Louis Le Vaillant, director and curator of the Johnston Collection, was tired of hearing men say they couldn’t knit or sew. William Johnston is an antiques and decorative art dealer whose estate includes the East Melbourne House Museum.
Le Vaillant decided to create an exhibition for the summer to challenge audiences who are used to seeing the works of women artisans.
Le Vaillant asked 17 male artists to create new works in response to the items in the collection. The collection trustees responded positively when Le Vaillant presented the men’s only idea.
Bring it on! They were willing to push the boundaries of art in an exhibition. We were curious to see what would come of it. I thought ‘the challenge was out there.’
Statistics do indicate an imbalance. Since the “inspired by” show began in the early 2000s, there have been 3750 women and three men.
It is still questionable if an all-male exhibit is appropriate in the #metoo era, which is pushing women’s voices forward.
What can you do to help men?
Kate Just has been knitting art for nearly 20 years. She is the head of graduate courses at the Victorian College of the Arts. Her latest work is A Year of Knitting Anonymous Was A Woman. By early December, she had completed 41 panels with 730 825 stitches.
Just’s research into reports about the underrepresentation of women in the arts is key to the project. She quotes global statistics showing that there are no females in the Top 0.03% of Western art auction markets, where 40% is concentrated.
The gender pay gap is greater for men in the arts than it is in other industries. According to research, artists make a little over a third of their income through their artistic efforts. Women earn an average of $16,400, while men earn $22,100.
The Countess report monitors the gender representation of Australian artists in contemporary art. It has analyzed 13,000 exhibiting artists’ work, the outcomes of the Australia Council grant, as well as staff and board members at arts organizations. The report found that women were equally represented at art fairs, commercial galleries, and prize awards in 2018 compared to 2016.
The representation of women in state galleries funded by taxpayers has fallen ( from 37 to 34% since 2016).
Le Vaillant was prepared for the criticism and trolling that would follow the men’s-only exhibit after receiving outraged emails from social media and other forms of criticism (at the time, it was over some decorative street artwork with cake icing and yarn bombing).
He says, “It’s not happening.” It is an incredible irony that this is not happening. “It’s a very benign exhibition.”
Is there a double standard based on gender? Le Vaillant admits that this is the case: “Maybe because men did these works in the play.” Are men allowed to push the boundaries while women are pigeonholed by society?
Lace and Statements
The work on display is a mixture of traditional and contemporary. This includes the lace and embroidery made by three generations of Collyer men and the knitting done by Tristan Brumby Rendell. Luke Hockley also created handmade shirts.
Some pieces have a more direct message. The sculptural gallows ceiling chandelier by textile artist Douglas McManus is a very confronting piece.
The artwork is based on a Green Room Chandelier in the Johnston House and a portrait of Edward Lord Montagu, who was a founding member of the Guy Fawkes Night Observance. It includes a bleeding man and a hanging person as a comment on how society’s expectations can damage men’s spirits.
Lucas Grogan, a young quilter, also works on similar themes. Dawn Quilt with pillowcases that read “FIGHT” or “FLIGHT” displays quilting, smocking, and embroidery skills.
The quality of the collection and the majority – but certainly not all – of the works displayed are important. My tour group of five women (visits by booking only) all agreed that the majority of jobs were worth saying, but not all.
Le Vaillant agrees with this assessment. Le Vaillant says, “I thought this would be an easy exhibition to put together but… it took a great deal of encouragement for some of the artists to display their work in public.”
This appears to contradict the claim that many men are involved in these traditional gendered crafts. However, my study found that male knitters would not knit out in public for fear of homophobic abuse.
The women who knitted for them also “overpraised” the men, which attracted unwanted attention.
In an interview I conducted for my research, Jude Skeers said that his novelty as a man knitter helped to publicize his art knitting. This was especially true given the low value of knitting by women.
Men are more praised for their craft than women, especially when it comes to woodworking, glasswork and ceramics. This is regarded as a more advanced craft than textiles. It’s not only true for textiles.
The film A Boy’s Own Story is a challenging work of art that has a lot to offer. However, it contributes to the long-standing inequity between men and women. It tries to balance the scales, but it goes too far the other way and excludes women.