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Transforming data into online protest art

Transforming data into online protest art October 31, 2014Leave a comment

Before launching one of the most ambitious feminist art projects since the Guerrilla Girls in the 1980s, Los Angeles-based video and performance artist Micol Hebron had spent a few years counting.

The counting began after the American artist picked up a copy of Artforum magazine and noticed that male artists were disproportionately represented in the magazine’s advertising. Hebron began to keep a tally month after month, leafing through the pages of the leading art publications in the US, and as she did so the picture that emerged was a rather depressing one: between 70 to 90 per cent of the adverts represented the work of male artists. “People make assumptions that art-world bias exists, but no one I encountered was aware of the actual figures,” Hebron tells Hyperallergic website.

Last autumn, she decided that – in the era of big data – the time had arrived to finally turn her informal tallies into a collaborative art project. She set up a public Google doc and launched Gallery Tally: Calling for gender equity in the art world. The project is an open-source, data-driven art platform, conceived as a social engagement effort “in the spirit of 1970s-era feminists who worked together to create community, discourse, and change,” Hebron says.

Artists from across the world can contribute by collecting statistics comparing ratios of male to female artists represented in top commercial art galleries, and then by visualising the figures through creative posters.

Within two weeks, nearly 200 people had replied to her call. Needless to say, the first figures that came up echoed those of Hebron’s Artforum’s counts. Almost 70 per cent of artists represented by galleries in Los Angeles and New York were men.

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“There are many facets to the art world, and the gallery system is just one of them, but it is a wide-reaching and profoundly influential facet that has undeniable repercussions upon an artist’s career and visibility,” explains Hebron, who is also an associate professor of art at Chapman University in California. Ultimately, galleries and collectors have enormous power to determine what is good enough to end up in museums and art history books. And women, Hebron adds, “are traditionally left out of history, especially art history”.

Unsurprisingly, the status of gender equality in the UK art world is similar. Research by the Arts Council showed that between 2011 and 2012, a total of 62 per cent of arts and design students in the UK were female. But in the same year, only 31 per cent of London’s galleries presented work by women.

“We have amazing artists emerging from art schools and the women and the men are as strong as each other. Why are women’s voices not seen as interesting?” questions Eileen Cooper, keeper of the Royal Academy and the first woman to be appointed to this role.

To Cooper, the under-representation of women within the circles of contemporary art is so “ridiculously shocking” that she believes an action of positive discrimination is necessary to restore the balance. Last summer, she called for a quota in both art institutions and national collections in the UK.

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The Gallery Tally project , meanwhile, is gathering momentum internationally. Artists from London, New Zealand, Portugal, Germany, Slovenia, Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico and Chile are taking part. Of the more than 4,100 artists tallied, the male to female ratio is still a dismal 70 to 30 per cent, respectively. The posters – uploaded to Tumblr – encompass a variety of expressions and artistic approaches, from fiercely provocative to subtle, and cheeky puns to abstract representation.

“We have engaged in a positive, creative response to this very negative data,” says Hebron, who admits she was not really planning for the project to be such a big success. She is more than convinced that using numbers as a weapon of creative protest can be a powerful tool for change. “Perhaps, the next time a gallerist, collector, curator, or writer embarks on their next project, they will consciously or subconsciously take their own tally of who is being left out,” she says.

Image credits: Poster for Collette Park by Rebecca Lowry, poster for Hawk Gallery, Columbus, OH, by Virginia Kistler and TRACERS Ohio and poster by Micol Hebron for gallerytally Artrank, courtesy of gallerytally.tumblr.com

About the author


Maria Teresa Sette

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Maria Teresa Sette is an Italian journalist based in London. Her main interests focus on the intersection of human rights and digital culture, with a particular focus on migration, gender and minority issues. After completing an MA in Journalism at the University of Rome, Maria moved to London in 2007. She was on the launch editorial team of Wired UK and Italy, assuming the role of news editor of the Italian digital edition until 2010. Working as a freelance ever since, Maria has reported from London, India, Turkey, Southern Italy and the US investigating technology’s impact on society, culture and politics for a range of international outlets. She has also managed the digital publication produced by the Migrants Resource Centre in London.

Find more about Maria Teresa at her blog, or you can follow her on Twitter: @MTeresaSette

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