How many complaints do we need to change an institution?

Gender-based discrimination and violence are considered to be widespread issues in the arts. What can be done? Martina Denegri shares urgent steps to overcome the unsafety in three different sections: the origins of womxn artists’ historical invisibility,  sexual harassment in art education, and the lack of womxn’s representation in the arts.


Ending sexism in Dutch art institutions requires action. Now.

International Womxn Day, 8th March 2022, marked the launch of Engagement Arts NL, an organisation operating in the Dutch art sector to fight gender-based violence. On that occasion, the Complaint Collective, a panel discussion on discrimination and sexual violence in art education in the Netherlands, France and Switzerland took place. The event was hosted by the queer intersectional feminist platform Futuress and borrowed its name from a collection of articles published throughout 2020 in which reflections on gender-based discrimination and abuse are examined. The term complaint refers to the reporting of sexual violence, a process that at the current stage requires the action of collectives and activists due to the blindness of institutions towards the issue. It does not come as a surprise that the Instagram account @calloutdutchartinstitutions, launched in 2020, was deemed as a necessary tool to monitor and respond to abuse in the art sector by victims who did not find the needed support in schools, law enforcement, museums or galleries. The account emerged in the aftermath of a case of rape and other forms of abuse that shook the Dutch art sector to the core. The story appeared on NRC and it not only described instances of sexual violence committed by an established artist but also uncovered a negligent system that allows perpetrators to flourish in the art world.

This is not a new problem, nor an unknown one. Worldwide, the #MeToo movement brought to the public attention an inherently sexist system that cripples every industry and institution. In the Netherlands, almost half (47%) of the womxn aged between 18 and 23 years old have been victims of sexual violence, CBS reports. A recent report published by Raad voor Cultuur addresses the issue, however incompletely, and brings forward the need for data on gender inequality. And there is no lack of calls to tackle gender-based discrimination in the art sector by grass-root organisations.

Yet, institutions keep turning a blind eye to the issue. Gender-based discrimination is considered to be a widespread issue, but when it comes to actively countering it, there are few institutions ready to admit that it happens within their walls. Institutions shift the focus on their own personal conduct failing to acknowledge their position in an inherently sexist system and to take ownership. Concealed behind a lack of data, unsafe situations are systematically reproduced by structural negligence.

Why? Three main issues are analysed in the following sections: the origins of womxn artists’ historical invisibility,  sexual harassment in art education, and the lack of womxn’s representation in the arts. Once again, these issues are neither new nor unknown. But the call to end gender inequalities and violence is growing louder, as are the demands presented in each section.


A brief history of sexism in the arts

Flipping through the pages of an art history book, there is no trace of any womxn artist until rather recently. Were there no womxn in the arts in the past? Or were they merely invisible? The second option seems closer to the truth. As much as the definition of art has been repeatedly challenged and widened over time, the definition of the artist has not followed suit. Historically womxn have struggled to fit in the narrative of the ‘lone genius as there is less archival material on their biographies, or it is buried in the archives of their husbands or fathers. This narrative, perpetuated in biographies, research and art education, brings the life and personality of the artist to the foreground, confining womxn and collectives to the outskirts of history. Romanticising the life and role of artists has also served to justify transgressive behaviours of male artists as it implies a correlation between good art, hedonism, and breaking rules.

This created an imbalanced power relation between the artist/active/man and the muse/passive/womxn. The way that women have been portrayed through the centuries by (male) artists has mirrored and reinforced gender stereotypes. Womxn are hyper-visible when naked and motionless on a canvas (or in a sculpture, movie, and so on). The make gaze –or male graze as Guerrilla Girls define it- contributed to stripping womxn of their agency, objectifying them and sexualising their bodies. It is the loss of agency that deprived womxn of their ability to be recognised as artists. To be individuals rather than mothers, daughters and wives. To be seen and heard.

On the 6thh of May 2022, FOTODOK organised the conference Invisibilities, Gender and Photography in the Netherlands. During one of the panels, keynote speaker and Tate Modern curator Emma Lewis painted an overview of the issues to be tackled to liberate art history from patriarchal narratives. Lewis pointed to the invisible identities of womxn artists, whose existence in the private sphere struggles to find the light of day as well as to the large number of artworks wrongly attributed to their husbands or male relatives. She suggested that entire histories have been made invisible. The histories of art are written from perspectives other than the dominant point of view, which include womxn artists or more local realities. As globalist approaches to art history tend to focus on ‘global firsts’ and fame rather than zooming in on local contexts and achievements.

But the road to a fairer representation of womxn artists is steep. What happens to the content of an artwork when works are selected based on the identity of the artist? Who makes the selection in the first place? And how do we liberate individuals from certain groups from the burden of representing an entire community?

(Feminist) curatorial practices need to focus on the creation of spaces for visibility, self-representation, contextualisation, and the rejection of categories dictated by the dominating art canon. Spaces where the voices of womxn artists can be heard and their works are seen. Spaces where they can reclaim the right to self-representation. To tackle gender stereotypes, existing power structures, and institutional invisibility, womxn in leadership positions or covering those roles historically occupied by men need to be visible. Challenging existing notions of quality art and the artist are needed to make the sector more inclusive. Curatorial practices, art critique, and education need to re-evaluate their methods to grant womxn and minorities equal possibilities to be seen and heard.

Research on gender stereotypes and womxn representation in the arts and media as well as how they affect the cultural sector needs to be funded. Patriarchal norms are deeply embedded in the culture and institutions. Research can pave the way to changing those power structures that are detrimental to gender equality.


Art education and the ‘no complaint, no problem’ system

The Studium Generale of the Dutch art academy ArtEZ joined the conversation on sexual violence in art education with The Roadmap to Equality in the Arts. During this conference, art teacher and philosopher Petra Van Brabandt uncovered the problematic system of ‘no complaint, no problem’. Change is only reactive. Collective complaints are the current propellers of change (when they are not swept under the rug).  Van Brabant lamented the fact that individual voices are easy to dismiss. This situation poses additional challenges for womxn belonging to minority groups. Most educational institutions still rely on a predominantly white homogeneous staff and student body, making it impossible for individuals from minority groups to speak up collectively.  This system is not a peculiarity of art education. It seems embedded in every institution of the art sector. Nevertheless, further research is needed to assess its impact on other areas of the industry.

Van Brabant also brings another issue to the forefront: what happens when a complaint does go through? No written policy for dealing with reports of sexist or racist behaviours seems to exist. More often than not, the perpetrators are simply moved to another department or warned without any further implication.

International accounts on the issue show that manifestations of gender-based violence are not only tolerated by educational institutions but are often swept under the rug. Les Mots de Trop, a French student-led collective, unveiled how institutions still fail to support any endeavour to raise awareness on the issue by either downplaying its impact or hiding behind the need to maintain a spotless reputation in the eyes of prospective students. On the other hand, there are forms of symbolic support for such initiatives as the Racial Justice Student Collective (RJSC), which are showcased as a token of social engagement while being substantially treated with indifference.

What can be done?

The rules of educational institutions should be there to protect people, not the reputation of the institution. Those who have experienced and reported instances of discrimination or abuse are currently treated as whistleblowers. They should be supported and not isolated. When serious allegations are made, the institutions should help victims seek legal assistance and be willing to report their findings to the authorities.

Accessible systems to anonymously report discrimination and abuse need to be put in place. Victims often feel unsafe or ashamed when seeking support. An institutional response that forces them to disclose their name or other sensitive information does not achieve anything but discouraging reporting.

Limiting precarity for educators in the arts is key.  The high levels of part-time employment and freelancing which are supposed to grant more freedom end up making reporting on sexual harassment harder. There is a lack of accountability in such a precarious scenario compared to a regular employer-employee relationship.

Art educators need to receive training related to inclusion and safe workplace guidelines. Art teachers are mostly educated as artists, designers or critics, rather than teachers. This makes them poorly equipped to deal with a diverse student body and maintain an appropriate behaviour in a peculiar educational environment characterised by personal relationships between students and teachers, long hours and blurred lines between personal and professional life.

The Fair Care Guideline should be included in the Fair Practice Code. De Zaak Nu, an interest group for Dutch presentation and post-academic institutions in the arts, developed the Fair Care Guideline to address any form of discrimination within organisations. If Fair Care was part of the Fair Practice Code, art education institutions should comply with its guidelines.


Unequal access to resources and the labour market

Womxn still struggle to break the glass ceiling -and walls- of the art sector. A recent report compiled for Mama Cashon on eight Dutch museums – among which are the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), the Centraal Museum (Utrecht) and the Groninger Museum (Groningen) – shows that only 13% of the total number of artists in their permanent collections are womxn and less than 30% of temporary solo exhibitions feature womxn artists. A report compiled by the European Expert Network on Culture and Audiovisual (EENCA) shows that work segregation relegates womxn to occupying positions concerned with the coordination and facilitation of cultural production, rather than those normally considered more prestigious and creative. Also, womxn artists’ work still has lower commercial value compared to their male colleagues. A more precarious position for womxn in the arts is also due to their higher levels of part-time employment. The gender pay gap is also still relatively high in the art sector (26%) compared to the national average (13%) in the Netherlands.

Leadership training and mentorship for womxn cultural producers is the first step towards achieving higher representation in managerial and leadership positions in the art sector.

Funding schemes for womxn entrepreneurs, leaders, artists and so on equalises access to resources.

The adoption of an ‘equal pay for equal workers’ can close the gender pay gap and lead more womxn to work in positions normally occupied by men. The controversy of this concept stems from the fear of alienating more ambitious, hard-working employees. But this view fails to consider that employees’ motivation does not only come from extrinsic sources (money) but also intrinsic ones (learning, symbolic rewards, work-life balance and so on). Equal pay also removes toxic competition. As Judith Boessen points out in her article, starting with art education, excellence is narrowly understood as ‘being the best’, turning other students or workers into adversaries who have to be defeated. Still, easier said than done. The implementation of ‘equal pay for equal workers’ brings about practical and legal questions, from contractual obligations to monitoring.

Universal childcare policies and paid parental leaves for all workers grant an equal distribution of care responsibilities. Care activities – whether for children, the elderly or people with disabilities – often fall on womxn’s shoulders. Similarly, household labour is carried out by womxn in most cases (81%), according to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). These factors impact the ability of womxn to succeed in the cultural sector. According to a study conducted by EENCA, the world of visual arts still implies flexibility (if not precarity), informal working, self-promotion and networking. Such activities are normally carried out outside of work hours and require financial and time resources that womxn busy with care and household activities do not possess. Leave schemes are also lagging behind compared to other EU countries as only one week of paternity leave is provided and shared parental leave is unpaid.


A call for data and intersectionality

The call to tackle gender inequalities have not gone unheard by EU institutions. The Work Plan for Culture 2019-2022was adopted to implement the directives of the New European Agenda for Culture approved by the European Commission. The plan includes gender equality in its priorities to guide cultural policymaking. It also focuses on the importance of gathering data to map gender inequalities by funding studies. The data serves as the basis of cooperation among EU Member States under the Open Method of Coordination (OMC) to address issues within the cultural sector.

The Gender Equality Strategy 2020-25 proposed by the European Commission addresses gender-based violence, gender stereotypes, the pay gap, the gender care gap, and unequal access to specific areas of the labour market and politics as its main goals. The strategy is promising for its use of gender mainstreaming and intersectionality. Nevertheless, it declares to employ an intersectional approach at the implementation level. A little too late. Intersectionality calls for shifting the focus from the early stages of the policymaking process. UN Women suggests a framework for integrating intersectionality into policymaking that can be summarised in (1) analysis, (2) adaptation, and (3) assessment. This framework enables to consistently monitor issues from an intersectional standpoint and develop policy responses that are adapted to the diverse needs of the groups involved. Then, assessing results provides the basis for further action.

Zooming in on the situation in the Netherlands, the country stands out for its early implementation of gender mainstreaming into policy. The Multi-Year Policy Plan announced in 2000 already contained preconditions to gender mainstreaming and set up systems to report on its development. On the other hand, gender mainstreaming never became legally binding. A report compiled by EIGE reveals that the Netherlands is lagging in addressing gender inequalities, due to a lack of urgency at the political level.

We need action. Now.

We need data. As pointed out by Delphine Bedel during an interview for NRC, the Netherlands does not provide enough data to assess violence against womxn, making it impossible to calculate the Gender Equality Index, an EU-wide tool to measure the progress of gender equality. Similarly, lacking data at a national level fails to depict a precise picture of the position of womxn artists in the Netherlands. There is currently no systematic way to monitor and evaluate gender inequalities in museums and galleries collections, public programmes, art festivals, auctions, grants, awards, and residencies. Data is needed to monitor and assess the state of gender inequality in the arts (and beyond), lay the basis for an intersectional analysis, and develop targeted policies that curb unequal access to resources, education, and the labour market. The first step is systematically gathering and publishing sex-aggregated data for each area of the art sector.

We need quotas. Numbers are also important to boost womxn’s access to leadership and creative positions, as well as to break the glass walls of work segregation. Yes, quotas. Quotas are quite a controversial tactic as it partly assumes a selection based on certain identity markers rather than merit or quality. But what is quality? The very notion of quality inherited patriarchal connotations that keep womxn’s careers from advancing as much as their male colleagues. Quotas are about creating those spaces of visibility, where womxn can be seen, enact change, and subvert existing stereotypes. Quotas are also important to ensure balance. Because being a minority in a mostly homogeneous group also prevents being heard by being relegated to the role of diversity token. An approach more valuable to clear the conscience of the institution or organisation in question than contributing to gender equality.

We need spaces for visibility and self-representation. To tackle gender stereotypes and the existing power structures within institutions, womxn in leadership positions or covering those roles historically occupied by men need to be visible. Challenging existing notions of quality art and the artist are needed to make the sector more inclusive. Curatorial practices, art critique, and education need to re-evaluate their methods to grant womxn and minorities equal possibilities to be seen and heard.

We need an intersectional approach. Intersectionality needs to permeate national culture policy as well. Thanks to this approach, policymakers can integrate gendered considerations from the early stages of the process and understand the complex interplay between other identity markers (such as ethnicity, education, and class). Also, it calls for a shift towards increased participation of civil society and interest groups. Understanding how inequalities differently affect segments of the population requires facilitating conversation and carving out spaces for individuals and groups to speak up and be heard.

We need action. Now.

About Martina Denegri