Global strikes on March 8, demonstrations and protests around the world denouncing sexism and the unequal rights between men and women, the #MeToo movement in the film industry or the Abuse of power comes as no surprise movement in the art world (referencing Jenny Holzer), actions and boycotts against brands whose campaigns are full of stereotypes, etc. Women’s demands are on the agenda, and art could not be an exception.
Many times, as muses; few times, as artists. Women have been banned from education, academia, exhibiting, and their work has been taken lightly throughout the history of art; but it’s time to amend it. “The challenges of being taken seriously, the challenges of family, the challenges of being not competent enough to take on large projects”; aware of the difficulties that women artists have had and still have to confront, and with the idea to make the world a bit more just, Lisa Fehily recently opened the Finkelstein Gallery in Melbourne, a space intended solely for exhibiting women’s works and help them launch their careers while fighting gender inequality.
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To know more about you, how did you start in the art world? Did you always see yourself as a gallery owner or was it something you discovered over the time?
We decided to purchase an artwork as we had painted a feature wall in our home. This led us on a journey of discovery of contemporary art, artists, institutions, etc. Our world was changed. I then went to Monash University as a mature age student to understand what it takes to be an artist. I began to understand the tremendous commitment and dedication required as you need to have headspace, something that you can’t just summon up; then you have to plan the work, then make it. I realized that since my skill was working with people and making relationships, I should help artists instead of being one! I changed to studying theory and history of art. After I finished, I worked with an institution and in a couple of commercial spaces working out how I wanted to run my own gallery.
You decided to create a gallery to promote only women artists. This idea seems to be a response to the essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? that Linda Nochlin wrote in the 1970s. What do you think about the conclusions reached by the art historian about the role given to women?
I do agree that systemic social, cultural, and political barriers barred women from partaking in the art world in numerous ways. Traditionally, historically, women’s work took place in the home! Male artists were viewed as serious artists, whereas female artists were viewed as having a hobby or making crafts, which historically was not seen as serious art.
Do you think there’s been any kind of evolution since she wrote it?
Yes, there has been an evolution. We do have serious female artists, unfortunately, the surrounding issues concerning our patriarchal society still linger. In Australia, we now have great female directors of state institutions, female curators and, of course, female artists. There still is a gap between recognition for female artists institutionally and with private collectors, which is beginning to change.
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When you opened the gallery, was one of your goals to reverse the role that women have had in art history? With what purpose did you start this project and what have been the main difficulties/challenges you’ve faced?
My goal was not to reverse the role that women have had, it is to change the role going forward and promote an understanding and appreciation for female artists for their talent and dedication and to make sure their work is valued for who they are, with the knowledge and history of being women, often together with emotional depth found in their work.
The main difficulties and challenges have just been in explaining the reasoning behind making this commitment to women only. It’s been really important to me not to be seen as a victim gallery in wanting to keep men out. We need to be seen and valued for our strength as representing strong and talented artists. At the moment, these need to be female artists, to assist in helping them gain the recognition they deserve. We appreciate and encourage all visitors, and our male intern is doing a wonderful job enjoying working with us.
When creating the gallery, one of your inspirations was the National Museum for Women in the Arts’ campaign #Fivewomenartists, where they asked, through social media, about women artists. Personally, were you surprised at people’s responses when they made them name five women artists?
Not really. That’s why we have work to do!
As a curiosity, what would be your top five? Both from your gallery and general art history.
I have to narrow it down otherwise I can’t pick… My gallery consists of eleven artists; they are definitely my top picks: Cigdem Aydemir, Coady, Kate Baker, Deborah Kelly, Louise Paramor, Lisa Roet, Kate Rohde, Jacqui Stockdale, Sonal Kantaria and Kim Lieberman. And for contemporary art that I don’t represent: Jenny Saville!
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‘Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Section are women, but 85% of the nudes are female’. The feminist artistic collective Guerrilla Girls made a poster with this piece of information to ask, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? What is your opinion on this? Do you think that women are accepted as muses but not as artists?
Definitely, I am quite sick of seeing female nudes; I think we need to change this voyeurism. Let’s see male nudes for a change!
Censorship, lack of creative freedom, difficulties on learning… What challenges do you think women deal with when they try to pursue a successful career as artists?
Yes, all three – together with the challenges of being taken seriously, the challenges of family, the challenges of being not competent enough to take on large projects, and judgement in not being competent enough to work with diverse materials and large structures. The challenge of their work not being perceived to hold as high prices as male artists. This challenge is mainly due to the lack of support by institutions, curators and private collectors.
Finkelstein Gallery was created to represent, promote and exhibit a small, carefully selected group of established and emerging women artists. By what criteria do you choose the women exhibiting? What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of being a gallery that exhibits only women’s creations?
I choose the artists primarily as I am passionate and committed to their practices. I make sure that I have a respectful and professional relationship with each artist, essential for working together. I also choose artists at different stages of their career, being careful to make sure I can assist and help them with their professional development. I have chosen a specific group of artists in order to have a breadth of work in the gallery, both curatorially and commercially.
Strengths: like any commercial gallery, the strengths are in representing talented artists who are dedicated to their practices. Weaknesses: there is no weakness – these are strong, committed artists who I have the pleasure of working with and assisting to develop their careers.
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Also, the concept of gender and what being a woman means is changing. Trans women are women, I guess you include them too? What about non-binary folks?
Yes, we definitely do. That’s essential.
From your point of view and after working with artists for many years, do you think there is a need for a change in the art market? To be a little more specific, what does the art world lack right now?
I think there is a natural change coming through as the role of men and women are changing, together with gender and other developments in the way we live. As with all changes and reflections on current society, this is reflected in contemporary art. The art world needs strength and support from public institutions and private collection, and in Australia, a widening of the audience.
Virginia Woolf, trying to reflect on the role of women in literature, concluded that, if a woman wants to write, she needs money and a room of her own. In your opinion, what does a woman need in order to devote to art?
A female artist needs commitment, passion, professionalism, strength and courage.
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The gallery, which inaugurated earlier this year, has already presented some exhibitions: from collective shows like Finkelstein Gallery Presents and solo shows like Primary Instincts by Coady. How has the process of preparing the exhibitions been like? What about the public’s reception so far?
The process for preparing the exhibitions has been great; we have a terrific team! The reception from the public has been so supportive and our visitation has been inspiring.
To finish, how do you expect the gallery to continue and grow in the upcoming months or years? Any sneak peek about future exhibitions you’ll be doing or art fairs you’ll be taking part in?
I look forward to building successful careers for each artist, thereby achieving success for the gallery. I plan to run exciting events, talks and a mentoring programme for female artists, which we are launching next year! From an art fair perspective, I plan to take our artists overseas, potentially participating in fairs in the United States, Paris, London and Brussels.
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