Gender Imbalance and De-Materialised Art

Over to the glittery basement disco bar at the Arts Club in Dover Street, Mayfair, where once a week (on a Thursday), for an early evening hour (6.30-7.30) of unusual thoughtfulness soothed along by an expensive cocktail, art matters get discussed at quite a serious level. Last week, lawyers and gallerists were chewing over the problem of money laundering in the art world. Today three women – Ann Coxon, curator of displays and international art at Tate Modern, Louisa Buck (asking the questions with zest and bite), performance artist Rose English (who, at the age of 69 is just about to have her first exhibition in a commercial gallery), and a lone man (gallerist Richard Saltoun) are talking about why women were not taken seriously as artists for so long, and what’s being done about it now to redress the balance. Ann tells us that in preparation for this discussion she did a quick finger count of the single room displays across the Tates to see how the girls were faring in their ongoing battle against dead white men. Good news! Twenty-three women to seventeen men! The Tate’s on the right side of history. This year Richard Saltoun is showing only female artists at his gallery in Dover Street. A lot of time is spent talking about performance art, the difficulty of being aware that it ever happened at all when there may be nothing to show for it later; the difficulty of turning it into hard cash to sustain a livelihood for an artist such as Rose English – she’s been doing performance art for half a century. How do you do it then? What’s left to sell or to buy after the artist has gone home and the impromptu space has returned to its old routine of catering for an entirely different kind of audience altogether? Ann Coxon tells us that the Tate is keen to collect performance art. But what exactly is there to collect? asks a puzzled buyer of prints and paintings in the audience? Will some fuzzy pencilled instructions written on a tatty bit of paper in 1973 do the trick? Can someone re-enact the piece? Would that be legitimate? De-materialised art can be awfully difficult to get a handle on.

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