Women in the Arts: Lisa Panting and Malin Ståhl
Lisa Panting and Malin Ståhl, co-founders of the London gallery Hollybush Gardens, who represent last year’s Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid, and this year’s winner Charlotte Prodger discuss their artistic experiences from the difficulties of a career in The arts as young women choose more female artists as men to represent.
At the beginning of your artistic career, what options were there for mentoring, collaboration and intergenerational engagement by women?
Lisa gasps I studied art history at the University of Sussex in the early 1990s, where the course was heavily influenced by feminist (and post-colonial) discourse. My first mentors were silent and were often dead and certainly cross-generational. The books we studied gave me my first real understanding of how the world saw and would see me. After graduation, I didn’t find my way around straight away – I was just a young person trying to cope with the lack of structure and opportunity – but I encountered some incredible kind actions or appreciation from women who were a little ahead of me in their careers were . I tried the curation course at the Royal College of Arts. At the time, it wasn’t for me and Theresa Gleadowe allowed me to gracefully withdraw: I was always grateful for it at a stressful moment in my life.
I got a job as a teacher at Central Saint Martin with Anne Tallentire, which showed me and many others an immense friendship: I would and would use her as a mentor – and someone I looked up to intellectually. The course she co-founded in 4D had a profound impact on how I saw the relationship between doing and thinking. It was through her that I found something that made sense to me. The spirit of the course fostered collaboration in a way that I see as a precursor to how institutions have recently tried to work and how research is an active and foundational tool. Monica Ross is another cross-generational friendship that I had early on that sparked my mind. I owe Jane Rolo from Bookworks for showing me how to run an organization and build something: I learned from here that it takes real dedication and patience to probably be at a computer rather than clinking drinks private point of view.
Malin Ståhl I came into the art world from an interdisciplinary background after first studying anthropology and then curating. When I started in the art world I didn’t know that many people; As a freelance curator, I found most of my inspiration from reading. An exciting and influential moment that struck me was reading Lucy Lippard’s Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (1973). I was also very interested in concrete poetry: through Oyvind Fahlström, I discovered Lynn Hejinian’s linguistic poetry, which is still important to my thinking today. I’ve curated a couple of projects that fused Lippard’s curatorial projects with ideas from concrete poetry.
What, if any, were the difficulties in starting a career in the arts as a woman?
LP I would say the worst part was being young and insecure – and constantly being told how you looked or how you presented yourself: “You look tired; You look great; cheer; your eyeshadow etc. etc. ‘That was pretty exhausting. I think it was harder to be seen as the creator. Men are always referred to as “creative” while women are the “backbone”. Men are exciting, women groom. Women are organizers, men are curators. Men have to do less to get noticed; it’s hard to break that. Women have to be older to be taken seriously.
MS As a young gallery owner, I quickly got to know the strong hierarchical structure of the art world: a room full of unwritten rules on how to act appropriately, when, how and with whom to speak. I see this as a patriarchal structure created to maintain the current balance of power, but women also play along and implement it as often as men. Unfortunately, instead of women supporting each other and working together, it’s quite common for women to block each other out to make friends with men in powerful positions.
What specific experiences have you had that have shaped your understanding of gender in the workplace, in the media and in the arts?
LP My observation over time about who is getting breaks and why – not just in terms of gender, but also class, privilege, and race – is that we still have a way to go before any kind of parity is reached. We can all think of the “brilliant” young men who say goodbye and the women who don’t. I have these conversations with younger curators all the time. That’s not to say that these men can’t do the job, it just means that women aren’t advanced in the same way. In order to save myself, I had to put aside the pain of relegation or surrender or dropping out – all things that happened at different points. You have to rely on yourself and, in the end, build a tight network of people you trust, who you hope can support you. I’ve been pretty lucky and never had a problematic male boss or colleague. With Hollybush Gardens, Malin and I created a space in which we can do exactly what we want (if the means allow it). We have had the gallery for 13 years – actually most of my professional life. It is important to me to acknowledge the support we have received from certain men, such as collectors: connections that people would not naturally make, but that at certain moments have enabled us to grow – an act of faith and of Friendship as fundamental as everyone.
MS During my curatorial studies, I had a male tutor who was much more interested in talking about himself – which parties he had attended, who he met about – than to support my development. It was then that I learned – and have had several similar experiences since then, to remind myself – that you, as a woman, are expected to show an interest in men when they do not care about your interests or needs.
What has changed today?
LP A lot has changed and a lot has not. The number of women represented in galleries, auctions and museum exhibitions is slowly increasing. You can see the movement that has been made in galleries to work with a larger group of female artists. The concern is that this could be a bubble and we need to work to ensure that the gains that have been made are sustained. One of the biggest problems in the art world today is class and access. Lack of regulation and clarity about entry options make the art world a very nepotistic field and a guessing game for those who wish to get involved. We all find it easy to work with “a friend of a friend”, but these patterns need to be broken for new social groupings to emerge. I think this would also affect gender balance issues.
I remember taking my mom to a Picasso show in Tate in the 1990s and complaining bitterly about his misogyny. In 2018 I went to Tate Modern and saw another Picasso show, this time using the painter’s dubious biography as a bit of flashy contextual information. Ok, his attitude towards women has been called out, but he is undoubtedly still portrayed as one of the most important artists in history, and the female body is still splayed, naked and opened like a corpse as a “form” for the brush. That said, young women and girls still go to Tate and have to have the same conversations. Until we really deal with the legacy of collections and exhibitions in our institutions, the status quo and indeed sexual violence and denigration of women remain.
MS I don’t think much has changed. There are trends and fashions in the art world. At the moment it is fashionable to show female artists; we have to make the best of it. Lisa and I were always aware of the number of women artists we represent and we decided to represent more women artists than men. There are so many great female artists in the world that for us this is not a compromise at all. Statistically speaking, art by women is cheaper than art by men, but I see it as our job as gallery owners to change that. Museums are currently struggling with issues of underrepresentation in their collections, so it is actually a very good time to work with women artists.
What do you think of #Metoo and other initiatives to raise awareness of sexual harassment?
LP #Metoo felt like a very powerful movement at the beginning. When it first appeared, my fingers were floating over the keyboard, but I couldn’t bring myself to type the words. That was interesting: a self-inflicted taboo. Regardless of who is called, the hardest aspect of sexual harassment is acknowledging what happened to one another and expanding friendship. Shame and embarrassment are very powerful. I think that broke down a bit: as a result, the atmosphere has become more collegial. We’re allowed to talk about self-care! I feel a connection with younger women and I think it’s important to recognize one another in ways that I think previous generations were scared of. There are many male voices who want a fairer world, but there are many who are very defensive and angry at the turn of events. Power is difficult to share, but women have had enough and are no longer kept silent.
MS I think it’s great that women finally dare to talk about sexual harassment, but I don’t know if #Metoo will have any lasting effect. That said, perhaps because of #Metoo, gender inequalities and structural inequalities in people’s minds and in the mainstream media and the art press have become a topic of conversation and inquiry. As a result of public shame, institutions, universities, museums etc. were forced to critically question the gender structures at their workplaces and in their collections.
Main picture: Lisa Panting and Malin Ståhl. Photo: Anne Tetzlaff