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'This is a movement': Women lead visual arts jobs in Canada, numbers suggest

Last Updated May 13, 2019 at 7:06 pm EDT

Alexandra Suda is seen in this undated handout photo. Women now dominate Canada's most powerful visual arts jobs, including four of the five director positions in major art galleries from Vancouver to Halifax, directly impacting exhibitions, public programming and national collection building. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Craig Boyko, National Gallery of Canada *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Women now dominate Canada’s most powerful visual arts jobs, including four of the five director positions in major art galleries from Vancouver to Halifax, which experts say is having a direct impact on exhibitions, public programming and national collection building.

While gender equality has been a goal at many organizations for the last decade, an Ontario Arts Council (OAC) research review suggests women have caught up and now lead the visual arts sector across the country.

Women hold 70 per cent of the director and curator positions in 80 Canadian art galleries and art museums who receive core funding from the Canada Council, according to research cited by the OAC report on the status of women in the arts industry, released in October 2018.

This trend sees women as the chief architects of what visitors will view in some of the country’s most significant art galleries such as the National Gallery of Canada, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

“This is a movement,” says Maxine Granovsky-Gluskin, a member of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s board of trustees and past board president. “Arts have been at the forefront of women breaking through the glass ceiling. Women will lead the top museums in the world.”

Women account for 63.1% of the workforce at Ontario not-for-profit art galleries and 68.8% of the workforce at Ontario museums, states the OAC report, referencing numbers from a 2017 Government of Canada Survey of Heritage Institutions. That’s close to the national average, the OAC report points out, as women make up 66.1% of the workforce at not-for-profit art galleries across Canada, and 67.9% of national museum workers.

“These numbers are reflective of talent,” said Rita Davies, chairwoman of the OAC board.

A move towards improving gender representation in the arts is also seen in increasingly diversified exhibition programming with more solo exhibitions given to women artists, the increased acquisition of art made by women into national collections and more women filling senior curatorial roles.

“There is an overall institutional recognition of equity,” said art historian and author, Joyce Zemans.

“The change is real,” Zemans said.

There has been a generational shift as women make up the majority of post-secondary and masters-level students in arts faculties at some Canadian universities.

At OCAD University in Toronto, 88 per cent of the students with a declared major in arts criticism and curatorial practice identify as women, according to stats provided by the office of the school’s president, Sara Diamond.

In addition to a predominantly female student population, Diamond said “investing in programs that develop creative and administrative skills, such as curatorial studies, have paid off for women, developing educated and confident candidates for leadership positions.”

At the University of Toronto, 80 per cent of the masters students in curatorial studies are women, said Barbara Fisher, director of the master of visual studies program.

Schools such as OCAD U and U of T provide a steady, sustainable pipeline of qualified candidates for curators and director positions.

Last month, Alexandra (Sasha) Suda, an internationally recognized curator and art historian, took the reins at the National Gallery of Canada, becoming its 11th director.

“The academic landscape for art and art history seems disproportionately made up of women so it is only then appropriate that women have their rightful place in positions of power,” Suda said. “The appointment of women to leadership roles gives profound insight into an institution — where it is and where it is heading.”

As the fourth and youngest woman to lead the gallery, Suda said, “I am particularly proud to be a woman at the helm of such a large-budget organization at this point in my career.”

In her role at the National Gallery of Canada, Suda wants to “create a precedent to not only bring female leadership forward but also to bring young talent forward,” in an attempt to give visibility and opportunity to the next generation of leaders for the top jobs in art museums in Canada, she said.

Suda cites strong mentorship in previous positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto as key to her success. Mentorship programs offered by the Association of Art Museum Curators and the Centre for Curatorial Leadership, both in the United States, support mid-career curators by offering the fundamentals in management and leadership and the side benefit of an invaluable curatorial network.

Mentoring is not gender specific, and Suda says she has benefited from male and female mentors in her career in the United States and Canada.

The National Gallery of Canada’s board chairwoman, Francoise Lyon, who was also on the search committee for Suda’s position, wanted a disrupter in the director’s office, “to influence how future museums will look” she said.

Suda fit the bill, she said. The fact that she is a woman was secondary.

Lyon contends that Suda is a new generation of leader who grew up in the digital age. Her ability to use technology to the advantage of the museum for high-level scholarship and to attract millennials and younger audiences to National Gallery exhibitions and public programming were key factors in her hire.

Suda joins a growing group of women leading art museums with budgets over $40 million. In North America, women will run all three national museums in 2019, including the National Galley of Art in Washington, National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico, and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

Additionally, a woman leads the venerable Tate art museums in England.

“Women have forged a path to being the dominant force in the art world at this time,” Lyon said.

To ensure this progress continues, art museum boards of directors, the governing bodies that hire and fire CEOs, are moving to improve gender parity in composition and at the board chairperson level.

Another, outstanding hurdle in the progress that’s being made in gender parity, observers say, remains gender-based pay inequity in leadership in art galleries in Canada.

“There still exists a significant income gap for women in the visual arts compared to their male colleagues,” said Davies.

The OAC review suggests that nationally, women’s average incomes in the most senior arts positions are lower than their male peers, although there is not much data available.

“This is the last frontier,” said Granovsky-Gluskin. “When we achieve pay equity for women then we know we have arrived.”