Thursday, November 5, 2009


by the Handmaiden

Primavera, the MCA’s annual exhibition of young Australian artists, is almost over, so I though I would cast an eye over its history of gender representation. The exhibition started in 1992 as a memorial by the Jackson family to their daughter and sister, Belinda Jackson. 2009 sees the exhibition “come of age” with its 18th outing. Even though the sample of artists is quite small, given the numbers of artist practicing in Australia, I wondered whether Primavera would yield some interesting long-term data of gender representation and what shifting attitudes in the Australian art world are tracked through its history.

See the footnote below this post for an explanation of the categories of artists.

Primavera in general:
Primavera has been curated by a combination of staff and independent curators. In the period from 2000-present they have mostly been independent. In the period 1992 to 1994 Primavera was an exhibition of 3 to 4 individual artists. The artists came mostly from NSW or Victoria (read: Sydney or Melbourne) with usually one artist in the show from Perth, Adelaide or Brisbane.

From 1995 to 1999 the number of artist grew to 6 to 7 and again, during this period, artists mostly resided in Sydney or Melbourne. 1997 was an exception in this period, it was curated by the Aboriginal artist Rea and was the first exhibition which not only included Indigenous artists, but also artists from outside of Sydney and Melbourne -  in this case Tasmania and Brisbane, who outnumber those from the centres. In both these periods the artists included practiced as individuals rather than in collaborations or groups.

In 2000 the exhibition grew to 9 artists, and began to be consistently a more nationally focussed exhibition, including artists from all the smaller states. It is in this period that the types of artists' practice also become more diverse, with the inclusion of new media and also different models of artist practice such as collaboration. In 2002 the collaborative duos of Nat and Ali (2 women) and Bunter and Frost (2 men) appeared, and since then nearly every year has included some form of collaboration.

This national focus is probably not surprising given the increased availability of air travel with Virgin Blue and Jetstar, not only for the curators to make studio visits, but also that artists themselves are more mobile and participate in self-organised events across the states that gain them national visibility. Additionally it’s in this time period that we have seen the growing national trend for emerging artist events, shows and grants.

So how about gender?
Over the 18 years of Primavera’s history there have been 8 exhibitions where female artists outnumber male artists, and 4 where the genders where represented evenly. Some exhibitions where women significantly outnumber men where 1998, curated by Ben Curnow 5/1, Felicity Fenner 6/3 in 2005, and Christine Morrow 6/3 in 2007. This seems quiet amazing, given that feminism was never a “theme”. Could Primavera be one of the only re-occurring exhibitions in Australia that has such positive representation of women? Additionally only 4 of the 16 curators have been men. Congratulations MCA for such positive numbers!

Gender repesentation of artists in Primavera
click on image to enlarge

The exhibitions where men outnumber women are as follows: 1999 curated by Rachel Kent with 2 women to 4 men; 2003, Julianna Pierce with 1 women 6 men, 1 artistic duo, 1 male duo, and 1 all girl group (Kingpins); 2006, Aaron Seeto, 4 women, 8 men and 1 mixed duo; and this year, 2009, curated by Jeff Kahn 2 women, 5 men and 1 female duo.

The year that had the lowest representation, with women participating in 3 of a total of 10 artworks, was the “new media” Primavera curated by Julianna Pierce.

In general, the trend for gender representation since 2000 has been alternating between exhibitions where either men or women significantly outnumber each other interspersed with exhibitions where the genders are more or less equal.

Here are the stats since 2000:

Gender repesentation of artists in Primavera since 2000
click on image to enlarge

Each case study that Countess has looked at has a kind of flavour where the stats start to show something that you may not have noticed while wandering through a magazine or exhibition enjoying the art. For me the two interesting results of the Primavera crunch relate to location and education. All information is based on what an artist had done at time of inclusion in Primavera, with information coming from the catalogue and internet searches. 2009 biographic information is excluded from the below statistics and trends.

Nearly all of the artists included in Primavera live and work in city centres, with the majority of those in Melbourne. While curators seems perfectly happy to jet off to Melbourne and enjoy a couple of days of studios visits and nice cafes, there seems to be some reluctance to get onto a train or the freeway and explore the edges of Sydney, or the garages, spare rooms and fast food joints of Canberra, Wollongong, Newcastle and Western Sydney... let alone the far reaches of the interior or the tropics. Jeff Kahn adds an exception to this rule in 2009, with artist Roderick Sprigg based in the outer wheat belt of WA. Below are the stats for state distribution -  remembering, this really means Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide etc. The trend of artists moving from smaller centres like Perth and Canberra to places like Melbourne and Sydney is small and hidden in these statics.

Artist distribution across the states, with first year each state was represented in Primavera.

Total sample 128 (the 2009 Primavera not included)

Repesentation of artists by state in Primavera
click on image to enlarge

Note: Yukultji Napangati (Pintupi language group) divides her time between two communities across the WA and NT borders. I have included her as a separate statistic because her location is not adequately described by state boundaries.

The primary factor for inclusion in Primavera is education. Only 3 artists from the 132 total did not have any form of tertiary education. Two of these artists are Aboriginal artists living in remote locations (Napangati and Pedro Wonaeamirri both in 2005). Only 5 Aboriginal artists are included in the whole of the history of Primavera, and it is access to education, or the form and content of tertiary education as an arbiter of successful practice that must be questioned here.

The MCA decision as to whether to include biographic information is reflected in the continually changing form and design of the exhibition catalogue. As a resource and future research tool I would ask the MCA to consider including this biographical information with education histories. For those artists that did not have their biographic education included I searched the internet. Interestingly I found that it was the female artists who where not present on the web to provide that information (in 7 cases as opposed to 1 male). Sometimes these women had a web presence on a commercial gallery site, but not all of these included education information.

Reading through the biographical information over the 18 years tracks the shift from TAFE skills training (e.g. foundation year at Prahran College) to university degrees. It details the amalgamations of art schools to universities: e.g. Queensland College of Art becomes Griffith University and Canberra School of Art becomes ANU SoA, with resulting Graduate Diplomas becoming Honours years. The first postgraduate being a Masters of Visual Arts, appears in the sample 1998 and then every year after that includes at least one artist with a postgraduate degree. The Samstag Scholarship, first awarded in1993, has funded 7 out of the 21 post grads. Unsurprisingly, given the high numbers of women in undergraduate and postgraduate degree at universities, there were 13 women artists as opposed to men 8 with these higher degrees.

As 'university education is the pathway to successful practice' is the model confirmed in Primavera, the next question is which institutions? To get the below statics I counted each degree once, so from a total of 120 artists biographical details there are 165 studies counted.

No real surprise here with Melbourne artists the majority in the sample: VCA is the largest institution who's alum are represented in Primavera, with 20% of artists having gone there, followed by SCA with 13.3%. Only the 1993 Primavera did not have a graduate from VCA, with 1999 the only year SCA did not have a graduate included. As the University of Melbourne is currently squeezing the VCA into the “Melbourne Model” you have to wonder about whether is such a good idea given the past success of its graduates. Both CoFA (7.8%) and RMIT (10.3%) the next largest groups, do not appear in the sample till 1998 and 1999 respectively.

So who is a Primavera artist?
To be in Primavera you will be about 28 and live in a metropolitan centre, mostly likely Melbourne. You would have gone to art school, most likely from VCA or SCA 4 to 6 years ago. If you’re a women, you are more likely to have a Masters or PhD than your male counterpart. If you are male, you are more likely had some time off studies, either between TAFE and uni, or between 3rd and Honours years than your female co-exhibitors.

This model excludes as many artists as it includes. I have heard chit chat that Primavera is looking tired and should no longer exist. I think it would be a pity to loose an exhibition that has been so good for women. Perhaps the curators should just start to look beyond Melbourne to find different voices and visions.

------- (footnotes)
I am using the same categories as I did the articles on Broadsheet. Each collaboration is counted as one project/artist, however their education histories are individually counted (if provided). Collaborations are divided as mixed duos (1 male and 1 female artist) female duos, male duos. A “group” means a groups of more than two artists where the gender is mixed (PVI), and a female group that of more than two artists where the artist are all women (Kingpins).

Other Primavera quick facts:
The average age of an artist in Primavera is 27 to 28 the youngest being 23 and the oldest 36. The age spread is more or less the same across both genders. The exhibition with the youngest average age was 1997 (Rea): 25 and the oldest 1995 (Cramer): 32 and 1998 (Curnow): 32. Primavera has bridged a generation with the oldest artists born in 1959 and the youngest 1983, making the oldest 24 when the youngest artists were born.

The number of artist included in Primavera range from 3 in 1993 (Micheal), to 13 in 2006 (Seeto).

The most highly educated year was 2005 (Fenner) (oddly given that it also included two artist with no tertiary education) with 4 artists put of 9 with Post Grads and the remaining 3 with tertiary education, having done honours AND either TAFE training or secondary education diplomas.


tam said...

loving your black and white commetry - also especially appreciate the regional focus and no study approach - keep up the brilliant work

Anonymous said...

Well done MCA!

Anonymous said...

I like the emergence of the portrait of an artists career this blog has got going on :) cool ;P

clare milledge said...

This is a really great blogspot, it's super that someone is collating the facts!
I wish to share my own disturbing piece of data:
Number of comments that my next exhibition would be a test of whether female artists should make work after giving birth:
1. from a male peer age 30 who cited that he heard it from:
a) a highly regarded male australian performance artist age approx. 40
2. and another male peer age 32 who cited he heard it from:
b) a male art school academic age approx. 60
3. a female arts administrator
Thanks, Clare