The peak body protecting and promoting the Australian visual arts sector

Q&A with the Countess Team

We caught up with the Countess Team to discuss the impact their research has had on the contemporary Australian visual arts sector over the past 9 years.

What do you think has been the impact of the Countess Report over the last 9 years?

There is strong evidence to suggest that the data and statistics presented on the Countess blog over the past 9 years, as well as those published in the Countess Report, have had a positive impact on the contemporary Australian art world. While Countess has enjoyed riding the wave of rising feminist assertion and recognition of ongoing gender bias from wage gaps to presidential elections, Countess has been a sector watch dog or whistle blower if you will, and played an essential role in creating the catalyst for change.

Countess data has been frequently cited in various Australian and international media and has become widely regarded as an important and unique resource in highlighting issues around gender representation in the contemporary Australian art world, and our backing by NAVA evidences this. See here for a list of recent media references.

Those in a position of power at the art institutions we have counted have been open about how their exhibition programming has been influenced by our data. In 2014, Contemporary Art Organisations (CAOs) showed 50% women across the board - a vast improvement from 40% in 2008. While artists are used to the remuneration economy of reputation, it turns out reputation in the bank is also a must have for art institutions. As we continue to publish gender representation data we show that Countess is watching.


Why did you initially embark on this research and what continues to drive your interest in research in this area?

After many years of discussions with her artist peers, Elvis Richardson anonymously started the Countess blog. It only took a casual observer to take note of the fact male artists were being represented much more significantly in the Australian contemporary art sector than female artists. Female artists were basically a minority presence in all kinds of galleries from artist run to commercial and public museums but it seemed that art audiences at the time weren’t thinking about equality or diversity.

As an artist practicing 10 years ago, Elvis was unhappy with the implied reason that women’s representation was thin on the ground in institutions was because their art just wasn’t good enough. The art world is still, in many ways, as opaque as it was then with regards to curatorial selection and exhibition budgets for example. Keeping the art world on their toes is what continues our drive to count. We believe that the more we count, the more we keep institutions accountable.


What have you observed has changed around the discussion of gender equality in the contemporary arts sector since you started the research? What were the interesting new discussions which arose from your initial starting point?

Over the past decade, discussions around gender equality have broadened and diversified, and rightly so. The popular media, and indeed the art world, continues to over-represent the struggles of heterosexual, cis-gender, middle class white women and as such these conversations have informed Countess’ approach to this new phase in our development. It is important to constantly question our own position, biases and privileges and that's why it's important that Countess extend our scope and purpose.

The Countess project hopes to encourage diverse responses on a new interactive platform that does not privilege one voice. Of course, heterosexual, cis-gender, middle-class, white men are still the most represented group in the art world and this is something that remains a focus for Countess. This exploratory next phase is not intended so much to provide any answers but to ask more questions than we previously had.


How has the broader contemporary discussion on gender equality affected the Countess research?

Since 2008 the language that describes gender has shifted and been re-examined and re-defined, culturally and philosophically. Moving forward we will be informed by LGBTQI+ communities and keep the categories of data collection relevant to current conversations.


Tell us about the next phase of the Countess Report?

Now that the initial findings of the Countess report have been released, we want to begin addressing the gaps, fissures, shortcomings and complexities inherent within these statistics and delve deeper. In order to do this we are expanding the web platform in a number of ways. Stats will remain the main focus however we are designing a platform that will allow, and hopefully encourage, institutions to submit their own data. We will also feature analytical, creative and conceptual editorial content on the website that is responsive, playful, educational and confrontational.

One key goal of these changes is to ensure that intersectionality is better accounted for in our statistics. Countess wants to expand its scope to evolve and grow our approach to be inclusive - to recognise the many different variables that intersect with gender and also affect those overall statistics.

Related to this goal, is our expansion to include off-site exhibitions and happenings so as to recognise that a condition of oppression is often institutional omission, marginalisation and/or discrimination. Essentially, we want to start to more deeply investigate how gender bias impacts on our cultural landscape and we think this calls for more than numbers - we think this calls for a conversation.


Can you talk about your plans to introduce educational resources based on the Countess report into the school curriculum?

The Countess Report has found its way into tertiary educational institutions, and is often used as a resource by lecturers and educators at art schools. We've received feedback that tertiary students are, in turn, using our data in their own research or as a subject for academic projects.

To extend the project's educational reach, we are going to develop educational resources specifically designed for students and teachers that can be inserted into the school curriculum for use in the classroom. These resources will present data and stats from the report and ask students and teachers to consider the causes and impacts of unequal gender representation in the arts sector from a range of perspectives. Included in these resources will be a series of case studies on a range of female identifying Australian artists.

Shortly, we’ll be launching a fundraising campaign to digitally archive the blog, redesign the Countess website, create education resources to insert into school curriculums and establish an editorial board to lead a community of dialogue, critique and inclusion around Countess data and statistics.


If you would like to donate or be included on the Countess mailing list, please email countesses[at]gmail.com

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