"I saw, in all these different practices, some kind of artistic creature who uses science but also design and technology to re-investigate the relationship with the Earth."—Ruben Jacobs, in our interview about his new book Artonauts.
“Parenting is complex and consumes time and attention; it places huge demands on your body; it restricts your time and mobility,” writes art critic and author Hettie Judah in her latest book, How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and other parents). These parental challenges are not unique to artists, but prove especially insidious for those in a precarious profession within a fickle industry. Backed by insights from Judah’s interviews with contemporary working artists, the book walks through many of the major institutions of the art world (such as art school, commercial galleries, and residencies) and captures what’s gone wrong and where there are already working solutions. She writes: “What is at issue here is not parenthood itself, but structures and habits within the art world that make it difficult for artist parents to fully participate.” In this interview, we speak about the difficulties of being a parent and a professional artist, prejudices against domesticity, and the need for an artist-mother paradigm.
The press release for your book describes it as “polemical.” After reading the book, however, I thought that didn’t seem a good descriptor because a polemic tends to be a hot-headed, emotional rant, whereas your book struck me as far more sober and research-based. How do you see it?
Well, I think it is quite emotional. A number of the people that have read it so far have said they found it a really emotional experience, maybe rooted in seeing the experiences that they just took for granted reflected back at them, and realizing that, actually, things could be a different way. I certainly felt a lot of fury working on this. And I certainly found the initial studies I did to be very, very upsetting.
Tell us more about that.
A few years ago, I did a study at the invitation of Kate McMillan, where I interviewed about 50 or so artist mothers about the impact of motherhood on their careers. It was really a question they hadn’t been asked before. They hadn’t been asked about really anything to do with motherhood, because motherhood is somewhat an unspeakable state in the art world. You know, there are artists mothers but often they’re very quiet about it, whether they’re hiding it actively, or just keeping it extremely private. A lot of the responses I got back, it was almost like I’d turned the faucet on: I got these extraordinary experiences shared with me of deep upset, deep hurt, and a sense of invisibility. Rooted in that, I think, is that the art world is not accepting the whole artist, they’re accepting the artist that conforms to what we historically think of as being “the artist,” which I guess is the really withdrawn, carefree, male artist.
From that study, I published a short essay called “Full, Messy and Beautiful,” which came out at the end of 2020. And then, having identified many, many areas in which the art world structurally pitched against mothers and artists with caring responsibilities, I then worked with a group of about 30 artists to put together a manifesto called “How Not to Exclude Artist Parents,” which came out around the start of 2021. That really seemed to strike a chord with people, and it’s now been translated into 16 different languages and into an audio recording, so it’s really spread around the world.
My desire with the manifesto was to provide artists with a toolkit for articulating the exclusion that they were experiencing, to articulate really simple ways in which things could be otherwise, and to invite institutions and residency programs to be more accommodating and thoughtful. The book is, as you say, very based in research, although the way I see it is this: it was quite important for me that this book would have a sense of poly-vocality. So, for it to not just be me talking about what I thought was right, but to give a sense of the fact that all artists are different, all people are different, and what’s right for one won’t always be right for everyone. I really wanted to see how we could do things differently, so I spoke to artists and organizations around the world that were essentially setting up alternative structures and suggesting alternative ways of doing things, and really questioning the established and received truths in the art world. I wanted to present a menu of different approaches that we might take, and put as much as I could into other people’s voices to allow them to speak for themselves.
In the book, you mention an article from Hyperallergic, in which some MFA students recall a faculty member telling them that “most successful female artists are either childless or lesbians.” And one of the students describes the effect it had on her, saying, “I think I was too young to be told something like that.” I’m really unsettled by this quote. What are we meant to do here: Describe the problem or stay quiet about the problem?
When she talks about being “too young” to hear that, I think that’s because when we are told things when we’re quite young, we take them on board and don’t forget—we really absorb them. And also, I think, maybe you’re too young to push back and say, “That’s your opinion, but actually, what about this artist, and this artist, and this artist. They’re all artist mothers or artist parents.” This is almost like an appendix to The Great Women Artists project, which is to say, until you can see some great women artists, until you’ve got resources to show you the artists, it’s really difficult to say, “Well, actually, you’re wrong.”
There are really amazing women painters. There are all these fantastic people who were celebrated in their own day—they weren’t even invisible then, they’ve just become invisible over time. And that’s the thing. Until there’s a pop cultural figure of the artist mother that we can celebrate, the artist mother is then to an extent an invisible character.
That was something that really came out in the interviews that I did with artists: there is no artist mother paradigm. So, when I, as a middle-aged woman, make art, people assume it’s my nice hobby. They don’t take me seriously because it’s not a paradigm that we celebrate or that’s particularly visible, culturally. But being an artist mother is an identity that, once it’s articulated, people feel very strongly. There are lots of organizations around the world, which I write about, and clearly it’s a kind of movement that’s gathering steam at the moment.
Just to be clear, your initial research was based on artists in the UK, but for the book, you expanded your view for a wider perspective?
Exactly, the very first study I did was all UK-based artists. I should say though, this is a very cosmopolitan country, so it included artists whose origins were in many different parts of the world, and who were in many different socioeconomic situations and many ages and stages of motherhood, as well.
You write that many of the issues faced by artist mothers – unequal domestic responsibilities, unequal pay, and so forth – are essentially the same that all mothers face, but with added complications. Can you walk us through some of the particulars for artist mothers?
The easiest parallel we can draw is with any kind of freelance or zero-hours work. So, you certainly have no HR department, you have no one offering you maternity leave or maternity cover, and unless you’re working, you’re not making any money. But also, part of being an artist is the fact that you’re quite often working speculatively, so you’re making work to explore your way around a subject or to explore an approach, and it’s not necessarily ever going to be shown. It’s more like part of your pathway towards being shown. Even if you do sell that art or it does get used as a commission, you’re not going to get paid for it for a very long time and, quite often, the remuneration is really poor.
Another thing that I go into in the book is that, of course, there have been lots of studies over the last years that have identified the structural sexism in the art world. As a female artist, you’re less likely to have gallery representation, and you’re less likely to be getting really good institutional shows. But also, another thing that’s a very glaring feature of the art world is how much of it is to do with image and aura, and how much of the networking takes place during what we think of as other people’s leisure time but are really difficult times for parents. So, a lot of those moments that the art world gets together, to network and to meet collectors or other artists or gallerists, take place around six in the evening, which if you’ve got small children is just completely out of the question. If you’re meant to take part in biennales and art fairs, which quite often mean a lot of traveling, this is really difficult, particularly if you’re a single parent.
How do you think the “image and aura” aspect comes out against artist mothers? In the book you write about the “seductive potency of the artist as a countercultural figure” and pose the question: “For what is one to rebel against if not domesticity and the conventions of family life?”
Part of the cachet or the image of being an artist is this ridiculous idea that you’re a kind of Bohemian figure that’s living a countercultural life, and you’re out there drinking and taking drugs, partying all night, and you’re not bound by the conventions of bourgeois morality and all that nonsense. You know, it’s 2022 and not 1935, but that’s still quite an intoxicating image. People still love that idea, despite the fact that it’s manifestly not great for anyone to be an alcoholic to further their career as an artist. So, I think some people feel that if you’re not out there being part of that myth, it can damage your image to an extent.
There’s a terrible ageism, as well. There’s a lovely Marilyn Minter quote, “The art world loves young bad boys and old ladies.” If you’re a young, sexy bloke in your early thirties, or if you’re a woman in your eighties, you’re going to be a market interest—those are the people that are looked to as sound investments. If you’re a woman in your late forties or fifties, it’s really, really hard to take 10 years off to raise a family and then to come back into the art world. To get any kind of interest from the market or from institutions is tough. You’re not seen as a sexy proposition at that point, even if the work that you’re making is totally radical and extraordinary. I think that’s particularly true in this era, where everyone’s very visible through social media. Maybe you need those years of experience to be producing something that’s different, that’s so considered, and so studied.
I also want to talk about the idea of work-life balance. You write that “it has become unacceptable to ask a woman in any career how she balances domestic and working life,” but that it’s nonetheless important to talk openly about how working parents can thrive. It seems common nowadays for people to prefer a “work-life integration” to a “work-life balance,” which can prove toxic in its own inescapable way. Where do you stand on that?
I think it’s a really personal thing. There are some people who really need to separate things. I’m a freelancer, so I’ve always worked from home, and I found that really difficult as a parent because those two things tend to slide into one another. If the needs of children are getting between you and your work, you can actually end up getting really resentful and cross, and I don’t think it’s a really healthy way to spend time with your children.
One of the artists that I interviewed, Rachel Howard, is an amazing painter who has four children. She talked about having two keys: one to her home, one to her studio. When she turned the key in her studio door, she was 100% artist. When she closed that door and turned the key to the home, she was totally present as a mother. If you can achieve that, that’s amazing. That’s obviously not going to be possible for everyone. One thing that made it possible for her is that she was living outside of London. Living in a city center makes it pretty difficult to have a separate studio near the home.
I used to really envy friends that had “nine to five” jobs, so that when they got home, they were 100% present and just really pleased to see their children. Obviously, technology has made the demand to be present all the time much more prevalent. The art world is really, really bad for that as well. The dominant working culture in the art world is a particularly toxic working culture in which people are really expected to be present 24/7. It’s anticipated that you’re going to work, you’re going to travel an enormous amount for work, that you’re going to be able to respond to things immediately. But a lot of this is just bad organization and a lack of respect for one another, as well. It’s not psychologically sustainable to ask people to constantly be available, to ask people not to ever turn off.
There are other artists who really enjoy making work with their children and enjoy having children in their space while they’re making work. One of the projects that I look at in the book is Mother House Studios in South London, which is an integrated studio model where you have a huge area for the children in the middle with lots of Montessori-style play activities, and then around that is a kind of small studio complex for artists. There’s no doors on it, and the kids can kind of come and go between the two spaces. The idea with that is for both the mother and the child to be able to visit one another whenever they want. There won’t be that anxiety and, actually, they’ll both be happier doing their own thing. That works brilliantly for some people, but it’s not going to work for all artists.
It probably matters very much what type of art you’re making. My field is photography, but I can imagine artists in other media face really different challenges.
Yes, absolutely. Some media are very, very time-hungry, and also take a lot of time to set up and clear up from, like oil painting. It’s hard to start working in oils during a child’s naptime. And it’s obviously not particularly great to have oil paints around kids in any case: if eaten, they might kill you quite fast, and they’re messy. So, I looked also at this paradigm of women and craft work. You can see there’s a reason behind this association between women in the feminist movement and crafts like crochet and quilting, because these are the things that you can pick up and start immediately, and when you need to go look after your kid, all you need to do is to put it on a shelf.
Photography is an interesting one because the field has changed so much. If we were talking 30 years ago, it could be really difficult I imagine, because you’d have lots of toxic chemicals around, and you’d need really focused time in a darkroom where you couldn’t be disturbed, which might make it really tricky with a kid. Nowadays, I’m guessing you have to do an awful lot of time doing post-production on a computer, which is fiddly and probably quite involving and time consuming, but I guess you can pick it up and put it down faster.
I think for any kind of creative endeavor, we do require a certain amount of focus. And it can be quite difficult to have that free brain space when a lot of your head is taken up with, you know, packed lunches and what gym kit somebody needs to take to school. Having children of whatever age takes up an awful lot of headspace and focus. So, there were certainly people who told me that they switched to doing video work, embroidery work, or quilting or collage—something that, when they were working from home, was less greedy for space, was easier to pick up and put down, and didn’t require toxic material around.
You also write that the domestic space and motherhood are still looked down upon as subjects in art. Is that really still what you see from your position as an art critic? Are they not interesting subjects?
Well, obviously, you’re talking to somebody that writes a lot about art and motherhood and the domestic sphere, so, obviously, I might find it exciting. I think any subject can be exciting, it just depends what you do with it. But if we’re looking at art historically, and at what are considered to be the “great” subjects, it’s history painting, it’s portraiture in the grand style, it’s seascapes and landscapes, and still life paintings. Of course, there are great artists that work in the domestic sphere – Pierre Bonnard being one that springs to mind immediately – but certainly the reality of parental life and parenting is not considered interesting subject matter.
We’ve certainly encountered lots of artists who, when they wanted to make work about maternity at art school, were told that it wasn’t an interesting subject for art. That it was kind of “mummy stuff.” Those prejudices are still there in art schools. One of the big issues, to my mind, is that while there was some work made on the subject during the feminist avant-garde [of the 1970s], apart from like a very small number of notable examples like Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, most of that work hasn’t really been historicized. Most of that work is now invisible to us, even though many of those artists are still alive.
If work about motherhood and work about the domestic sphere – made not in a romanticizing way by a male artist, but by people who are working on it from lived experience – isn’t being shown, and isn’t part of the discourse of the art school, then what you’ll come to think of as being “great art” will certainly exclude motherhood and the domestic realm. You need to have a paradigm for it.
Of course, not all art on motherhood and the domestic sphere is going to be great, there’s bound to be some terrible art! The whole point is saying that it’s a potentially great subject. I’m not saying artist mothers are necessarily better than any other kinds of artists. It’s just to say, we are also artists.
Can’t it also be the opposite problem, too, though, that women creating art on the domestic space is so common that it could be seen as cliché? Artists like Mary Cassatt come to mind for me, where a female artist can be accepted as long as she’s “staying in her lane” of domesticity and children and so forth.
Part of the issue there, and I think you’ve articulated it really well, is that if one takes as a starting position that women can’t be good artists, and the subject matter of women painters is motherhood and the domestic realm, then motherhood and the domestic realm are the subjects of bad painters. So it’s a self-fulfilling thing: that’s “women’s stuff.” That’s what “bad painters” look at. Those are subjects that are suitable for them. In diminishing the artist, it actually diminishes the subject as well.
There are still people like Georg Baselitz, who talks about how women “don’t paint very well.” When I was growing up, it was very much part of the discourse. One of the main critics of the daily paper, Brian Sewell, used to talk about how women can’t be good painters.
Since one of the main thrusts behind your book is to create change within institutions, what do you think is the first move forward?
The nub of the problem is that many of the structures in the art world still treat artists as carefree, as though they’re not a parent and don’t have caring responsibilities. So, even having that first thought – the artist might also be a mother or a parent – and putting the structures in place to accommodate that is the first move. It’s not asking for huge, expensive changes, it’s to do with having the forethought that caretaking is something to take into consideration. It means to have conversations with your artists to ask them what they want, what they need. Being a little bit flexible, and not always making last minute demands of people. I mean, a lot of these things are really small changes. What’s really striking is that actually, most of this just comes down to pure thoughtlessness. This is really just to do with bothering to say, “Oh, maybe they’re a parent and they might need X, Y, and Z,” or maybe bothering to ask them what they want. What we’re really asking people to be is polite and thoughtful. I mean, it’s a real “mother” kind of thing to ask! Be polite, be thoughtful, mind your manners.
It’s just sad to see the way people are treated. There’s this fantastic performance artist called Echo Morgan who often performs naked. She’s got this very androgynous body, and covers herself in body paint with Chinese characters painted on her, and it looks extraordinary. As soon as she announced that she was pregnant, two curators that had booked her canceled, and people just stopped contacting her. Nobody had a conversation with her, or just asked: “How do you feel about performing pregnant?” Or, “Would you like us to delay your performance by a year?” As an artist, you develop these long term relationships with curators, and to suddenly just have people stop talking to you… It happens over and over and over again. The curators or the commissioning bodies just stop speaking to people when they become pregnant as if they’re just going to suddenly stop making art and become incapable. So, the really basic thing to do is just to stay in contact. People don’t suddenly become bad artists just because they’re pregnant.
I find the art world, in general, quite opportunistic and especially fickle: Today you’re interesting and I have time for you, tomorrow we’ll see.
Bits of the art world can be like that, and hopefully, other bits of the art world are less like that. One of the gallerists I interviewed, Pilar Corrias, who has a lot of artist mothers on her roster, said to me: The thing is, if you’re a good gallerist, you’re in this for the long term. You don’t just pick someone up because they’re hot for a couple of months. You have a long term relationship with the artist and you support them. In the grand scheme of things, the years of motherhood, where they’re going to be looking after small children, are very short, you know? It’s just a couple of years and, if you ride that out, you have this really good relationship with an artist, which is going to work out for both of you.
This short term thinking actually doesn’t do anyone any good. It’s opportunistic, as you say. That horrible, market-driven, kind of thing, like talking about art as an asset class, is really toxic and I think all of us need to shy away from behavior reminiscent of that kind of business.
You also make the distinction in your book between being “baby-friendly” and “parent-friendly.” Can you explain how that can help?
I used to live near a wonderful museum in Belgium called Bozar, which offers a really brilliant family program. So, I remember I used to be able to go around Bozar with my kids, and at maybe 10 points around an exhibition, they’d be able to sit down and do an activity linked to an artwork in the show. That’s a really wonderful “family-friendly” way of being a museum.
There’s this crucial distinction, I think, between establishing structures that feed the needs of the child, in which the child is at the center of things, and also putting on events where you’re putting the parents at the center of things. So, there can be baby-friendly talks or symposia, where a parent can come with babies or small children and can have a relaxed visit. It allows the parent to be essentially addressed as a thinking being. God forbid! A mother with a small child and an intellectual capacity! But, essentially, it’s not entertainment for the kids, it’s to do with keeping parents part of the conversation, keeping them stimulated.
I think it’s a really easy thing to program during the day but, again, it’s just a matter of having that thought. Because, as a parent, I think if you go to something that doesn’t say “baby friendly,” you feel incredibly self-conscious if you need to breastfeed, or if your kid’s fussy, or you need to take them in and out of the room to comfort them. Whereas if you make that offer up front, that it’s all welcome, it makes a big difference.
What’s the one thing you wish more people knew about artist-mothers?
I conclude the book by talking about centering vulnerability. I think that’s the big shift. It would be amazing not to assume that everyone is carefree, wealthy, able bodied, full of abundant time, and abundant presence. We need to structure the art world as if everyone has a vulnerability of whatever kind, whether that’s mental health, mobility, or care requirements, and to treat people accordingly. To value people’s time and value people’s presence accordingly. That would make the art world more accessible to all kinds of people, not just artist parents.
How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and other parents) is available from publisher Lund Humphries. Learn more about author Hettie Judah on her website.