Diversity – A Premise for Innovation in Danish Art

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A contribution to the diversity debate by Augusta Atla.
9th of May 2022. Published in Danish in KUNSTEN.NU
(Portrait of the Danish Minister of Culture, Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen. Photo by Augusta Atla. 2022. The artwork in the background is by Malene Landgren)

When it comes to diversity, can Denmark achieve equal footing with exemplary artistic countries such as France and England? And take a necessary step towards innovation in art research, public art information, art education, art archiving and exhibition practice in Denmark?

Call me competitive and patriotic, but in my opinion it would be great for Denmark if it were one of the best countries in Europe and the world in terms of our country’s art research, exhibition practice and museum collections. But this is impossible if, at the same time, we lag behind when it comes to diversity in Danish art. We simply lose both real knowledge from the past and new readings of art history, and overlook new artistic practices and entire areas of basic art research such as gender and body understanding in art theory and methodology. Diversity is not just a desire or a temporal trend. It is a crucial factor and premise for innovation, art theory and new professional knowledge. 

In April 2022 I met the Danish Minister of Culture, Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen, to discuss whether Denmark could become a pioneer in the field of visual art too (see the link to the interview here).

From a very early age, I learned that counting is a feminist practice. Ultimately, data is our only method for knowing about, and promoting continued diversity. This is something France and England have already acknowledged and implemented. The Arts Councill of England introduced a Diversity Report, which requests recipients of state subsidy to include an appendix about minorities in their programme. They also decided that the Arts Council will literally fund those institutions that consciously promote diversity. France resolved the issue in a slightly different way. Approximately ten years ago, the French state set up a committee to monitor the diversity of the state-subsidised art institutions: not only in museums, but also in theatres, the publishing industry and the film industry – all cultural institutions in receipt of state funding. The main objective is equality.

In Denmark, we also have a state that funds art museums and art institutions, but why do we not also include requirements for a diversity report when we allocate government funding to the visual arts?

The problem is that culture = economics, and when Ministry of Culture Denmark regulates nothing in artistic life and does not collect data, as things stand now, independent curators, museum curators and museum directors  in Denmark can easily get away with an exhibition programme that features 90% male artists and national collections, 80-99% of whose works are by male artists.

Data from the website of HEART – Herning Museum of Contemporary Art reveals that of the 29 solo exhibitions that took place between 2009 and 2020, 3 of the artists were female and 26 male. 

Figures from Ordrupgaard’s website show that since 2002 they have had 37 special exhibitions – 6 featuring work by female and 28 by male artists – and 3 exhibitions devoted to a male artist (Johannes Larsen, L.A. Ring and Carl Larsson) and his home, while the female artists in their lives – Alhed Larsen, Sigrid Kähler and Karin Larsson – were mainly featured as their wives. Even figures from the Danish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, curated by the Danish Arts Foundation, reveal that, over the past 128 years, the percentage of female artists taking part has been 13.5% – male artists 85.4%. How long can an institution supported or even established by the state continue in this way?

Of course, we all know that, ever since ancient Greece, there has been male chauvinism – a fact even uncontested in art history. Fortunately, however, people abroad are realising that art history has not been correctly archived and written down. There have been thousands of female artists – even women who had a career in their time – but who were subsequently written out of history. How can we readjust our national art collections, education, research, publishing and art libraries to reflect history as it was? In Denmark too. 

There have been several initiatives abroad. An organisation in Florence – AWA – Advancing Women Artists – finds, archives and restores the works of women artists in Italy. Save Venice, an organisation in Venice, is currently restoring works by female artists in Venice, works from the 16th to 18th century.

Since 1983, England has had a publicly accessible Women’s Art Library (at Goldsmiths, University of London). Denmark does not yet have such a section at the Danish National Art Library or the Danish Royal Library. Put bluntly, that means that England is 40 years ahead of Denmark, when it comes to collating knowledge about women artists in art history and gender research in the field of art theory. 

Partly funded by the French state, a French curator (a former curator at the Pompidou Centre in Paris) created AWARE, an international online database, and a physical library of women artists in history. The Musée de Luxembourg is currently presenting an exhibition titled Pionnières (Pioneers), featuring work by women artists from the first half of the 20th century: women artists whose work was innovative, but who were subject to discrimination in their lifetime.

Spain is including more women artists in their permanent collections in important national museums: for example, the Prado Museum. The Netherlands is also including more female artists in their permanent collections at important national museums: for example, in the Gallery of Honour at the Rijksmuseum.

Brand new figures from the University of Copenhagen, published in April 2022, illustrate gender distribution in Denmark’s art collections. This new data reveals that in the collections of Louisiana and ARoS, the majority of artists represented are male (87.6% and 87.8%). Meanwhile, in the ‘Art Before 1900’ category, it turns out that 2.4% of works in the Nivaagaard Collection are by women, 89.9% by men, and 7.8% by unknown artists. In the same category, 8% of works in the collection of the National Gallery of Denmark are by women, 71% by men and 21% by unknown artists. 

But there must be no more excuses. Female artists have existed since the 15th century in Europe, and since the 17th century in the Nordic region. Who is monitoring the diversity of the collections in Denmark’s art museums?

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