In the Hands of Ana Šeba by: Vlad Brăteanu

Inequality in the arts is so much more than a lack of women

Richer, broader and deeper and more nuanced

Inequality in the arts and culture sector is a fact of life, one study after another shows. But to get a complete picture of the size of the problem, much more than just the underrepresentation of women needs to be scrutinized.

The limitations of existing research on inequality in the arts and culture sector.

As I wander through the Mauritshuis, a painting depicting a domestic scene from the seventeenth century - Kitchen Interior, 1644 - catches my eye because of the beautiful food on it. It shows a somewhat dark but large kitchen. A woman sits on a chair peeling an apple. Beside her stands a child with a bowl to catch the peels. In a museum full of showy still lifes, gold leaf and Baroque scenes, the work excels in ordinariness. 

On the sign next to the work I read: 

David Teniers II 1610-1690

Teniers' wife Anna Brueghel and their infant son David were models for this painting. Brueghel was an artist herself, but no painting by her has survived. Her wealth and family connections (she was the daughter of Jan Brueghel the Elder) helped Teniers get his breakthrough. 

David Teniers II 1610-1690, Kitchen Interior
David Teniers II 1610-1690, Kitchen Interior

Anna Brueghel was the daughter and granddaughter of one of the greatest painters of the Low Countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and yet her own paintings were not considered important enough to preserve. But her husband did take advantage of her position. Thus, centuries later, her image in his painting became part of a renowned collection. 

Nude in the museum

Teniers' painting reminded me of a famous poster by the New York activist art collective Guerilla Girls. The text on the poster, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.' 

The Guerilla Girls began campaigning in 1985 against unequal treatment of women and other marginalized groups in the arts, politics, film and pop culture. They found out the percentages on their poster in 1989, by simply peering at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A 2011 update doesn't show too much change: by then, less than 4% of the artists in the Met's modern art collection were women, and 76% of all nudes were women. 

Things are not much better in the Netherlands: between 2013 and 2018, only 13% of the works of art on display in eight major Dutch museums were made by a woman, according to a study commissioned by the feminist fund Mama Cash. 

Inequality in the arts is not an opinion, but a fact

In order to show that inequality in the arts and culture sector is not an opinion but a hard fact, several studies have been conducted in recent years by a variety of organizations and individuals in the Netherlands as well. Important work, because making inequality visible and named is a powerful step in combating it. 

Some studies distinguish between different forms of representation. For example, do you investigate who made the painting, or who is depicted on it? The posters of the Guerilla Girls show that, on the contrary, it can be interesting to juxtapose the two. Moreover, in the arts and culture sector there is a third role: the curators, directors, producers and publishers who have power in distributing attention, time and money. 

Below, I review some of the research on gender inequality and representation within various arts disciplines: from visual arts and performing arts to pop music and literature. Not to deny that each art form has its own circumstances and challenges, but rather to show that these are actually interrelated and together reveal a pattern.  

Women are underrepresented in every discipline

In 2018, the international feminist fund Mama Cash commissioned an overview study of the position of female creators in Dutch music, visual arts, literature and performing arts, supplemented by its own collected data. This shows that women are underrepresented in all the disciplines studied. Some of the data: only a fraction of headliners at major music festivals were women; less than a quarter of the works in the literary canon were written by women; of the nine theater companies in the basic cultural infrastructure, only one company had a female artistic director. 

Another study was done by Vrouwen in Beeld, an organization dedicated to the labor market position of women across the breadth of the Dutch audiovisual industry. Based on data collected between 2011 and 2020, it shows: women are underrepresented in all aspects of the Dutch film industry. 'For most positions studied, the more expensive and longer a production, the fewer women are involved and the more men,' the report says. It is striking that women are also a minority in the main and supporting roles. So not only behind the scenes, but also on screen, the representation of women leaves much to be desired....

Buma/Stemra, the organization representing the interests of composers, song lyricists, producers and music publishers in the Netherlands, published a report in 2018 on gender equality among music makers in the Netherlands. It shows a discrepancy that can also be seen in other arts disciplines: among alumni of professional schools and conservatories, women are in the majority, while among members of professional organizations for performing musicians and songwriters, they are a strong minority. Only 13% of the members of Buma/Stemra are women. 

You can also see this in the research journalist Rufus Kain did in 2017 for De Correspondent, in which he looked at how many female artists were being played on Dutch radio, and were on Dutch festival stages. His conclusion: the proportions were even more skewed than he suspected beforehand. 

Why screening women is not enough

This brief survey of studies immediately reveals a form of structural gender inequality that permeates all levels of the arts and culture sector. From such hard numbers comes a strong message: this is not an opinion, but a fact; something has to change. 

But exploring and naming this inequality, in this way, also has drawbacks and limitations. The researchers commissioned by Mama Cash put it this way: 'Another striking point is the lack of an intersectional approach in current researches, which are mostly focused on male and female artists. This means that it not only overlooks many other important identity markers, but also that it upholds the binary categories of male and female.

Something similar is also named in a 2021 study by the organization Women Inc: 'Opportunity inequality becomes greater when gender goes hand in hand with other identity dimensions. Think culture, religion, skin color, age and disability.' 

Those who look only at the representation of "men" and "women" within the cultural sector thus confirm a binary contradiction that can be subject to many critical comments. The two categories are social and societal constructs that are increasingly under discussion. In addition, they are limited identity attributes that do not do justice to the lifeworld of the people in question. For it is richer, broader and deeper and more nuanced than that. 

Structural inequality is therefore not solved if "man" and "woman" both account for 50% of the roles within a field. Indeed, structural inequality is related to many more aspects of identity, background and social position. 

Time to break the status quo

The Exhibition Class Issues, at the Berlinische Galerie explores how an artist's background affects their opportunities and career.

The artworks on display deal with economic and social inequality, and the signs next to them provide insight into the circumstances under which those works were created. Consider funds and subsidies obtained, the artist's side jobs or their parents' occupation. 

Speaking to The New York Times, Anna Schapiro, one of the exhibition's five curators, says she hopes the exhibition shows visitors that inequality is structurally embedded in the economic model of the visual arts, from funds and galleries to auction houses and museums: 'If you're aware of it, it's everywhere.' 

What Schapiro describes plays broadly across the arts and culture sector. In a 2019 interview , Guerilla Girl Alice Neel said of this, "The power in the art world has mostly been white males. They in turn are attracted to work that they can relate to because of their culture and experiences. It's not wrong, it's just limited. The people who buy the art are the same demographic, and the people who write about art can only write about the art that is seen and sold.' 

In other words, inequality is part of a status quo. And those who currently hold positions of power within the cultural sector benefit from maintaining them. If nothing changes, well-intentioned diversity policy will lead to perverse incentives. Diversity and inclusion are then mainly used cosmetically to put check marks behind criteria in a subsidy application while concealing the fact that little structural change is taking place. To break through this, diverse representation is needed in all layers of the sector - perhaps most of all in positions of power. 

A chance for real change

THAT change is needed in the areas of inequality, discrimination and representation is almost unquestioned within the cultural sector. The studies mentioned earlier in this piece are several years old (with the exception of the Women Inc. study, from 2021). Just in the years since then, a number of events and movements - including Black Lives Matter and #MeToo - have brought growing awareness around racism, sexism and other forms of exclusion worldwide, including in the cultural sector. But how to bring about that change structurally? 

According to the Boekman Foundation, it is important to clearly identify the state of diversity and inclusion. Research into this is difficult, this foundation indicates. The Netherlands still lacks sector-wide, serial, national or regional figures. While precisely these figures are needed to identify long-term trends around diversity and inclusion, and to make concrete policy on these themes.

In fact, a new four-year cultural planning period will begin in 2025; the time period for which cultural institutions and organizations apply for financial support from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (the various state funds keep the same periods, as do many municipal grantmakers). Such a period is potentially an opportunity to make change and translate conversations into policies and testable requirements for applications. 

Before the summer of 2023, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science will publish the detailed principles that institutions should take into account when writing their plans. The question is: Will the new principles name concrete criteria to counteract perverse incentives? And to what extent will policymakers hold applicant cultural institutions accountable to turn their good intentions into results?  

There seems to be goodwill in this regard, but for now it remains only intentions. The advice of the Council for Culture to extend the current period, to provide rest and space for recovery after corona as well as to review the system, was not followed. State Secretary Gunay Uslu (Culture and Media) announced in October 2022 that there will be no changes in the set-up of the cultural basic infrastructure for the new application round. In the parliamentary letter on this decision, however, she does name a number of improvements for the upcoming round, and points for a "renewal agenda" for the longer term. When it comes to countering inequality of opportunity in the cultural sector, this does not become more concrete than an expected commitment to diversity and inclusion at the institutions. 

Canary in the coal mine

Expressing what is not (yet) expressed in other forms of discourse and debate: that is what art and culture are indispensable for. Thus, by keeping large groups in society structurally at a disadvantage, the sector seriously impoverishes itself; from the point of view of both the makers and the public. All the while, the power of expression and reflection spills over into other sectors of society: the arts as the canary in the coal mine - signaling, setting the agenda and thinking outside the box. 

Research, both quantitative and qualitative, can be a powerful tool to substantiate change in a productive way. But unequal appreciation and unequal opportunities in art and culture go far beyond a difference between the constructed categories of "male" and "female. Therefore, I express a wish: for new research on opportunities, barriers and power, with an intersectional perspective.

Journalist Fay van der Wall, was commissioned by in November 2022 to consider several existing studies on the gender, cultural and socioeconomic divide in the arts and culture sector, juxtapose them, find the blind spots and write an essay about them, with the aim of starting a conversation about them.

Fay van der Wall (Rotterdam, 1983, she/he) writes about art, (pop) culture and media. Besides writing, she is a daughter, sister, friend, teacher at the Willem de Kooning Academy, runner and hobby photographer. From home she inherited feminism, to which she learns to give new meaning in the course of her life.   

Editing: Boutaïna Azzabi - Ezzaouia & Rajae El Mouhandiz. Final editing: Jelena Barišić