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Are we seeing a ketchup effect? Two years after #MeToo arrived, Denmark discusses equality and gender quotas in typically haphazard fashion, but at a new level.

I’m a counter. I have been for years. I count the number of women writers in the newspaper that someone left behind in the café. I count the number of women in the end credits at the cinema. But most of all, I do my counting in the art world. I’ve been doing it so long that it’s become automatic, something I hardly think about as I scan the latest invitation, poster or press release: how many artists in total? How many of them are women?

As any counter knows – and there are plenty of us around – you rarely need to spend much time looking at the exhibition programmes at Danish institutions before you’ll see your abacus growing side-heavy. A current example is the exhibition Circus at Gl. Holtegaard, which shows modern and contemporary art by a total of thirty-one artists, four of whom are women. I’m genuinely puzzled by that sort of thing.

Pernille Albrethsen. Illustration: Jenz Koudahl.

Most institutions plan their programmes years in advance. People spend a long time working on each exhibition: fundraising, curating, editing the catalogue, creating posters, taking out ads, writing press releases, etc. And still no one has spotted any discrepancy at any point along the way? Or is something else going on?

The most obvious explanation is that a subconscious repetition of the past’s sad patterns continues to thrive in the Danish art world. A cliché, but only because it’s true.

At the same time, it seems that things are stirring on several fronts these days. There are several reasons for this, some of which can probably be attributed to the general state of revolution seen these years.

In early September, the director of Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Michael Thouber, made a declaration in Danish media stating that equality on the Danish art scene is progressing far too slowly: the time had come for gender quotas. Thouber was spurred on by a US survey (by the editorial platform In Other Words in collaboration with Artnet News), which showed, among other things, that women artists account for just two per cent of all sales completed at auctions globally during the last decade.

Even though the study focused on the United States – documenting sad statistics regarding American museums’ acquisitions of works by women artists – its general principles could of course be transposed to Danish conditions. Following this, the debate soon grew quite muddied, as it often does in Denmark when talking about issues of a structural nature, such as gender equality. However, there is much to suggest that the debate continues, quietly and steadily. Just a few days ago, for instance, Thouber was once again interviewed about his ideas on quotas, this time by the newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad.

There is also something different about this particular discussion – this most recent bout in the equality battle. For example, I recently attended a dinner party with a group of people who are neither counters nor have anything to do with art, but who were greatly outraged by the figures they had heard on the radio about the under-representation of women artists at Danish art institutions. That’s new. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever seen the subject arouse genuine interest outside the usual suspects. Perhaps several decades of hard shaking have finally dislodged the ketchup?

Is #MeToo back?

There are other stirrings, too, one of which concerns the story of Denmark and #MeToo. Even when the movement was only three or four months old, it wasn’t hard to spot where it was headed. ‘Uden skyggen af #MeToo’ (Without a trace of #MeToo) was the title of an article I wrote about the spring exhibition programme on the Danish art scene, published January 2018. Things went on exactly as predicted. #MeToo never prompted a major all-pervading debate on social equality at a fundamental level.

In this respect, too, the Danish public debate is different from that of the rest of Scandinavia. For example, this is evident from a recently published study (by Jannie Møller Hartley at Roskilde University, and Tina Askanius at Malmö University) which compares media coverage of #MeToo in Denmark and Sweden.

In this study, good old-fashioned counting showed that Swedish newspapers have published four times as many articles on the subject as their Danish counterparts. At the same time, Danish media mainly presented #MeToo as a topic of debate, one on which you could have many different views – not as a general structural problem that requires political resolve and legislative change. In Sweden, #MeToo was described as a “popular movement” and “a revolution.” While Danish media ran many stories on “witch hunts” and “lynch mobs,” such angles were largely absent from Swedish reports. This is definitely an important study, even if its conclusions were hardly surprising to observers from this side of the Sound.

On the other hand, it is quite surprising to see that just recently, around the two-year mark of the #MeToo movement, the equality debate is beginning to gain traction again. The tendency can be observed in several different industries (eg. within the military, the acting profession), but within the visual arts we see many – artists and other agents – once again beginning to post personal stories on social media about unpleasant experiences they’ve had as a result of their gender: in their own families, at school, at the art academy, at university, at work, etc. Exactly the kind of confessional testimonies that acted as the key modus operandi of #MeToo two years back.

The Danish delay

It is worth noting that Thouber’s public expression of frustration with gender imbalance in the Danish art world comes thirteen years after something similar happened on Swedish soil, namely in 2006 when Lars Nittve, then director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, launched his ideas on “The Second Museum of Our Wishes” in Swedish media.

Nittve argued that the time had come to adjust the gender imbalance in the museum’s older modern collection, asking the Swedish state to donate a lump sum of SEK 50 million to remedy the matter. The mission succeeded. The state contributed some of the funds, while the rest came from private donors, after which the museum was able to purchase works by major artists such as Judy Chicago, Hilma af Klint, Monica Sjöö, and Louise Bourgeois. It was a very clever move by the museum, which secured funding to expand its collection with important works. There is also much to suggest that the operation became a game changer at a wider level.

Alicja Kwade’s Pars Pro Toto, 2018, was commissioned for Louisiana’s exhibition The Moon, 2018. It was subsequently added to the museum’s collection, making it the first work by a woman artist in the museum’s sculpture park. Photo: Marie Laurberg.

Some may argue that the fact that Nittve and Thouber are both men is of no importance, but it probably is considering how male debaters and public figures generally have greater impact on public discussions than their female counterparts. Even so, seeing both directors actively using their positions of power in aid of this cause is certainly a positive thing.

We do not know as yet whether Thouber’s call will have a long-term effect, even if just strategically. One can hope that the backward state of affairs in Denmark is just a delay. If, however, we compare Denmark and Sweden in regard to other equality issues, such as earmarked paternity leave for men, the outlook is not encouraging.

While Sweden introduced earmarked parental leave for men back in 1995, it still hasn’t been introduced in Denmark. Or, to be exact: this summer, the EU adopted a directive introducing a right to four months’ parental leave for each parent, two months of which cannot be transferred to the other parent. The directive will not enter into force in Denmark until it has been transposed into current Danish regulation, which must be done no later than 2022. The result is a quota directed by outside forces – rather an embarrassment, not least because it showcases how Denmark couldn’t put its affairs in order long ago. All studies point to the need for such a move, demonstrating how much it means for equality, the possibility of equal pay, etc.

So what about the realm of art? While Norway and Sweden have long enjoyed greater equality on their art scenes than Denmark, neither employ quotas. Still, their statistics are much better than Denmark’s – a fact I can only explain by contending that the rest of Scandinavia has a belief in equality embedded at a more fundamental level, and hence a deeper awareness of not repeating the mistakes of the past, of being self-critical about biases, selection processes, etc. Tellingly, the term mställdhet is not just the Swedish term for “equality,” but a concept that is perceived as something particularly Swedish, a crucial part of the country’s cultural self-image.

The question is, then – in view of the current new wave of Danish #MeToo activity and the public self-awareness seen even at the exalted level of an art venue director – whether we dare hope that both #MeToo and full gender equality at art institutions are simply arriving in Denmark with some delay. Break out those abacuses again.

Museums are making progress 

The last census of state-recognised Danish museums’ purchases and exhibitions of women artists was undertaken in 2014, specifically in the form of art historian Hans Dam Christensen’s study “Med kønnet på museum” (The gendered museum).

The study scrutinised the number of solo exhibitions featuring women artists and the museums’ acquisitions of works by women artists during 2005–2012. The results showed that male artists were still greatly favoured over their female counterparts. This prompted a brief discussion of the topic in the media. At Kunstkritikk, we were puzzled by the disappointing figures, publishing the article ‘Fordelene ved at være kvindelig kunstner’ (The advantages of being a woman artist) in which we compared conditions in Denmark with Norway, which fared much better back then, too.

Five years have gone by since Dam Christensen published his study, and I’m curious: how have things progressed since then? While the whole perspective may seem a bit passé in 2019, where so many of us are sick to death of the mania for dividing everything into matters of “men” versus “women” – to say nothing of those who reject gender-binary categories altogether – we still see an inequality that is not only quite factual, but is also the approach used as the basis of previous studies. So for the sake of comparison, it makes sense to retain this perspective.

Just as Hans Dam Christensen did, we have counted the number of solo shows presented at the three major museums singled out in the 2014 article – ARoS, Louisiana, and the National Gallery of Denmark – this time focusing on 2013–2019. Note that we have only included exhibitions on visual arts, not architecture. If an exhibition was created by a duo featuring both genders, that exhibition was not included at all, meaning that it hasn’t counted towards the total score of men or women. The inventory was taken on the basis of information appearing on the institutions’ own websites.

Our study shows that during 2013–2019, ARoS presented 34 solo exhibitions, 10 of which featured women, resulting in a relative share of 29/71 per cent (during 2005–2012 the figure was 16/84). Louisiana presented 16 solo shows with women and 25 with men, resulting in a ratio of 39/61 per cent (the corresponding figures for the first period were 24/76). At the National Gallery of Denmark, the figures come to 9 women and 17 men, corresponding to 35/65 per cent (first period: 14/86 per cent).

As unscientific as this count may be, we can conclude that although gender representation remains slanted in favour of the men, things have improved considerably at all three museums. We should also note that there is little difference between the two ‘most equal’ museums, Louisiana and the National Gallery of Denmark, even though the former is a museum of modern art, while the latter is charged with covering seven hundred years of cultural heritage.

Of course, it would be interesting to see figures on the three museums’ recent acquisitions; those figures are particularly important because they say a lot about whether women artists are even given the opportunity to have long-lasting lives as artists with solid and sustained careers.

Hopefully, we will learn more soon: this week, the Association of Danish Museums (ODM) will publish the results of a survey conducted among the museums this fall. For example, it will provide figures on the number of women artists presented at the museums, and how many works by women artists they have bought over the last fifteen years.

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