‘An artist can also be a mother’

Author Hettie Judah thinks it is time to imagine other artists than unencumbered males.

Hettie Judah, How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (And Other Parents), 2022. Foto: Alex Schneidemann.

Despite the progress made when it comes to women’s increased participation in the art world, art and parenthood is still a curiously under-discussed subject. At times the subject of exhibitions or feminist art history publications, the issue has failed to make it into mainstream art world discourse. When it is discussed, it is often as an artistic theme, and not within the context of the very real and practical problems facing artist-parents.

In 2020, the British art critic Hettie Judah interviewed over fifty artists about their experiences of motherhood and found that parents were often excluded from the art world in several ways. Examples included commissions being cancelled, not being allowed to defer art school for a year, and having to navigate art world expectations of always being flexible and able to travel. 

This study is the foundation of Judah’s book How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and Other Parents) (2022), in which she details the difficulties experienced by artist parents, looks at examples of inclusive initiatives from across the world, and suggests specific solutions for how to move forward.

I spoke to Judah over the phone, while she was on a train from Berlin to Copenhagen, where she gave a talk about her book at Overgaden on Wednesday. Tomorrow, Friday 17 February, Judah will give a lecture and moderate a panel discussion at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. After that, she will appear at venues in Gothenburg and Oslo. 

Lena Cronqvist, The Madonna, 1969.

When did you first decide to write this book?

I’ve been interested in motherhood from an art-historical perspective for a long time. But the seeds for the book were planted in 2018, when I started to look at studies on gender imbalance in the art world and wondered about what factors were hidden in the data. For example, some 66 per cent of applicants to postgraduate studies in art and design were female, while 68 per cent of the artist represented by commercial galleries in London were male. That intervening period between graduate school and finding gallery representation, typically in your mid-thirties , is usually when people decide to start a family, so I was interested in whether that was a factor. And, of course, it turned out that it was.

I’ve come across the attitude that in deciding to become a mother, you’re saying art isn’t that important to you. What is it about the art world in particular that makes it difficult to combine with parenthood?

There is a general idea that an artist is a single white man in their thirties or forties who is available 24/7. There’s a failure to imagine that an artist can also be a mother. There are no structures in place for that. This, of course, has to do with a historic bias against female artists. When women began being accepted into art academies in the late 19th century, there was an understanding that if you were going to be a serious artist you wouldn’t have children.

Later, during the avant-garde, that life of free love, travel, and bohemia did not involve domesticity. Nor was there room for children within the feminist avant-garde. The artist Carolee Schneemann felt strongly about not having children. She was already in a difficult position as a female artist: “I had a mountainside to climb,” she wrote in the essay ‘Anti-Demeter’ [1995] in which she describes the loss of self and identity she felt being pregnant.

Surely, things have improved?

Only very recently in the UK. One of the things that really inspired me to write the book was seeing, in the last five years, more young artists being open about being parents. In 2020, when I wrote the essay ‘Full, Messy, and Beautiful’, based on my original study, a lot of the artists I had interviewed wanted to remain anonymous. But in the year or so between that and writing the book, several of them felt emboldened to let me use their names. I’m talking about artists in the public eye. At a grassroots level, I think maternity is discussed more openly.

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Reclining Mother and Child II, 1906.

You’re currently on a book tour in Europe. Do the discussions you have with people in different countries vary? To what degree are the problems universal? 

It’s been really interesting talking to people in the different countries. In the UK, childcare is a big problem, for example. I was just in Berlin, where that is not the case. One thing that seems universal, though, is the timing of art world events. Private views are typically held between 18:00 and 21:00. It’s there networking happens, where you meet curators, gallerists, and other artists. If you’re cut off from early evening events you become isolated.

Another thing that I find interesting is that often when we talk about art and caregiving we think of young mothers with babies and nursery age children, which is understandable as much of the discourse is driven by new mothers. But a lot of women in my study are older, and there is a lot of prejudice around women in their late forties and fifties. We tend to think of emerging artists as being in their twenties and thirties, but they can also be middle-aged women. We exclude people who have taken time off from the art world. It’s important to think about this structurally, such as removing age limits of prizes and residencies. 

Have you heard from a lot of fathers at the book events?

I did a full-day workshop in Zurich the other day for artist-parents. There were three dads there out of forty-four people. Even when things haven’t been explicitly for mums, mostly women or non-binary people turn up. So there’s been a modest amount, but even that is a good start.

Honoré Daumier, The Kiss, 1845–48.

Someone in the book suggests listing the birth of your children on your CV. Do you think this issue is also about a need to be more accommodating to all sorts of life situations, such as health issues, mental health struggles, or having to take time off from the art world for financial reasons?

Absolutely. I love the suggestion I talk about in the book, by Darren O’Donnell of the Toronto-based performance company Mammalian Diving Reflex, that instead of the unencumbered wealthy white man, we could assume that everyone has a vulnerability of some kind. All of this isn’t just to do with fairness, but enriching the art world by reflecting the diversity of human experience.

What are some specific changes you would like to see when it comes to how parents are treated in the art world?

The manifesto I put together in 2021 with a group of artists lists the most important points. One really simple thing is the timing of art events. Have a private view on 11:00 on Saturday with tea and pastries! A lot of this has to do with thoughtfulness and a willingness to be flexible. These things don’t require extra money, just for people to bother to think about them.

Mary Cassatt, Breakfast in Bed, 1897.