TWO WOMEN CHALLENGING THE ‘BOYS CLUB’ CULTURE OF THE ART WORLD


WORDS BETH CUTTING - PHOTOGRAPHY ELLIOT JAMES KENNEDY

F Word's Beth Cutting speaks to Mille Jason Foster and Mollie Barnes about the representation of women in the art world, how we can champion it, and how covid is changing the landscape of collecting and curating. They have recently curated a virtual exhibition called 'Heart of the Matter' featuring recent works from both celebrated and emerging female-identifying artists such as Tracey Emin, Bridget Riley, Chantal Joffe and many more.



Beth Cutting: Tell me about your role, and what you do day-to-day?

Millie Jason Foster: I am the co-director of Gillian Jason Gallery. I aim for every working day to take-on the same theme as the gallery’s mission: championing art by women. I always start the day with a coffee and a planning call with my mother and co-director, Elli. After that, I check-in with artists and clients via email, calls and nowadays Zoom. We like to support both emerging artists and emerging collectors. One party cannot exist without the other and we feel it’s important for the two sides of the art business to exist in close contact. In non-covid times, I have the luxury of spending my work day visiting other galleries, going to artist studios and meeting with colleagues.


Mollie Barnes: I work as an Independent Curator. I’ve worked as a Curator for many years now and this is my main and dream profession, but I also work as a Freelancer in the art world. Within that role encompasses many things – many hats! I work as an Arts Writer, an Art Advisor, a Marketing Strategist, an Artist Liaison and more. I also work as Curator for the independent WING Art Gallery in East Sussex.


Day to day, I work with artists to plan exhibitions, events and initiatives to support them, and also with institutions and individuals to execute collaborations. Average days can range between Curating exhibitions, studio visits (before covid – the new B.C.), full admin days, contacting clients, social media marketing and more. It’s really varied.


BC: How did you get into it?

MJF: I grew up surrounded by a family in the arts. My grandmother was a ballet dancer turned art dealer, my grandfather was an actor, my mother a film producer and my father a theatrical agent. However, after graduating from university, I went straight into investment banking. I have a love of numbers and I thought I wanted to be the art collector instead of the art dealer. However, with the retirement of my grandmother from her gallery, my mother and I wanted to continue her legacy. So instead, I decided to be impactful in my mission by having a central voice within the art industry.


MB: My journey into the art world has been quite long and organic. Throughout my childhood, I was surrounded by strong women in the arts; artists, gallerists, writers. I was pulled into the art world from a young age. I didn’t go to university but I’ve always been interested in the arts and my passion has always been about working with artists, and grouping artists together. I love finding narratives, stories, links and themes between people and their practice.


BC: Why is it so important to champion female artists right now?

MJF: According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 51% of visual artists are women but when it comes to representation, only 5% of galleries represent an equal balance of genders. Similar to investment banking, there is an outdated legacy of a male-dominated industry focused around the ‘boys club’. Although the art world is beginning to change, it’s not changing fast enough. As one of five sisters, I see the strength and ingenuity of women everyday. This is something that I want to champion and help to correct in the industry. Issues of both race and gender diversity are also close to my heart and I try to combine these missions for equality as much as possible.


MB: I think simply because the equal representation isn’t there yet; because women often have to choose between caring responsibilities, or a career; because gaps in CVs are seen as lesser; because solo exhibitions for women are often few and far between. Championing female artists is working to fix the gender disparity in the art world, and we’re living in this revolutionary time where people seem to be listening. On Instagram alone there are so many incredible accounts advocating for equality in the arts.

A huge part of this championing is working with male led institutions and galleries to introduce the artists there, and to bridge that gap. Galleries like Gillian Jason are doing this work already to achieve equality.



Red white blue and brown by Emma Prempeh ft. in 'Heart of the Matter'


BC: How do you think representation is changing?

MJF: More and more, I am delighted to see large institutions showcasing brilliant female artists and adding them to permanent collections. The Tate’s retrospective on Zanele Muholi was a landmark moment for me. Muholi is a photographer and visual activist who captures moments of both love and trauma within the black LGBTQIA+ community, which remains a target for prejudice and violence. However, the representation of female artists is not a flash in the pan but in fact is something that is hopefully here to stay. Gillian Jason Gallery is alone in its mission to solely represent female artists and until I can confidently say that 50% of all gallery representations are women, I hope to continue our work.



MB: I would like to say representation is changing for the better, – but I’m worried the answer is it’s not really, or at least not quickly enough. I remember the anniversary recount the Guerrilla Girls did in 2015, from their 1985 poster ‘How many women had one-person exhibitions at NYC museums last year’ and each figure had increased by ‘1’. Some from ‘0 to 1’. There is also that statistic everyone knows from the NMWA that only 13.7% of living artists represented in European and North American Galleries are women.


That sounds incredibly negative. However, there are changes, and there are people working for these changes. That should be celebrated.



BC: What can the public do to support a wider representation of artists?

MJF: Collect, collect, collect. Art is good for the soul and contrary to popular belief, is accessible to everyone. Throughout history, much like the gender pay gap, female artists have realised on average lower prices for artworks compared to their male counterparts. Collecting can not only support an artist in the short-term but also provides a platform for their career in the future. As an additional bonus, it’s something to put on your wall that may also prove to be a worthwhile investment. One of the best platforms for purchasing smaller works from artists who are not usually so affordable is Art on a Postcard. As a young collector myself, I have created an instalment initiative at Gillian Jason Gallery to assist art lovers in purchasing pieces over a longer period of time.


MB: Put them at the top of their lists to see and support. Female artists are often an afterthought for Curators, Museums and Collectors. Galleries and Curators are putting on these incredible exhibitions championing female artists and making them MUST SEES is so important. If the demand is there, consistently, things change. Amazing Curators to check out for incredible exhibitions are Destinee Ross Sutton, Maura Reiley, Cassel Oliver, Lizzie Glendening, Denise Murrell and so many more.

BC: How has covid affected how you work?

MJF: Physical shows are an important part of any gallery business. However, with the onset of the pandemic, the gallery built a bespoke 3D virtual reality exhibition space. We have used this for three shows so far and it has been a fantastic way to showcase artwork internationally. I am looking forward to being able to visit artist studios in person because Art is most impactful when standing in front of the work. There is an intangible connection between the viewer, the piece, and the space in-between. A screen just isn’t the same.



MB: Covid transformed my career in a major way, I think. 5 days into Lockdown I launched She Curates, and it’s grown hugely since then. She Curates was my reaction or adaptation to the pandemic. With everything cancelled, my practice moved into an entirely digital space. What began as a platform to champion the women I had been working with, became this incredible community. It has allowed me the opportunities to connect with so many people and organisations that I feel privileged to work with.


My work has broadened hugely. I’ve been in contact with so many more artists and so many more professionals due to the time people had on their hands at the start of the lockdown. I might not have met Millie, for example, without the pandemic. Our paths might not have crossed.

Blue Madonna by Tracey Emin ft. in 'Heart of the Matter'



BC: How do you go about sourcing artwork for exhibitions (if that's part of your role) & how has covid affected that

MJF: A lot of our talent sourcing is from Instagram. Covid has been helpful for us in terms of the fact that more than ever, artists are sharing their works and creation process online. It has been harder to be able to get to know artists and their practice in a personal setting during the pandemic, however, artists are the true experts at self-isolating so the output of work has been truly incredible. But overall, sourcing work directly from the artist by visiting their studios and connecting in person is the key to any exhibition.


BC: What advice do you give to artists starting out? In terms of how to get noticed, and represented

MJF: Instagram is your best friend and constructive criticism is your fairy godmother. There is no one who understands an artist’s practice better than the artist themselves and while this may be the case, it’s important to surround yourself with people who will provide candid feedback on your work from the viewer’s perspective. A quote that I always keep in mind is ‘kill your darlings’. I do it everyday at work. Be yourself, find yourself and tell your own story. After that notice and representation are inevitable.



MB: I think put yourself out there. Reach out to gallerists, other artists, curators, and anyone you want to work for. I think confidence in your work speaks for a lot! Instagram is fickle, but is a friend. Use it. Put your work out there. You’d be surprised how many people get ‘discovered’ on someone’s morning Instagram scroll.

BC: What are the pros & cons of exhibiting online?

MJF: The pros are that we have a large global audience and it means that everyone can have access to the art on a par with each other. The development of new technology and the speed at which most people have embraced it since the pandemic has created a unique world for us to be a part of. Connecting clients with artists and reaching those people who traditionally reside behind layers of office bureaucracy behind has definitely been more rewarding


The biggest con is that nothing can take the place of viewing artwork in person and connecting face to face with others. Art is an exciting, vibrant and a wonderful tool with which to make very human connections.



MB: One pro is accessibility. Online exhibitions are hugely accessible for so many people. From an artist’s perspective, this obviously broadens the scope for who sees your work. From a general perspective, accessibility is vital and of constant importance in the art world. I know from friends who have accessibility requirements, not often catered to (though this is another conversation entirely), online exhibitions have opened up the art world to them both in discourse, in viewing, in collecting, and also in creating an accessible community. Another pro is connections. In a similar way to accessibility, artists are able to make quick connections with other artists and curators to put on exhibitions on their own. There are fewer shipping costs, fewer overheads and (often!) less logistical complications.


The main con is nervousness. Some people are still a bit nervous of buying artwork online. The long Covid timeline has helped people trust the process, but there’s still a bit of a way to go. Nothing can quite beat seeing an artwork in the flesh.



BC: How are people engaging with art right now?

MJF: People are engaging online: through instagram, our website, and our virtual reality space. The pandemic has also created a new medium of communication through online webinars. Almost every week, one can find an incredible online opportunity to ask questions and listen to artists and art world professionals in conversation about their practices.



MB: I think people are engaging with the arts in a really interesting way. Lots of mediums and practices have been translated to digital, either through social media, online platforms or through NFTs!

I think people are engaging with a much more curious spirit. I think people are excited to see new work, new artists and ‘the next big thing’ from a Collector’s point of view. I also think people are engaging in a much more organic way, and are using art in interesting ways to convey messages.

BC: What kind of exhibitions would you like to see more of?

MJF: All-female shows with a socially representative inclusion of artists of colour. PLEASE.


MB: I would like to see more BIG exhibitions outside of London, as well as exhibitions in interesting and unique places. I love stumbling across an exhibition in the strangest places. Also exhibitions that are representative.

BC: Who's one-to-watch? (favourite up and coming artist)

MJF: Emma Prempeh. While Emma is still studying at the Royal College of Art, her exploration of generational continuity through vivid depictions of family members is extraordinary. Living in South London, Emma shines a light on the experiences of the black community through a multitude of mediums. The artist will layer gold leaf and fabrics over her paintings to add dimensions that highlight the importance of heritage and culture.


MB: This is such a hard question. Can I give a few?

Emma Prempeh

Jasmine Praddisito

Maud Madsen

Okiki Akinfe

Tamara Malcher

Ayobola Kekere-ekun

Sahara Longe

Yi Toh

Chidinma Nnoli

Esther Janssen


The exhibition 'Heart of the Matter' can be viewed here and runs until the 15th April 2021.




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