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Women hit glass ceiling in gallery jobs

Tara Watson

Where are the women running Australia's major galleries?
Women hit glass ceiling in gallery jobs

Greek relief depicting the defeat of the Amazons Image: The Spearhead

The National Gallery of Australia announced its replacement for outgoing Director Ron Radford as previous head of the National Gallery of Australia Gerard Vaughan, but when will the director be a woman?

ArtsHub's analysis of current and past directors of national and state galleries indicates an historical male preference in choosing the person up for the top job. 


There are male directors at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT).

Jennifer Storer is currently running the Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery but she is only acting director. Suhanya Raffel ran QAGOMA  after Tony Ellwood moved to the NGV but when it came to appointing a permanent director the job went to a man: Chris Saines.

Most of Australia's state galleries have never had a female director since their inception. The exceptions are the NGA and the AGWA, which have each had one female director in their history, however it was the same woman: Betty Churcher, who was director of AGWA from 1987 to 1990 and NGA from 1990 to 1997.

The gender bias is particularly striking because regional galleries show a healthy mix of women and men in top positions.

Kirsten Paisley runs the highly successful Shepparton Art Museum and is spearheading its redevelopment, There are also  female directors at Bendigo Art Gallery, Benalla Art Gallery, Murray Bridge Gallery, Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery, Cairns Regional Gallery and Rockhampton Art Gallery.

Paisley told ArtsHub the strong leaning towards male leadership in state galleries had affected her carer choices. She noticed the lack of female directors in state galleries and chose to move to Shepparton because she was more likely to have curatorial opportunities at a regional gallery.

‘I have never worked for a state gallery. I think it’s extremely difficult for a woman to become a director of a state gallery. I think that is a difficult step,’ said Paisley. ‘I think the bias if there is not a conscious one always, which makes it difficult to motivate in terms of recruitment.' 

Paisley said in her experience working in the visual arts sector, females are over-represented within gallery and curatorial staff and generally making up the majority, yet this is not translating to top positions.

‘It’s incredibly female dominated. I was on the board of the public galleries association of Victoria and the board of the was 80 percent female throughout the three years I was tenured there. There are just some extraordinary female directors, in Victoria and further afield too,’ said Paisley.

A US study earlier this year found similar results to Australia with males dominating director positions in galleries across the country. The study titled ‘The Gender Gap in Art Museum Directorships’ by the Association of Art Museum Directors found that women run just a quarter of the biggest art museums in the United States and Canada. Also finding that just five of the 33 most prominent art museums, with budgets greater than $20 million, had women as directors and that women are more likely to be the director of smaller scale regional galleries.

In a trend that translates outside of the arts sector into corporate Australia, Kay Campbell the Executive Director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne said that it is the system not so much the people that are at fault and this will change with time.

'It's not unlike corporate boards - there's a lot of entrenched thinking on the part of trustees and headhunters who tend to revert to type when recruiting. They set down a template based on who's held the post before, who is already running state galleries elsewhere and who they are comfortable with. And that’s a man every time,' said Campbell. 'Despite the fact that there are so many talented women in our industry who are already running regional galleries and major contemporary art museums and galleries at the next level, their names rarely come up in the speculation around new posts'.

Previous Deputy Director of the NGV Frances Lindsay said that the Board of Directors are the ones with the most influence in choosing directors and the problem is that up until recently this was made up of mostly male trustees.

'You have to look at the board of trustees. It would be true to say that up until the past few years the boards of most Australian art museums have been predominantly men,' said Lindsay. 'It's ultimately the board that appoints the director so you get men historically appointing men'.

The findings also compliment an Australian study released last week commissioned by Plan International Australia that surveyed 1000 young Australian women and girls and found that 50 percent said sexism affected their career path and that 33 percent said it would be easier to get their dream job if they were male.

With the new director of the NGA, Vaughan having served as the Director of the NGV for thirteen years, it appears that previous long-term experience as a director of a state gallery ultimately ensures appointment to the top position, therefore a cycle is developing whereby females are being continuously overlooked.

'If you look for just male directors of Australia, you are pooling from a much smaller pool. That has got to change in the future,' said Paisley.

About the author

Tara Watson is a Melbourne journalist & artsHub writer. Follow her on Twitter @TarasWatson