A Women’s day Experience by Sian Matthews

I had a bad experience for International women’s day and it helps prove how far we still need to go.

A friend and I decided to spend IWD at a few galleries in London which were holding exhibitions and tours about women artists, the female gaze and the influential women who helped shape certain institutions. I hadn’t seen my friend for a while, I was looking forward to celebrating women and art with her.

The day started strong with a coffee and a catch up before moving on to the newly opened Richard Saltoun gallery in Mayfair. The first exhibition held at this new gallery space, ‘Women Look at Women’ explored themes such as feminine identity, censorship, gender stereotypes, sex and relationships through the work of thirteen international artists. The exhibition included beautiful but honest black and white photography by artists like Renate Bertlmann, Francesca Woodman and Annegret Soltau, as well as sculptural works by Helen Chadwick.

It was great to experience an exhibition, curated by a woman, working with female artists, feminine themes and the female gaze. You know, other then when Sweet ‘Art does it. For the most part I was impressed by it. The exhibition felt refreshing; it was clean and well thought out, and most importantly for the viewer, it was insightful and thought provoking. Of course, any exhibition has space for improvement, to learn and ensure you do things better the next time. ‘Women Look at Women’ could have been more inclusive. It could have included a wider, more diverse group of works, but it did what it was meant to do well enough for me.

After such a great start you will understand my disappointment and, honestly, outrage at our next visit.  This year for International Women’s Day, the Royal Academy intended to celebrate with ‘Feminine Futures’, a series of events and tours from the 1st – 10th of March.

We got to the RA at noon for the IWD tour, which was billed as an event that will “explore the lives of some of the important women in the history of the RA”. What we were greeted with however was anything but!

Before I explain why I was so disappointed, I should point out that this tour was one of six or seven delivered over ten days. The tour is presented by a different guide each day and therefore is different every time. For all I know the rest of the tours were spot on.

To start, the male guide took us into a small corridor next to a staircase which was decorated with photographs of the current eighty academicians. He pointed out Tracey Emin and Cornelia Parker and briefly spoke about them (they were the only female artists mentioned for the whole tour). He then spent the next 5 minutes talking about several of the men on the wall.  He made no effort to mention any other female academicians, he didn’t even mention Sonya Boyce, the first woman of colour to be made a Royal Academician, as recently as 2016.

Moving on he spoke about two paintings depicting some of the life drawing classes at the RA many years ago. These paintings showed female models being drawn by male artists and were themselves by men, although I cannot remember who. While standing in front of these paintings we were told that at this point in the RA’s history, women were banned from attending life drawing classes because it was thought that it objectified them. The guide also informed us that all female life models were from local brothels as it was inappropriate for women other than prostitutes to model nude. But according to him, all of that was ok… because they were paid a little more than their male counterparts.

Throughout the rest of the tour the guide spoke about not only the building it currently occupies, Burlington house, but also when it occupied the top floors of Somerset House and the National Gallery. He spoke about the architects, the owners of buildings and artists who have worked within the RA: all men, including Constable and even Churchill. It would have been far more interesting to tell us the little-known fact that’s among the 34 founding members of the RA there were two women! Mary Moser and Angelica Kaufmann.

A few times other members of the group asked about the role of women at the RA, which was met with the guide asking if any of us were artists and what our practice consists of. Both myself and my friend answered, explaining that we are installation artists with an interest in the work of the YBA’s. So we were already familiar with Tracey Emin who’s work he promptly explained to us as if we had no idea who she was. ‘My bed’ he said was a “product of her realisation of the mess around her” not exactly what I would call an in depth, insightful or accurate description.

'My Bed' by Tracey Emin

Right at the end of the tour, after someone asked about them, he briefly mentioned the suffragettes, how they had “slashed a couple of paintings in protest” basically referring to them as trouble makers who had ruined a precious painting. There is a lot of information to be found about this incident at the 1914 RA Summer Exhibition on their own website, surely a tour guide at the RA should be able to talk freely and in a respectful manner about this event?

Reading back through this it probably sounds like I am making this up. But I can promise I am not. You expect to come away from a tour of influential women at the RA feeling proud of what these women achieved in an industry that wasn’t always accepting, I expected to hear about how the women before me helped to pave the way for myself to be an artist and work in the arts today and instead I was told about how women had been mistreated by the RA until after WWII. I left feeling deflated, like we had gone backwards for an hour and honestly, I was angry.

Another point I feel I should add here is that on the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, the same day I was trying to celebrate with a friend. An exhibition opened at Tate Modern, all about famous “ladies man” Picasso.

After all of this I had just one question on my mind. How did such a small gallery in Mayfair, and countless other small organisations manage to get their shows and messages so right when the big institutions with all their money and resources get it so wrong? Do they not care? Do they not listen? It seems ridiculous to me and it highlights just how far we all still must go in not only getting, but understanding and respecting equality.