Art History and National Art Collections in Crisis
– Contribution to debate in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten by Augusta Atla, published 29 september 2022
Outdated bourgeois notions of class and gender mean that the art museum industry here in Denmark is obsolete. Diversity in contemporary art and the writing of history is a vital part of democracy. Diversity is essential if we are not to overlook or obliterate quality.
Gender discrimination has always existed in the art industry. For the first time, however, Danish Minister for Culture Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen has listened to art experts’ calls that there could be a structural problem in Denmark: our art collections and museum practice does not reflect the quality that exists in Danish history and our current times.
At the end of this year, for the first time in the history of Denmark, the Danish Ministry of Culture has collected data on the acquisitions by state-subsidised and state-recognised art institutions to identify the gender ratio of the artists. This is important, not only for the sake of the arts, but also for public awareness, democracy and identity. The museums’ recording of history and contemporary art is vital to our health as a democratic society with its focus on our inner, mental and spiritual consciousness as free beings. This freedom is the most important cornerstone of our time’s democracy. It’s what we show off to the rest of the world, earn money from and quite simply, one of our strongest exports. Perhaps you could even say that contemporary art promotes democracy for other societies.
A study from the University of Copenhagen shows that a breakdown of the works in Louisiana Museum of Modern Art’s collection consists of 12.4 percent of works by female artists, while ARoS Art Museum has 12.2 percent of works by female artists. At the National Gallery of Denmark, 8 percent of its works are by women. In the category ‘Art before 1900’ in the Nivaagaard Collection, 2.4 percent of the works are by women, and over the last 10 years, the percentage of works purchased by the Nivaagaard Collection produced by female artists is precisely zero.
There are no longer any excuses, not even for the category ‘Art before 1900’. Naturally, there have been fewer female than male artists, but female artists have existed right back to the 15th century in Europe, back to prehistoric times and the Greek antiquities, in fact – and in Scandinavia, right back to the 1600s.
Art history and its methods are in crisis, and museum practice has not kept up with the times, and instead remains saturated with outdated bourgeois notions on class. A society divided by gender to favour men creates a structural problem, and does it really make sense in a fiercely democratic country such as Denmark to support museums that continue this practice?
Of course, you can always open a private collection without state funding and create a niche museum with works solely by male artists; we live in a free country. This is what Heart – Herning Museum of Contemporary Art already is, more or less; data shows that of the 29 solo exhibitions that took place here during the years 2009-2020, just three were by female artists, as opposed to 26 male artists. State support, however, must come with a responsibility to Danish history and represent all the quality there is and has been in the country. It must also research and scrutinise its own methods and keep up with the times.
Around 10 years ago, museums in Britain, France and the Netherlands began to take a more critical approach to history. This has still not happened here, and the larger national Danish collections must make radical changes if they are to keep up with the times and remedy the failings in our art collections by acquiring the works they lack by female artists, as well as making new proposals for a radical rehanging of its permanent collections.
This is exactly what the Centre Pompidou did back in 2009 when for two years, it reworked its permanent collection – under the title elles@centrepompidou – to consist solely of works by female artists, many of which had been gathering dust in the Centre Pompidou’s basements and had never been exhibited before. Another example is the Tate in the UK, which in 2019 curated an exhibition across the permanent exhibitions that painted a comprehensive, historical picture of the UK’s own female artists, ‘60 years’. Spain is working towards including more female artists in its permanent collections, such as at the Prado Museum. In the Netherlands, more female artists will soon be included in the permanent exhibitions at one of the country’s most important national museums, The Gallery of Honour at the Rijksmuseum.
Where are the Danish living or recently deceased women artists in the permanent collections and major exhibitions of these in Danish museums?
There are specialists in Denmark who can help with this rethinking of our national treasures and a rehanging of our permanent collections. One of these art experts is Eva Pohl, who in 2021 published ‘Breakthrough – Women in Danish Art from the 17th Century to the Present’. A new online platform created by the French curator Camille Morineau, with support from bodies including the French state, has created Aware, an international online database as well as a physical library of female artists, both current and throughout history.
In 1950, the art historian Ernst Gombrich published ‘The Story of Art’. This survey of global art history did not contain one single female artist (1), despite the fact that when he wrote it, there were actually many female artists he could easily have included – female artists, such as those we are now seeing being recognised after decades, or centuries, of historical neglect. Some have been hailed as geniuses, for example Hilma af Klint, who was the subject of a major exhibition at the Guggenheim museum in 2019.
Earlier this year, art historian Katy Hessel published the book ‘The Story of Art – Without Men’, which takes up the question of whether art history has been correctly archived, acquired and written down.
When will gender studies be accepted as fundamental research in art theory and history? How long do we have to wait before Danish museums rehang their permanent collections to reflect changing attitudes?
My own professional dream is – as a knowledge tank for a new time – and as has already been done in London and Paris, to create a special Visual Arts department at the Royal Danish Library or Danish National Art Library dedicated to ‘gender studies in art’ and ‘LBGT+ and female artists’ so we can quickly develop a new approach to art history. And to ensure that all sections of the population can be included and gain insight into the backdrop of museums’ work.
If we don’t research and include works by female artists, then we will not have examples of works that discuss and deal with experiences of being gendered seen from anything other than the male perspective. Furthermore, works by non-binary artists can also add new knowledge about gender fluidity or entirely new visions of gender. In the future, gender studies will be a bigger and bigger part of our fundamental art research, just as it is in other humanistic studies.
Art history is not an innocent or objective history of art and quality, but rather – just as so much else in history – a story of power, colonisation, class society and a powerful narrative on the patriarchy.
But what about the art market and the big difference in the price of artworks by men and women, you might ask? This is closely connected to museum practice; the museums lead, and the galleries follow suit. Therefore, diversity in museum acquisitions and sales will also help to remedy the massive gender gap that exists in art market prices.
Diversity is a critical factor for quality and a vital cornerstone for a rich and healthy democracy. We are moving towards exciting times, when the old art history books and museum collections will quickly become outdated, if they are not already.
Augusta Atla is a Danish visual artist and politically active writer, editor and interviewer on matters of equality in the art world. See more here: augustaatla.com and https://www.instagram.com/womenpainters/
Note (1) The first edition of ‘The Story of Art’ contained zero women artists, but the 16th edition included one woman artist, which is the current edition still published today.