OPINION - How is Marina Abramovic the first solo woman in the Royal Academy’s main space? I’ll tell you how

Marina Abramović (Photograph by Paola + Murray, New York, 2015)
Marina Abramović (Photograph by Paola + Murray, New York, 2015)

I’m probably equal parts (this ratio may be inaccurate) excited and dreading the major survey exhibition of work by the doyenne of performance art, Marina Abramović, opening later this month at the Royal Academy. One of the Serbian artist’s most memorable works is Rest Energy (1980) in which she and her partner, Ulay, held the limb and the string of a loaded bow and leaned apart, so that if Ulay’s finger slipped, he would shoot his lover through the heart. You can see why I’m a bit daunted.

But what took me aback as I was reading about it this week was the striking fact that this is the first solo show by a woman in the RA’s Main Galleries. Oof. Once it just felt like a major achievement to be the first woman to do a thing. That remains so, but now it feels increasingly like frustrating evidence that women are still pushing against a firmly bolted door.

This autumn in London, on the face of it, looks great for women artists. As well as Abramović, there’s a survey show for Sarah Lucas at Tate Britain; Claudette Johnson will be honoured at the Courtauld (the first monographic show for the long-overlooked artist at a major public gallery in London); the French-American painter Nicole Eisenman has a big show at the Whitechapel coming up, while the Barbican and Tate Modern are both holding all-female group shows in their RE:SISTERS and Women in Revolt! exhibitions respectively. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that the picture is nothing like as rosy as that makes it seem.

According to Charlotte Burns and Julia Halperin, the founders and authors of the US-based Burns Halperin Report, which tracks equity and representation in the art world and has just published its most recent findings, the perception of progress far outpaces reality. Once they started collecting data three years ago, says Burns, they quickly realised that, “some of the things that we thought were trends, maybe just stood out to us because they were different from the norm, and maybe the norm isn’t really shifting.”

As well as US museum acquisition and exhibition data (bad, if you’re wondering), they also track all international art auction activity, and the numbers are awful. Art by women accounts for just 3.3 per cent of all auction sales between 2008 and mid-2022 (about £4.98 billion of £150 billion). Picasso’s market over the same period alone, they found, pips all women, in all genres, across all periods in time, coming in at £5 billion. Good old Pablo, getting in the way of women since about 1910.

Sarah Lucas Bunny, 1997 (Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London © Sarah Lucas)
Sarah Lucas Bunny, 1997 (Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London © Sarah Lucas)

Historic museums have a bit more of a pass on this, due to historic collecting practices and a male bias in gifts to collections, and creating parity in collections would take literal centuries of just-not-buying male artists, which is not a thing that is going to happen (nor indeed should it). But women have it tough in so many unseen areas, it can feel like an invisible fight.

Women graduate from art school at the same rate as men, but their ability to sustain an artistic practice drops off between their late 20s and early 30s at a much faster rate, due partly to collector and gallery bias, but in no small part to the demands of motherhood. The writer Hettie Judah’s 2020 Freelands Foundation report on the impact of motherhood on artists’ careers found a grim scenario, in which women in particular felt the need to conceal their parenthood when dealing with institutions and residency programmes for fear of being seen as more trouble than they’re worth.

According to the World Economic Forum, women are disproportionately affected by low wages, and are more likely to be in insecure work and unable to increase their working hours due to care commitments, which means that the scandalously low fees paid by major British institutions to artists (found, in the succinctly titled Structurally F-cked report, by the artists’ membership organisation a-n, to equate on average to an overall median hourly rate of £2.60 per hour) hits them even harder than their male counterparts.

Things are improving, it’s true. Tate Britain’s recent rehang features work by around 70 living artists, half of whom are women, and has increased the display of historic women artists, starting in the 17th century. The gallery has stated an aim to acquire work by an increasingly diverse range of previously underrepresented artists, including women, and last year and the year before, purchased work by slightly more women artists than men.

Standing Figure with African Masks, 2018 (Claudette Johnson)
Standing Figure with African Masks, 2018 (Claudette Johnson)

In 2021, 58 per cent of solo exhibitions at London’s major galleries were by women artists (in 2015, by contrast, this was 25 per cent), and with the help of the Chanel Culture Fund, the National Portrait Gallery has recently increased the percentage of female sitters in their portraits from 35 to 48 per cent.

But it all feels like a bit of a band-aid. It’s clear, says Halperin, that “this is a problem that needs an industry-wide solution”. No change is going to be sustainable unless it’s systemic.

Museums and galleries are prominent arbiters of what we value, what we see as worth keeping for future generations. But they need not just to buy and show more women, they need to put systems in place to enhance women’s ability to become and stay artists in the first place. Allocate a proportion of a project budget to childcare. Pay artists properly for their time and labour. Look twice at your list of acquisitions and projects and exhibitions and collaborations and ask yourself, is this a bunch of blokes? And if so, do something about it.

What the Culture Editor did this week

The Woman in the Wall, BBC iPlayer

I’m hooked on this increasingly gothic drama/horror/very occasional comedy. Ruth Wilson’s unvarnished portrayal of Lorna Brady, a woman deranged by historic trauma, is mesmerising. Knowing what I’m capable of after one too many late nights means that watching Lorna lurch about on four days and counting of no sleep is unbelievably stressful. I love it.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Sadler’s Wells

I’ve never seen the seminal American dance company before and this mixed bill was a treat, with stunning sets and costumes, and superb dancing set to music from Lauren Hill and Kendrick Lamar to old spirituals. I will say though, it turns out my tolerance for free jazz is not high. Good job that bit was short. It runs to September 16.