Friday, 30 November 2012

Here come the girls

Earlier this year I arrived at a job interview for a contemporary commercial art gallery in London’s West End to be greeted by the slightly shocked faces of the gallery directors.  “Oh,” they said, “we were expecting a man.” 

I have often encountered confusion because of my name.  I have been known as Charlie Levine instead of Charlotte Levine since I was a pre-teen and I saw no reason to change it when beginning my career as a curator.  (Especially in light of there being a Levine Museum in Charlotte, USA – I would have been a nightmare to google!)  I have never previously been aware of this being a problem, until said interview, when I did not get the job as they were “really looking for a man” to fill the Gallery Manager role.

This want for a man to fill the role is nothing new, but the statistics and artist, Hennessey Youngman, say that there are more female curators than male ones.  But is this true?

When considering Birmingham, UK, specifically, men head up the main contemporary art gallery venues.  Jonathan Watkins at Ikon, Craig Ashley (for the visual arts programme) at mac birmingham, Gavin Wade at Eastside Projects and Andrew Bonacina at International Project Space.

I think I need to pose a feminist question here - why women are not in these powerful Director roles, and why do we find ourselves slightly on the outskirts of the decision-making? And is this Birmingham specific? And does it really matter?

In the larger scheme of things, women this year in the visual arts have had a massive impact, particularly Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the Artistic Director of dOCUMENTA (13).  Christov-Bakargiev was placed first in ArtReview’s Power 100 list for the success of this year’s festival.  The art journal said “ArtReview is not in the habit of placing a curator at the top of the Power 100 for creating one influential exhibition. In 11 years of listmaking, we have taken the logical position that the influence of biennials, triennials, quinquennials and all the rest of them comes on like a very strong wave that recedes just as fast as the next one arrives. So what’s different about Christov-Bakargiev’s Documenta 13? Aside from being critically lauded and unusually popular – there were an extra 110,000 visitors this year, in comparison to 2007 – how is it more than another big show? A really big show, in fact, that no one could ever hope to see, spanning, as it did, the cities of Kabul, Banff and Alexandria/Cairo after sprawling over Kassel more than ever before, and encompassing screenings, performances, talks, essays, books and disciplines that extend far beyond the field of art. Bearing all this in mind, then, just what was it that made this year’s Documenta so different, so appealing? And what makes its curator, well, so powerful?”

Christov-Bakargiev is clearly doing something right for promoting great visual art as well as the reputation of women in the arts and highlighting the power a curator can potentially posses. From this female inspired power play Hennessey Youngman’s ‘Art Thoughtz’ is seemingly right – it is mostly women leading the way in independent curatorial practices. 

In Birmingham specifically there is myself at TROVE and Aedas Presents, Cheryl Jones leading at Grand Union, Mona Casey who curates ARTicle at BIAD School of Art and SLICE and Sandra Hall the co-director of Friction Arts, and we have all been practising for 5+ years in the city. 

Then there’s Jo Masding at Lombard Method, Caitlin Griffiths of Lamb White, Sonya Russell-Saunders co-director of The Wig, Elly Clarke of Clarke Gallery, Kate Eagle who I work with at Aedas Presents, Cathy Wade leading Hedge Enquiry at Edible Eastside and Abigail Duffty who is the Director of [STATE] performance art night, who have all been producing exhibitions in Birmingham for 2+ years.

And then there are the just on the scene ‘new girls’ Beth Derbyshire, Lizzy Jordan, Kate Livingston, STRYX (all female studio and curatorial group) and current MA Curatorial students Emma Leppington, Prune Phi and Claire Reece.

I should also mention the influential Lara Ratnaraja and Nicola Shipley as two women working with the visual arts in Birmingham in policy making, arts and business advisors, creative consultancy/producers and general advocates for visual arts activity in the city.  Although they are not gallery directors, or straight curators or artists, they care about the visual arts in Birmingham and are incredibly inspirational to my practice.

Birmingham finds itself currently in a clichĂ© – ‘behind every great man (city), there’s a great woman.’  The men in charge of the larger organisations might provide the face of Birmingham’s cultural sector via their more outwardly focused galleries, however, the exciting activity that is happening just under the radar is being led and realised by a vibrant group of women.  


  1. Hi Charlie,

    I really like this post, thanks for writing it. I'm a curator living in Brum, working more with historical art than contemporary (although the exhibition I'm currently co-curating with the Herbert Gallery, Caught in the Crossfire, incorporates both) and I also work on heritage outreach projects. The Fight for the Right,, is my current project and is very much focused on working with young female students to explore the history of women's rights and make that relevant for them today.

    I was really shocked to read that you didn't get the London gallery job because you weren't a man - did they actually say that to you?? I'm pretty sure that's discrimination and, although I well aware of everyday sexism, I'm still horrified that someone would actually give that as a reason for not employing a woman!

    I think the Brum arts scene is especially vibrant and clearly full of extremely dynamic women. It's interesting that the current directors of BMAG and the Barber, as well as Wolverhampton Art Gallery are women and I'm wondering why that isn't being reflected in the contemporary spaces?

    Nicola Gauld

    1. Hi Nicola,

      Thank you for your feedback, and I was shocked about not getting the job for that reason, too. I will check out your Fight for the Right site now.

      I also think its great that Ann Sumner now leads the Birmingham Museums Trust - can't wait to see what she does in that role. As for why it's not being reflected so much in the contemporary art scene, I'm not criticising it so much as commenting. I think a lot of people won't be aware of what's happening in Brum outside of the larger galleries, and it just so happens a lot of the activity is being managed, run and directed by women....


  2. There's always the 12.5% chance that the three at the top are men purely by chance?

  3. Why do you think a Director is powerful ?
    They are only as good as there staff.

    You can add some more people to your list;
    Jenine McGaughran
    Roma Piotrowska
    Emma Bowen
    Kate Self
    laura mcdermott
    yasmeen baig-clifford
    Liz Rowe
    Ruth Claxton
    Sarah Shalgosky
    Helen Legg

    Why isn't there more young male curators in Birmingham?
    Is it because of the scary lady club ? s

    1. I hope its not 'scary' or a 'club' that I have commented on...but you're right, Directors always need to be backed up by good staff. I have two men and two women who work with me at TROVE and all four are invaluable.

  4. 'they were “really looking for a man” to fill the Gallery Manager role' umm..thats illegal. See Sex Discrimination Act..think this relevant..Direct discrimination: To treat someone less favourably than other employees on the basis of race, gender, age, religion or belief, disability or sexual orientation. X