective heritage and memory?

The Danish artist Augusta Atla has initiated a regular series of conversations with key people in the contemporary art scene – people who are working to create a real change when it comes to gender equality in the fine arts.In this issue of Magasinet Kunst she interviews Camille Morineau on the subject of gender equality in the world of art.

Camille Morineau is a curator and art historian who specialises in work by women artists. Camille Morineau initiated and curated the pioneering exhibition Elles@centrepompidou at the Pompidou Centre, Paris (FR) in 2009-2011. She is also the co-founder and director of AWARE, a non-profit organisation, research centre and archiving platform for work by women artists.

The curatorial and organisational work of Camille Morineau is pioneering, challenging gender discrimination in the fine art industry, which accounts for the fact that between 2008 and 2019 only 2% of total sales internationally at art auctions were works by women, and that men are over-represented in museums, galleries and the media. (Data from a gender study by Julia Vennitti, published in 2019 on artnet.com.) 

“The primary ambition of AWARE is to rewrite the history of art on an equal footing. Placing women on the same level as their male counterparts and making their works known are long overdue,” states Camille Morineau on AWARE’s website.

AA: As an art historian, how and when did you start being interested in the work of women artists? When did you realise how bad the state of things was for women artists?

CM: I started originally in literature, and literary history is full of important women like Marguerite Duras and Emily Brontë, and I realised that I liked the writing of women authors. 

I studied in the United States, at a place called Williams College. It is a small college that has an excellent reputation for art history. It’s affiliated with an institute called the Clark Art Institute, which has a wonderful art collection and a research centre. They have a gender studies course, which I took, and I was amazed by the quality and the questions. The teacher was wonderful, and the class connected a lot of things that I was already interested in: the history of art, women’s studies and questions on race and its representation in art. Suddenly I questioned the education and training I had received in France. My literature and history education was as good as it gets, but soon I realised that what I’d been taught was only half the story. The knowledge of women (authors and artists) was absent. That realisation really stayed with me. So, even when I went back to France, I kept reading, studying and being interested in this lost part of history – the work and authorship of women. 

AA: I saw part of your exhibition Elles@centrepompidou at the Pompidou Centre in 2010, and the exhibition catalogue Women Artists, Elles@centrepompidou I bought is still my Bible. In my view, the book and the exhibition together constitute the most elaborate collection of work by women artists that I have ever come across. When and how did the idea come to you to curate an exhibition of work exclusively by women artists?

CM: Coming back to France from the United States, I realised that the academic structure and its curation of knowledge in France was super macho. That we had never been taught about women and their work in any of the classes at the university. With this in mind, I retained an interest in the work of women artists. I didn’t really do anything about it, until I came to the Pompidou Centre in 2003 and started proposing exhibitions of work by women artists. But my proposals were turned down. However, I did acquire a lot of work by women artists for the Pompidou Centre collection. So, acquisition made it possible. Even if my colleagues made fun of me: “Oh, you’re such a feminist, always proposing work by women artists alone.”

I kept buying work by women artists, especially feminist work. There were none in the collection when I arrived. But I also bought a lot of Abstract art and curated a major  Yves Klein retrospective, and I was in a way the ‘Abstract Art’ specialist. I curated a Gerhard Richter retrospective too. 

However, though there was already a lot of work by women artists in the Pompidou Centre collection, they weren’t shown. They were in storage. One day I phoned the director (of the Pompidou Centre) and told him I had a proposal. That it was really crazy, but that I believed in it. “Instead of having a show that lasts a few months, why don’t we have works from the permanent collection on display, but only works by women artists?” I wasn’t talking about an exhibition, but a curatorial project of the permanent collection. The director responded: “Well, it’s never been done before. I’m not sure we have the right collection for it. Do we have enough women artists and enough quality in our collection to do this?” My answer was: “Yes.” “Ok,” he said. “Why don’t you prove it to me and get back to me with a draft in two weeks?” So I worked like crazy for two weeks. The permanent collection is a huge space of 8,000 m2. I started making a plan, and I chose my team. I also had a lot of PhD students working with me. We worked on it for 1½ years – not a long time for a huge pioneering project like this, Elles@centrepompidou. We showed 300 artists and around 1,000 artworks. We made three editions of the book published in connection with Elles@centrepompidou. 

AA: How was Elles@centrepompidou received?

CM: We were really frightened that nobody would be interested in the show, but we had 2.5 million people coming to see it and tons of press from all over the world. I spent two years of my life explaining why I had done it and how. Some people were pretty aggressive to me because at that time, in France, #metoo was not yet an accepted term. Some people thought I was crazy. So I had to explain and objectify what I had done. And I learned a lot by doing that. And of course that experience stayed with me. I started being given the responsibility for this part of history that underlines female authorship in the history of art. Again, it wasn’t something I’d planned. It just happened. I am completely committed to my work, but I don’t really have a strategy for my life.

AA: How was Elles@centrepompidou received by the Pompidou Centre itself?

CM: The museum process was a very good one, as a lot of the work we showed as part of Elles@centrepompidou was already part of the permanent collection. But it was in storage as opposed to shown, and there was no information about some of the women artists. There was no archive of writings or publications about them. Most of them had not been shown before. The works were just sitting there in storage. The exhibition research team had to work a bit harder, and find and create information about the artists. Information is what gives values to artists.  

AA: Working on Elles@centrepompidou must have taught you so much. Did something particular occur when collating the material?

CM: At the time, Niki de Saint Phalle was known in France for her colourful work and her Nanas. She was very famous, even while she was alive. But she wasn’t known as a serious artist in terms of the history of art. Nor was she known as a feminist. During Elles@centrepompidou I started meeting Niki de Saint Phalle’s family. I had a wonderful conversation with her granddaughter at a café (all meetings in Paris take place at cafés). I said: “I suspect that Niki de Saint Phalle was a feminist?” She replied: “Yes, you’re absolutely right. Come and see our archive.” And I spent quite a lot of years doing research, looking at the letters and TV archives of Niki de Saint Phalle. All the material ended up in a huge retrospective of Niki de Saint Phalle at the Grand Palais, which I curated in Paris in 2014. The aim was to demonstrate rightfully that she was one of the first feminist artists, and that she very much worked on issues such as race, gender and power and discrimination. She herself was extremely clear about being a feminist. Again, I wondered how history could have forgotten this aspect of Niki de Saint Phalle? The show raised these questions indirectly and showed a more thoroughly-researched version of her oeuvre.
The Niki de Saint Phalle show was a big success. 

AA: Was Elles@centrepompidou presented at other museums after Centre Pompidou? I, myself, find it almost crucial for a show like this, of this scope and excellence, to travel, as a way of letting the public know that women have created excellent art.

 CM: Yes, elles@centrepompidou was presented at Seattle Museum of Art (elles : Women artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris), curated by Cécile Debray and Marisa C. Sanchez in 2012-2013 and at Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Rio de Janeiro (elles : mulheres artistas na coleçao do Centro Pompidou) curated by Cécile Debray and Emma Lavigne in 2013.

AA: You founded AWARE: Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions to redress gender imbalance and create a collection that focused only on female artists”. AWARE has a digital archive and representation of 720 women artists. What made you start this project?

CM: When we were organising the Elles@centrepompidou show, we discovered that there were so few publications on women artists, including the women whose work we had acquired and intended to show. So, there was very little information on women artists, and that’s why I founded AWARE a few years later. AWARE was the tool I had lacked while working on Elles@centrepompidou. AWARE is not only an archive and a library, but also a systematically thematic and formal index of work by women artists. Conceptual art, performance art, abstract art and so on. It seemed to us at the time, that there were so many interesting women artists, but that they had not belonged to any movements.

After working for ten years at the Pompidou Centre, I left to create AWARE. It was a very conscious and political choice, I loved the Pompidou Centre, my colleagues etc. and my work there, but I wanted to do something with what I had discovered: this huge gap in history, this complete oblivion vis-à-vis women artists.

AA: When and how did you start AWARE?

CM: I created AWARE in 2014, the same year I started working on the Niki de Saint Phalle exhibition. Though I had decided to create AWARE, I had zero money. I am a strong-headed person, and I thought: I really want to do this. It took me two years to find enough money to create AWARE. I led a double life: on one hand, working as a curator of exhibitions; on the other, founding AWARE. I was almost about to give up, and for a while very discouraged in terms finding funding to get AWARE off the ground. But then I met the main sponsor of AWARE: the Chanel Foundation. The Chanel Foundation understood what the project was about and thought it would actually make a change in the world. They believed in it and they wanted to help. At last I could have a team and an office. And then I gradually found other sponsors too. This gave me the energy to continue.

Now AWARE is the only archive of its kind in the world, and people use it and create books out of it. It is a very useful tool and it is making a change in the world.

AA: What are the current AWARE projects?

CM: We started working on Africa this year. Which is a huge continent that nobody knows about. We also started a partnership with Musée d’Orsay on women artists in the 19th century. 

AA: What in your career has surprised you?

CM: The male artists whose work I curated retrospective exhibitions of. Gerhard Richter, Yves Klein and Roy Lichtenstein are some of the most expensive artists in the art market. When it comes to curating a retrospective, there is a big difference between the work of male artists and that of women artists. There is a vast amount of publications and books on the subject of the work of male artists. But, when it comes to women artists, there is almost no archive of publications, books or theory. I mean, Gerhard Richter, Yves Klein and Roy Lichtenstein had about 30 or 40 retrospectives to their names, when I worked on the retrospective: in other words, a vast quantity of material about their work. And information gives them value (so it feeds back to the art market).

AA: Has an art fair ever invited AWARE to collaborate?

CM: AWARE participated in the art fairs: Art Paris Art Fair 2019 and Armory Show 2020.

AA: What are your next, exciting plans for AWARE?

CM: We are launching a new podcast on women artists, based on French radio archives. Very interesting archives of women’s voices. We started with Niki de Saint Phalle and now Louise Bourgeois. We also made a short animation film for children about art history. You can find it on our website.
We constantly publish books to accompany the symposiums we organise. We also aware an annual prize – PRIX AWARE – to a female artist.

AA: What is a common response to your curatorial work on women artists?

CM: You can say that a lot of people respond in a way that implies: “We’ve already done it. It’s too late. We worked for abortion and so on. There’s nothing more to do.” But there is so much more to do. Look at history. Somehow you end up having to prove it. But now I can say that I have proved it. I have 720 biographies on the AWARE website. And I have 1,000 more in the pipeline. So the numbers are the strongest proof I could have. Just the numbers (of women artists). And the day I have more money (as each profile on AWARE costs something to set up), I will have twice or three times the number of artists on AWARE that we have now.   

AA: After Elles@centrepompidou did you see a change in France, a tendency for more museums to tackle gender equality in their own repertoire, embracing  more women artists?

CM: Yes, there was a change. But it was not only for my work. Judith Butler in the United States also helped bring about this change. And other curators. The new curator of Tate Modern, Maria Balshaw, is also a feminist. But what also changed the atmosphere and situation in France was the #metoo movement. It was a fantastic catalyst for change. The fact that women have not been heard came as strong evidence of the unfairness of history. Somehow the #metoo movement was a strong acceleration of consciousness. The consciousness of a big problem: that the women had been forgotten, not heard, that their work had not been exposed or that the history of women had even been erased. 

AA: So you would say that the climate in France has improved for women artists over the last ten years?

CM: Oh yes, absolutely. 

AA: Do museums in France apply a 50/50 gender-based quota? Sweden, for example, has introduced a 50/50 gender-based quota when buying works for their collections. Do you think this policy should be applied more widely?

CM: About ten years ago, the government in France created an organisation where they make sure that the quota is respected, not only in museums but also in theatres, the publishing industry and film – any cultural institution subsidised by the state. It’s an excellent organisation and really well managed. Every year it looks at data and kees numbers. The main goal is equality. A very efficient tool.  

AA: The figures internationally are unfortunately very negative for women. Works by women accounted for only 2% of the total sales at art auctions in the period 2008-2019. At art fairs and in galleries, women artists still represent only between 0 and 30% of the artists shown. At the largest art fair in the world, Art Basel, female representation has been less than 25% in the last four years. (Data from a gender study by Julia Vennitti, published in 2019 on artnet.com.)
Women are also still much under-represented in private and museum collections and at museum shows. When it comes to gender equality in the contemporary art scene, who has the power to make a change? And how?

CM: It is of course important for museums to present exhibitions of works by women artists, and very important to acquire their work too, so the work of women artists stays in their collections. But the galleries should also be showing more women artists. Value comes from information. There have to be more publications about, and more research into women artists. There should be more PhDs on women artists, so universities should also take on research projects about women artists and their work. The universities should include women artists and their work much more in their teaching. Classes and work on women artists should also be mandatory for students. Everybody should have this in mind. 

AA: Unfortunately, works by women are still sold at much lower prices than those of male artists. Take the big auction houses in New York and London who sell the most expensive works. Do you think that more women can get into this league? And how?

CM: Information is what gives value to artists and their work. Value is very important. The work of women has to become more expensive. 
AWARE was also founded with the idea of generating information on women artists and sharing it though the website. It had to be bilingual and it had to be illustrated. 
Indirectly, AWARE is also trying to make work by women artist more valuable. 

AA: Thank you.

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