Listen to this article
This month, London’s Pleasance theatre will stage a new version of Posh, Laura Wade’s hit play of 2010 about the unsavoury behaviour of an all-male university drinking society inspired by Oxford’s raucous Bullingdon Club.
Which is more surprising: that the actors in this new production are all female — or that this fact has raised scarcely an eyebrow in the UK press?
Women have been represented in the arts sector workforce for decades, but in recent years there are signs that more are expanding their artistic scope to move into the senior posts once dominated by men — and that their right to equal treatment as artists and managers is now taken as a given.
In January, Maria Balshaw was named successor to Sir Nicholas Serota, who has acted as the Tate galleries’ director for 28 years. She will join Frances Morris, who took over as director of Tate Modern last year. Both are the first women to occupy these roles, at the apex of the international contemporary art world.
Other women holding important positions in the UK’s culture sector include Diane Lees, who is both director-general of the Imperial War Museum group and chair of the National Museum Directors’ Council, and Yana Peel, who last year took over from Julia Peyton-Jones as chief executive of London’s Serpentine Galleries.
At the same time arts organisations in the UK are facing strains on funding that may put some of this progress at risk. Crunched budgets, for instance, can make it harder to offer flexible hours to women with children, or to rectify longstanding gender disparities in pay.
Jude Kelly, artistic director of London’s Southbank Centre, says: “In every industry, conversations about gender equality are more alive than I can ever remember. That’s good. But the contradiction is that the financial security of the country is much more precarious. That definitely has an impact on women.”
In areas such as opera and classical music, however, women have not reached the senior levels attained in visual arts and theatre. Ms Kelly acknowledges the disparity: “I’ve put a lot of emphasis on getting women in classical music to be a force and take leadership roles. They have to come forward.”
One hurdle has been a tendency for women who have succeeded artistically not to take the next step of managing an organisation, according to Cressida Pollock, chief executive of English National Opera. When recruiting for a senior director position, boards can call on a limited number of female directors, she says. “You constantly have a very small talent pool when you’re recruiting for those leadership positions.”
From time to time, women in lower or mid-level jobs still appear to be outshone by their male peers purely in terms of confidence, says Polly Staple, director of the Chisenhale Gallery, the non-profit contemporary art gallery in east London that gave the 2016 Turner Prize winner, Helen Marten, her first solo UK show.
“I still see situations where younger male curators, who are much more confident and potentially less experienced, are able to put themselves forward because they don’t question themselves in the same way [as women],” she says. This matters most during the hiring process, she adds, when recruiters can be “dazzled by young princes”.
To guard against men recruiting in their own image, Ms Kelly adopts a policy of rejecting lists of job candidates that contain no women. “It’s no longer acceptable for people to say there are no women in the field,” she says. “You can’t have women making the grade but not going up the pipeline.”
Networks play an important part in supporting women in the arts, says Helena Newman, who last year became chairman of Sotheby’s Europe and was the first woman to occupy the rostrum at an evening sale at the auction house since 1990. “The art world is one big networking event. The way it operates is social,” she says.
Sotheby’s organises a private networking lunch for women dealers, art advisers, curators and academics at the time of its sales, Ms Newman says.
Ms Pollock, a former McKinsey consultant, says arts groups should look to the financial sector when it comes to more formal networking opportunities. “I spend a lot of time talking at women’s networks in the City and they’re brilliant. The arts doesn’t have them at the same level.”
In fact, formal leadership training in the arts sector does exist.
In 2004, Ms Balshaw did a stint as one of the first participants in the Clore Leadership Programme, the brainchild of philanthropist Dame Vivien Duffield, who conceived it as a means of identifying the next generation of directors and curators. Not long afterwards she was headhunted for her first gallery role as director of the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.
Other attempts have been made to inspire women to take on more senior roles. Seven years ago, Ms Kelly founded the WOW: Women of the World festival to celebrate women’s achievements, which now takes place in 17 countries.
“I really wanted women to feel the world is an amazing place for them, from being in the army to directing Hollywood films,” says Ms Kelly. “That gives you the stamina to ask what’s not solved — and to go about solving it.”
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published