Unless you’re one of the 3,780 members of ‘Starwave’ —a closed group on Facebook of internet aware non-males who are active in the art world —or following Francesca Gavin’s @roughversion Twitter account, you’re unlikely to be aware of her plight. Rallying against occupational sexism and gender workplace binaries, the writer and curator has recently emerged from an endless media blackhole. Following the opening of the Manifesta 11 Zurich, Gavin noticed the majority of press on the event —newspapers, blogs and journals —overlooked her role as co-curator, favouring her male counterpart Christian Jankowski instead. The white male as the patriarchal authority and thinker behind the biennale seemed a more titillating story.
As far as the reviews go, it’s an incredibly successful concept and well-executed festival focused on the theme ‘What People Do For Money: Some Joint Ventures’, where each artist is given a list of professions in the Swiss city that they could elect to work alongside. The chosen professional would then lead and host them over the course of the following months through a series of dialogues and activities. The outcome of the work is then nuanced by the social situation and idea of labor and production. Some enigmatic pieces came out of the protocol, such as Mike Bouchet’s compressed cubes of faeces collected from the city sewers, Andrea Éva Györi’s work with a ‘sexpert’ and Maurizio Cattelan’s highly commended collaboration with Paralympic champion Edith Wolf-Hunkeler. But was it all white-washed walls and glass ceilings in the end? Gavin certainly noticed the lack of credit on her part after she curated 100 out of the 130 artists but wasn’t even invited to the press launch.
Her specific role was to curate the four largest institutions in Zurich, The Migros Museum, Kunsthalle Zurich, Luma Foundation and Helmhaus with an accompanying program entitled The Historical Exhibition, which offered context and support for the new commissions and a sense of depth and understanding to the viewers. And Gavin is by no means a novice. She’s curated exhibitions internationally, including the performance and print programme for Chart Art Fair in 2015, The Dark Cube at the Palais de Tokyo, E-vapor-8 at Site Sheffield and 319 Scholes in New York, along with numerous other shows in European project spaces, showing a keen and experienced eye, which was demonstrated in Manifesta 11 by including a diverse group of artists such as Martine Syms, Coco Fusco, Aleksandra Domanović, Trisha Baga and Frances Stark. Throughout this episode Gavin has nobly and defiantly held the line that throughout this marginalisation process she is not blaming individuals but rather the whole institutional art machine. Her speaking out is to improve the workplace for women across the art world.
Looking at the concept statement page on the Manifesta 11 website —there is a depiction of a business woman with a worrying percentage marked under her, 31 per cent—this woman then changes clothes becoming smaller and smaller until we reach her micro-sized balancing on her 1 per cent. The rhetoric of this interview would not be taking place if this opening image wasn’t steeped in irony. Recently your role has been underrated, if not entirely written out of existence, as co-curator of Manifesta 11, right?
Francesca Gavin: My role was definitely marginalised. When the press started appearing it seemed clear but at this point it is still early days. I’m hoping that art publications are more thorough than web press and some newspapers. I realise my role as co-curator of a large section of Manifesta isn’t really registering with people. Christian Jankowski is being credited as the ‘sole curator’ and The Historical Exhibition we created together is been described as ‘his exhibition’. I have started to realise all the work I have put into this show isn’t being presented as equal to Christian’s dialogue. As Mark Leckey, one of the artists in The Historical Exhibition, so kindly put it on Twitter —this wouldn’t happen to Gavin Francesca!
At this point, we could call out the PR, or the Press, or Manifesta… but let’s unpack the whole system because if one of them was shouting your name out with Christian Jankowski’s they all would be, right? Why in your opinion is their agenda so fixated on the lone male curator? Why is it so much more enticing for the art world in general?
FG:I think the first reason is a systemic one —the story of the sole male artist curator is hot this year. This move away from the curator to the artist as the instigators of the cultural agenda is really in. Another example is, of course, DIS as the curators of the Berlin Biennial. The press want a super-curator, one person one brand name, it’s also something that is very easy to perpetuate. We could look at other mediums —everyone knows the name of the film director but not necessarily the rest of the cast.
The idea of ‘co-‘ isn’t perhaps as easy to write about as the continuation of the zealous myth of the great white male artist. Someone shared an interesting Yale study with me recently pointing out that women working on their own do much better than those who collaborate or share!
Does this deter you?
FG: There are undoubtedly some problems with how I was presented that I think impacted on things. I wasn’t included in the press conference when the biennial opened in Zurich. The website and the press info didn’t help express my role in a clear way for people whipping through such a big project. My main concern up to the day of opening was installing and presenting the best show I could. I didn’t have time to check on how I was being presented or received, and maybe it wasn’t my job either. At this point I feel like I’m just a little hand waving a white flag saying don’t forget me!
I also know I’m just part of a much larger puzzle including the 30 larger new commissions in the biennial which are obviously of serious importance, arguably more importance. So I know that most reviews will focus on those works. It’s almost embarrassing to be sticking up my hand and asking for equal billing. However, when you secure 100 out of 130 artists, and 250 works for a biennial, you want to get the credit for it.
This is not an isolated issue in the Art World —only last week we heard of protesters storming the Tate London as it opened Carl Andre’s retrospective exhibition. They called for justice over the murder of Ana Mendieta not just for the inconclusive report on her death but also for equal billing of her work after her death. WHEREISANAMENDIETA calls for institutions to stop glorifying violent men —but also the double standards of exposure too. The New Statesman responded with the headline: ‘As protesters take on the Tate, is the fear of demonstrations causing galleries to take fewer risks?’. It seems inhumane that outing abuse results in institutional passivity, not support.
FG: I am pleased there are still protests about Ana Mendieta and I’m very aware I’m part of a wave of people (both male and female) rethinking how women are presented and included. It’s funny, experiences like this are making me more feminist. I do think that institutions, and even more so the art market, glorifies men. And the art market is really what funds many large exhibitions because it is in people’s vested interest for these artists to do well and have sustained careers.
When I was co-curating The Historical Exhibition, I made sure there was a really strong group of women artists in the show, as I felt that balance was vital. Especially in a project about the concept of work. I included people like Martine Syms, Adrian Piper, Coco Fusco, Aleksandra Domanović, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Susan Hiller, Louise Lawler, Giovanna Olmos, Trisha Baga, Rachel Harrison, Kim Gordon, Evelyne Axell, Alice Boner, Rosemarie Trockel, Frances Stark and many more. I didn’t include these artists just because they were women. The main reason was for the brilliance and depth of their work and how it suited the thematic focus on the exhibition. Yet, as a curator, I am happy to repeatedly bring attention to the breadth and equality of female artists in a strong conceptual setting (without necessarily over-emphasizing the role of their gender).
In 2014 Mira Schor writes about ‘post-feminism’ and ‘lean in’ feminism —for ‘Amnesiac Return, Amnesiac Return‘ for the Brooklyn Rail —which she dubs ‘faux feminism’. She states ‘There is a constant cycle of amnesia and return, of desire and demonization, commercialization and corruption of basic principles, and of impediments from without and dissension from within.’ It seems you have been caught in this cycle?
FG: I was really surprised to be in this situation and very frustrated —perhaps because it is something I had not experienced before. I have never felt marginalised and always had recognition for my writing or my exhibitions. However, I’ve never curated anything as large, or made something alongside a male counterpart. The experience has made me far more conscious of the roles within the creation of exhibition-making and the importance of people being credited for their work. It’s not just a feminist position. It’s more about a need to establish new institutional structures, including those of the media and the biennial systems.
This seems more accurate than ever in 2016, with Saatchi Gallery presenting its first all-woman show entitled Champagne Life, an odd title for a show that is supposed to celebrate the underrepresented. What will it take to finally put an end to sexism in art?
FG: I interviewed Kerry James Marshall once (actually, I have many times) but I remember talking to him at the time of the 30 Americans show at the Rubell Collection in Miami. He appreciated the exhibition, which highlighted an entire generation of African American artists but rightly said that he was looking forward to a time when artist like this were just included in the discussion as equals. I think female artists, curator, gallery directors, museum directors and critics, and women in all the other roles that made art so vital need to be given equal attention. Sexism will end when this balance is invisible and we no longer weigh one way or another.**