International Women's Day, held on 8 March each year, is a valuable call to action for accelerating gender equity and safety in the visual arts and craft sector. Let’s take a look at recent projects that are critically engaging with gender equity in the sector.

Image: Countess, A focus on Gender is a focus on power, 2022.

[Image description: Graphic text on a bright red background. Black text at bottom left reads: countess report. White text in a clockwise swirl pattern with a drop shadow reads: A focus on Gender is a focus on power.]

International Women's Day 2022, held on 8 March each year, is a valuable opportunity to celebrate the vital work and contribution of women to the visual arts. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender equity and safety in the sector. This year’s IWD theme is #BreakTheBias which challenges us all to question our preconceived ideas and hidden prejudices.

We all know women who are making great work and powering the organisations that uphold the visual arts and craft sector. Of the estimated 8,600 practising professional visual artists and 3,000 craft practitioners in Australia (2016), 54% and 58% are women respectively. Three quarters of all artworks made within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art centres are produced by female artists. When compared to other artists, women artists with disability significantly outnumber men. 

While the visual arts sector has made significant developments towards recognising and emboldening women in the last decade, women remain significantly underrepresented in leadership roles, exhibitions and collections at state gallery level, and continue to earn less than men for their work. The most recent Throsby Report Making Art Work found that the gender pay gap is worse in the arts than in all other industries. NAVA’s new Code of Practice aims to provide ethical approaches for institutions and individuals to address gender disparity in fees, opportunities and representation. The first section of NAVA’s new Code of Practice will cover a range of principles, good practices and current legislation around gender equity, legal rights, social justice and workplace behaviours. 

Let’s take a look at recent projects that are critically engaging with gender equity in the visual arts.

The Countess Report

Ahead of the release of a full draft of the new Code of Practice in mid-2022, NAVA has engaged Countess to inform the drafting of an entry on gender equity as part of a new section on Equal Opportunity in the visual arts. An independent artist run initiative, The Countess Report is a benchmark piece of research for the Australian visual arts sector documenting gender representation in the contemporary visual arts.

Countess writes:

A focus on gender is a focus on power. It is also a focus on the dynamics of labour, value, education and visibility. The Countess Report works to inform and influence systemic change through data collection and analysis. Countess’ upcoming contribution to NAVA’s new Code of Practice will bring our advocacy work to the forefront.

As we prepare to start counting for our 2022 Countess Report our conversations around gender and value are front of mind in order to critically observe trends and improve the representation of women and non-binary artists across the Australian art sector. In addition to updating all statistics from the prior 2016 and 2019 Countess Report, the 2022 Report will introduce two new focus, firstly we will be working with a First Nations advisory group to collect and analyse data on the representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and gender diverse artists in the sector, and secondly we aim to assess the impact of gender equity focussed campaigns run by state art institutions over the past four years. 

We hope the 2022 Report will contribute new and expanded data driven research to gain a better understanding of diversity in the Australian visual arts sector. We are encouraged by the arts sectors responsive engagement with the dialogues around representation of women, non-binary, and culturally diverse artists, and the growing discussion about how race, class, or level of education may correlate with an individuals’ participation in the arts sector, and how this can be redressed.

Alongside the work of Countess, we draw attention to other projects including:

  • Clear Expectations: Guidelines for institutions, galleries and curators working with trans, non-binary and gender diverse artists in Australia, commissioned by The Countess Report, supported by National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) and compiled by Archie Barry and Spence Messih. 
  • National Gallery of Australia’s Gender Equity Action Plan 
  • Sheila Foundation a national philanthropic foundation with a mission to overturn decades of gender bias by writing Australian women artists back into our art history.

NGA’s Gender Equity Action Plan

The National Gallery of Australia launched its much anticipated Gender Equity Action Plan this week. It includes a 40:40:20 (40% women, 40% men, 20% diverse gender) target for future acquisitions, commissions, exhibitions, learning programs, touring, publishing, marketing, and art store stock.

NAVA commends the gallery's leadership in responding to the findings of The Countess Report 2019 which demonstrated the pressing need for national and state-owned collections and institutions to match the progress made by the independent visual arts sector to redress the gender imbalance in collecting and promoting the work of women artists.

In 2019 Countess reported that only a quarter of the NGA's Australian art collection and a third of its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art collection were created by women artists. In the 2020–2021 financial year, the Gallery announced it had reached gender equity in its national collection acquisitions.

Importantly, the plan also makes a strong commitment to improve the availability, quality, and use of data to support gender equity actions, progress and reporting. Data collection is key for tracking trends and gathering statistics to implement change across the sector.