A recent survey conducted by swissinfo.cy and RTS, Switzerland’s public television, has found that over the last decade, male artists have vastly outnumbered female artists in exhibitions held at 80 of Switzerland’s museums. This study highlights that despite museums trying to correct issues of diversity and underrepresentation for female artists that persist in today’s institutions worldwide, there is still much work to be done.
More than 100 museums were contacted for the survey and about 60% of those museums provided information on the demographics of their exhibitions between 2008 and 2018. What they found was that in the last ten years, only 26% of the solo exhibitions held at the 80 museums surveyed were of women artists. In group exhibitions, the number of women featured alongside men artists was only slightly higher at 31%.
There were some museums that have made a concerted effort to highlight women artists including the Musée Alexis Forel in Morges which, of all of their solo exhibitions in the last 10 years, 81% of them were women. Yvan Schwab, director of the Musée Alexis Forel since 2000, commented that the museum has no specific quotas to fill regarding gender but he has paid extra attention to female artists during his time at the museum. The Musée Alexis Forel was joined by the Museum Nairs (55% of solo exhibitions were of women artists), Kunsthalle Basel (53%), Centre d’art Pasquart (52%), and Kunsthaus Grenchen (51%) as museums that ranked among the highest in representing women artists. At the other end of the spectrum, the Maison Tavel, Musée Rath, Pinacoteca communal, Museo civico Villa dei Cedri, and Museum Oskar Reinhart held no solo exhibitions for female artists in the last decade. Over all, only 10% of the museums held more solo shows by women than men.
The survey also found that some of the most popular Swiss museums that participated performed poorly when the representation of female artists is taken into consideration. Regarding solo exhibitions, only 25% of the Château de Chillon’s were of female artists, 20% of the Kunstmuseum Bern’s and Fondation Beyeler’s, 15% of the Kunsthaus Zürich’s, 11% of the Musée d’art et d’histoire’s, 9% of the Kunstmuseum Basel’s, and 6% of the Zentrum Paul Klee’s were of women artists.
‘Our museum reflects the artistic rules and principles of the last 600 years – there were lots more men. When we have contemporary art shows, however, we seek to install a balance between sexes,’ said Björn Quellenberg, a spokesperson for the Kunsthaus Zürich in response to the survey. ‘When we ask the public what they would like to see, they often tell us the names of famous male artists.’
Nina Zimmer, director of the Kunstmuseum Bern, also recognized the imbalance of representation at the museum. Zimmer, who has worked with the Kunstmuseum Bern since 2016, has been working to ‘reflect general diversity in society’ by equally representing men and women artists. ‘We also buy works by women artists for our collections; we have a gap to fill,’ said Zimmer.
Given that this survey does cover the past decade, it does not show the nuances of recent years as many museums have made efforts to diversify their collections and the artists they represent. However, it does show that issues of underrepresentation are deep rooted and can’t be fixed by temporary trends.
The survey follows another, more detailed study of US museums that was released in February of this year that showed that of 18 major US museums, only 13% of their entire collections were female artists (and of the 87% of male artists, 85% of them were white). Moreover, museums and auction houses are responding to a more equal representation offering exhibitions that feature women only, such as ‘NOMEN’, an upcoming exhibition at Phillips, and ‘Sixty Years’, an exhibition at Tate Modern highlighting influential women artists of the past 60 years in Britain.