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Women in the Arts: Lisa Panting and Malin Ståhl

‘At the moment it is fashionable to show female artists; we have to make the most of it’

Lisa Panting and Malin Ståhl, co-founders of London gallery Hollybush Gardens, which represents last year’s Turner Prize winner, Lubaina Himid, and this year’s winner, Charlotte Prodger, discuss their experiences in the arts, from the difficulties of embarking on a career in the arts as young women to choosing to represent more women artists than men. 

As you were starting out in the arts, what were the possibilities for mentorship, collaboration and cross-generational engagement among women? 

Lisa Panting  I studied art history at the University of Sussex in the early 1990s, where the course was heavily steered by feminist (and postcolonial) discourse. So my first mentors were silent and often dead and certainly intergenerational. The books we studied gave me my first real understanding of how the world saw me and would continue to. After finishing, I didn’t immediately find my way – I was just another young person trying to navigate the lack of structure and opportunities – but I did meet with some incredible acts of kindness or acknowledgement from women a bit ahead of me in their careers. I tried the curating course at the Royal College of Arts. At the time, it wasn’t for me and Theresa Gleadowe allowed me to retreat gracefully: I’ve always been grateful for that at what was a stressful moment in my life. 

I got a job teaching at Central Saint Martin’s working for Anne Tallentire who showed me and many others immense friendship: I would, and do, site her as a mentor figure – and someone I looked up to intellectually. The course she co-founded in 4D had a profound influence on me in terms of how I saw the relationship between making and thinking; through her, 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 tried to work more recently and how research is an active and fundamental tool. Monica Ross is another intergenerational friendship I had early on and that fostered my thinking. I credit Jane Rolo at Bookworks for showing me how to run an organization and build something: I learned from here that it requires real dedication and patience, probably sat at a computer and away from the clatter of private view drinks. 

Malin Ståhl  I came to the art world from a cross-disciplinary background having first studied anthropology and then curating. As I first started out in the art world I didn’t know that many people; working as a freelance curator, I found most of my inspiration through reading. An exciting and influential moment that stands out for me was reading Lucy Lippard’s Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (1973). I was also really interested in concrete poetry: through Oyvind Fahlström, I discovered the language poetry of Lynn Hejinian, who is still important to my thinking today. I curated a couple of projects that merged Lippard’s curatorial projects with ideas from concrete poetry.

What, if any, were the difficulties of embarking on a career in the arts as a woman? 

LP  I would say the worst aspect was being young and insecure – as well as being constantly referred to through how you looked or how you presented yourself: ‘You look tired; you look well; cheer up; your eyeshadow etc. etc.’ That was pretty wearing. I think it was harder to be seen as an originator. Men always get called ‘creative’ while women are the ‘backbone’. Men are exciting, women are nurturing. Women are organizers, men curators. Men have to do less to be noticed; it’s hard to break that. Women have to be older to be taken seriously.

MS  As a young gallerist I learned quickly about the strong hierarchical structure that exists in the art world: a space full of unwritten rules about how to act appropriately, when, how and to whom you can talk. I see this as a patriarchal structure put in place to preserve the current power balance, but women play along with it too and enact it as often as men. Instead of women supporting each other and collaborating, it is unfortunately quite common that women block each other in order to win friendships with men in powerful positions.

What specific experiences have you had that shaped your understanding of gender in the workplace, the media and the arts? 

LP  My observation over time about who gets breaks and why – not just in terms of gender, but class, privilege and race – is that we have a way to go before any kind of parity is reached. We can all think of the ‘brilliant’ young men who get a bye and the women who don’t. I have these conversations all the time with younger female curators. That isn’t to say those men can’t do the job, it just means that women aren’t pushed forward in the same way. To preserve myself, I think I’ve had to set aside the pain of being relegated or passed over or sidelined – all things that have happened at various points. You have to rely upon yourself and, in the end, build a tight network of people you trust, which you hope will be able to sustain you. I’ve been quite lucky and I’ve never had a problematic male boss or colleague. With Hollybush Gardens, Malin and I have created a space where we do exactly as we like (funds permitting). We’ve had the gallery for the last 13 years – most of my professional life, in fact. It is important to me to acknowledge the support we had received from certain men, from collectors for example: connections that people wouldn’t naturally make, but which have, in certain moments, allowed us to grow – an act of belief and friendship as fundamental as any. 

MS  During my curatorial studies I had a male personal tutor who was much more interested in talking about himself – which parties he had attended, namedropping about whom he had met – than in supporting my development. I learned then – and have had multiple similar experiences since to remind me – that, as a woman, you are expected to show an interest in men despite their lack of concern for your interests or needs. 

What has changed today? 

LP  Lots has changed and lots hasn’t. The numbers are slowly going up for women represented in galleries, auctions and museum exhibitions. You can see the movement made in galleries to work with a larger group of women artists. The worry is that this might be a bubble and we need to work to ensure that the gains made are sustained. One of the largest issues in the art world today is class and access. Lack of regulation and clarity about entry level opportunities make the art world a very nepotistic field, and a bit of a guessing game for those wanting to be involved. We all find it easy to work with ‘a friend of a friend’ but these patterns have to be broken to enable new sets of social groupings to emerge. I think this would also affect questions of gender balance. 

I remember taking my mum around a Picasso show at Tate in the 1990s and complaining bitterly about his misogyny; in 2018, I went to Tate Modern and saw another Picasso show, which this time used the painter’s dubious biography as somewhat salacious contextual information. Ok, his attitude towards women has been called out, but he is still presented, unquestioningly, as one of the history’s most important artists and the female body is still splayed, bare, opened up like a corpse as ‘form’ for the brush. Meaning young women and girls are still going to Tate and having to have the same conversations. Until we truly confront the legacies of collections and shows in our institutions, the status quo and, in fact, sexual violence and denigration to women, are being maintained. 

MS  I don’t think very 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 most of it. Lisa and I have always been conscious about the number of female artists that we represent, choosing to represent more women artists than men. There are so many great female artists in the world so this is not a compromise for us at all. Statistically, art by women is priced lower than art by men, but I see it as our job as gallerists to change that. At the moment, museums are battling with questions of underrepresentation in their collections, so it’s actually a very good time to be working with female artists. 

What are your thoughts about #Metoo and other initiatives to call attention to sexual harassment?   

LP  #Metoo felt like a very powerful movement when it started. When it first appeared, my fingers hovered over the keyboard but I couldn’t bring myself to type the words. That was interesting: a self-inflicted taboo. Regardless of who gets called out, the hardest aspect of sexual harassment is acknowledging what has happened to each other and extending friendship. Shame and embarrassment are very powerful. I think that has been broken down a bit: as a result, the atmosphere has become more collegiate. We are allowed to discuss self-care! I feel a connection to younger women and I think it’s important to acknowledge each other in a way that I think previous generations were terrified to do. There are plenty of male voices who want a more equitable world, but there are plenty who are very defensive and angry about the turn of events. It is difficult to power share, but women have had enough and won’t be kept quiet anymore. 

MS  I think it’s great that women finally dare to speak out about sexual harassment, but I don’t know if #Metoo will have a long-lasting effect. That said, perhaps because of #Metoo, gender inequalities, structural inequalities are on people’s minds and have become a topic of conversation and investigation in the mainstream media as well as the art press. As a result of acts of public shaming, institutions, universities, museums etc. have been forced to take a critical look at the gender structures within their workplaces and collections.

Main image: Lisa Panting and Malin Ståhl. Photograph: Anne Tetzlaff

Lisa Panting and Malin Ståhl are the co-founders of Hollybush Gardens, London. 

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