The Archibald prize finally hit gender parity but where are the women on the walls?

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The Archibald prize celebrates portraits of Australians ‘distinguished in art, letters, science or politics’. So how come so few are of women?

George Calombaris, MasterChef, by Betina Fauvel-Ogden
George Calombaris, MasterChef, by Betina Fauvel-Ogden, the winner of the Archibald’s packing room prize. Photograph: Pacific Pres/REX/Shutterstock

This year Australia’s most popular art exhibition, the Archibald prize for portraiture, included in their media kit a gender breakdown of finalists: 25 women, 26 men. It’s not something they usually do, perhaps because it’s not something they usually want to brag about, but 2016 is the first time gender parity has been reached in the prize’s 95-year history.

In 2015 there were only 14 female artists among 47 finalists, meaning women made up 29%; the year before, it was 31%. The 2016 shortlist represents quite a leap and it’s a cause for celebration – but don’t crack out the Bolli just yet. The Archibald still has a problem with gender balance and, as you stroll through the exhibition of finalists, which opens at the Art Gallery of NSW on Friday, the evidence will be literally hanging in front of you.

Exactly a third of the portrait subjects, or sitters, in this year’s exhibition are women, up from 32% in 2015 and 28% in 2013; down from 37% in 2014. In the past 15 years, the average of women sitters is around 30%.

The fact that even this year’s balanced gender pool of painters hasn’t produced gender parity on the walls calls attention to a broader pattern in the Archies pool: women tend to paint men – or become finalists for painting men – more than men tend to paint women.

This year the trend is particularly pronounced: just 12% of the male finalists in the Archibald painted female sitters, whereas 44% of the female finalists painted men. The average across the previous five years of the prize is less extreme, but still pronounced: 43% of the female finalists painted men, compared with 24% of male finalists who painted women.

Whatever the reasons, the results are frustratingly consistent. In an exhibition that purportedly celebrates Australians “distinguished in art, letters, science or politics”, women are not equally represented – not ever. And every year it becomes less defensible to have an Archibald prize exhibition that fails to achieve its ostensible mission: portraying the face of Australia.

This exhibition is at risk of reaffirming a widespread perception that women make a significantly lower contribution to Australian public life than men. In fact, if we take the Archibald 2016 finalists as our guide, then no one is more important to Australian public life than white men over the age of 50.

What makes it into the exhibition is decided by the Board of Trustees of AGNSW, who judge the 800+ entries each year without being told whose work they are looking at. The 11-person board, which includes artists Ben Quilty and Khadim Ali, has just four women.

The board’s gender imbalance may have impacted on the portraits that made it into the exhibition, but it’s also interesting to look at the entry pool they were working from. According to figures provided to Hlcarpenter.com Australia by AGNSW, only 306 portraits from the 830 entries featured women, and five of those also had a man in the painting. This problem is bigger than the prize itself.

So, how to fix it? The quickest way to get more women’s faces on the walls would be for the trustees to select more portraits of women for the finalist pool – but this solution seems unlikely. In response to media criticism over the gender disparity of the 2010 Archibald prize, which featured just four female faces among 34 finalists, trustee Anne Fulwood pushed back against the idea of quotas, telling Herald reporter Andrew Taylor: “We’re not about quotas. Basically, and pardon the pun, it’s about face value … we see every Archibald entry.”

So on the one hand, there’s the issue of gender parity among the sitters; and on the other hand, gender parity among the painters. The fact that it took Australia’s biggest art prize 95 years to reach the latter speaks to a wider industry problem.

In this year’s Countess Report, Elvis Richardson analysed the Australian visual arts sector from top to bottom for 2014, and found that around 74% of art school graduates were women. If you drill down into her numbers, the disparity appears even greater for the specific discipline of painting – and as far back as 2008, when she started her Countess blog, Richardson writes of similar figures.

If there are so many more female painting graduates than male, why is 2016 the first time we got gender parity in the country’s pre-eminent painting prize?

If it’s simply that women don’t tend to paint portraits, they should be better represented in our other prizes, such as AGNSW’s Wynne prize for landscapes (24% women finalists in 2016) or the Sulman prize for subject painting, genre painting or murals (40% women finalists in 2016, with an average across ten years of 37%).

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: women aren’t represented equally anywhere in the Australian art world. Richardson’s analysis of the Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition of female versus male artists in 2014, for The Countess Report, paints a grim picture: just 25% of their contemporary solo shows that year featured female artists and just 30% of the artists in their contemporary group shows were female.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales is not an anomaly. From The Countess Report:

Our data collection on state museums found 34% female artists, 59% male artists and 7% collaborations were represented in the exhibitions held in 2014. When we looked more closely, we found that of a total of 26 solo exhibitions by contemporary artists in state museums, 38% were by female artists, 58% by male artists and 4% by collaborations.

When it comes to your state art galleries and museums, you can demand – and expect – better representation. The public is the biggest stakeholder in a public art collection and gallery, and any institution that persists in failing to equitably represent that public will eventually lose its mandate to exist.

The Archibald prize is announced on 15 July, when the exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW opens to the public