Rachel Parker discusses the under-representation of women in the art world, and discovers how a London based project is aiding emerging female artists.
Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? In 1989, a now-iconic poster by The Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group of women in the art world, posed this very question. According to their survey of the paintings housed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, less than 5% of the artists represented were women, while 85% of the nudes in the galleries showed a female figure.

Fast forward nearly 30 years, and the picture is still disheartening. According to statistics published by the National Endowment for the Arts, while 51% of artists working today are women, only 27% of the solo exhibitions at major institutions over the past six years went to female artists.

Meanwhile, only 38 of the figures included on ArtReview’s 2017 list of the 100 Most Influential People in Contemporary Art were female. The situation is no better in the UK art scene, where work by women takes up just 4% of the National Gallery of Scotland’s gallery space, 20% of the Whitworth and 35% of the Tate Modern’s collections.

But it’s not all bleak, with a rise in the number of women being appointed to lead some of London’s biggest galleries. Director of the Tate Modern, Frances Morris, has been vocal about her desire to dedicate more gallery space to female artists, while Maria Balshaw became the first ever female director of the Tate group last year.

Meanwhile, work is being done at a grassroots level to promote female artists. One North-London project is attempting to tackle the issues faced by women in the art world head on. The Holly Bush Emerging Woman Painter Prize was established in 2017 by the Ecclestone Art Agency, who have teamed up to host the 2018 award with Hampstead pub The Holly Bush and their Chiswick based brewery, as well as Cass Art supplies.

The Holly Bush Emerging Woman Painter Prize is dedicated to championing the careers of emerging female painters, and will select 21 female painters over 18 years of age living and working in the UK or the EU to form part of an exhibition at Burgh House in Hampstead. From these artists, an award will be given to a female painter who has demonstrated exceptional potential to become an established professional artist. As well as £1000 in prize money to assist in developing an artistic career, the winning entrant will be featured at the Flux Exhibition in London. A runner-up will receive a £250 voucher from Cass Art, Hampstead.

The prize constitutes part of Ecclestone Art Agency’s wider project to support and celebrate female artists, through their Women in Art initiative. The main aims of the project are to raise awareness of the under-representation of female artists, assist women from all backgrounds emerging into the art world, and to promote the success of existing female artists.

Founder and curator Sue Ecclestone explains that she was inspired to start the project during an exhibition in 2015, when she was asked by a visitor why only one female artist was on display. Motivated to ‘‘be part of something that could change the perception that women artists are few and far between’’, the prize was conceived as a practical means of celebrating and supporting female talent.

As Sue notes, it is mainly a lack of exposure that holds women in the art world back. ‘‘Since I started this, my own contact with women artists means that I have done two exhibitions this year that have been women only, not a conscious decision, just the people I have had the most contact with… This may be why we need more women at the top of the industry.’’

Last year, the prize was awarded to Rosso, a female painter based in London whose work centres around investigating the human condition through dreams, childhood memories  and fantasies. She uses mainly oil paints and traditional artistic techniques to create works exploring both contemporary realism and classical symbolism. Since winning the Emerging Woman Painter Prize, Rosso’s career has progressed at a rapid pace, with her work exhibited at The Bloomsbury and the Mall Galleries, as well as Zebra One Gallery in Hampstead. This month, her paintings will be displayed at a solo exhibition in Islington, revealing just how much she has achieved since attaining the 2017 award.

Rosso describes the year since she won the prize as ‘‘incredibly productive and rewarding’’, both in terms of creativity and her career. ‘‘I have spent many hours in my studio, developing new ideas and subject matter, at the same time I have been exhibiting my work in new and prestigious venues, such as in Bloomsbury and the Mall Galleries. I have been working and finishing a whole new range of portraits, some with a narrative, some very simple and delicate. Because of the financial award from The Holly Bush, Hampstead, I had the chance and pleasure to paint with models from life, often beyond the finances of an emerging artist.’’

Projects like this reveal how much impact support for female artists can have, offering women encouragement, networking opportunities and a chance to advance their creative careers. Let’s hope in the coming years we will see more work by female artists on the walls of London’s galleries, as the art world becomes more invested in emerging female talent.

The Holly Bush Emerging Woman Painter Prize is open for entries: the deadline is Sunday 8th July 2018. Rosso: Going Solo is on from Wednesday 13th June to Thursday 28th June at Islington Art Space, Cass Art Islington.
You can find Rachel on social media with @rachelfrances_


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