In the age of viral feminist hashtags and global movements against gender discrimination, it’s perhaps surprising that it has taken until now for Australia to open its first contemporary art gallery focusing exclusively on female artists.
Finkelstein Gallery, which opens in Melbourne on 29 August, might be the first, but its founder hopes it won’t be the last. The gallery is the brainchild of the art consultant Lisa Fehily, whose 15 years of experience in the field led her to the project.
“Having worked with artists for many years – artists, collectors, and institutions – I’ve really been witness to female artists being often overlooked, not put forward for important exhibitions, institutions predominantly considering male artists for collections,” Fehily told Guardian Australia.
She sees Finkelstein Gallery building on the work of initiatives such as the National Gallery of Australia’s recent #knowmyname campaign to highlight female artists, which was itself building on a campaign by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC.
Fehily also paid close attention to the Countess Report – Australian contemporary art’s answer to the VIDA Count for literature – which tracks the underrepresentation of female artists in media, galleries, prizes, funding rounds and more.
She was particularly motivated by the calls from institutions and artists internationally to make female artists household names. “I feel that it’s a bit of a worldwide movement from a society perspective,” she said. “There’s a lot of work to be done for female artists.”
The seeds of the project were planted in 2007, when Fehily went back to university as a mature student to study art. She had previously been, with her ex-husband, an enthusiastic art collector. While she eventually moved into art theory, the time spent in practice had a profound effect on her.
“I began to understand what it took to be an artist,” she said. “You have to have headspace to think about the art, then you have to plan, then you have to execute the art. It’s a huge process … I began to understand that where I’d be most valuable in the industry would be helping artists.”
Privately funded with the assistance of a silent partner, Finkelstein will represent a “small, exclusive” group of 10 artists. With a smaller cohort, Fehily hopes to offer more intense career development than often comes with traditional gallery representation, and is particularly focused on a global path for her artists: “to put them into strategic collections, institutions, so they can leave their legacy”.
The first exhibition will feature multiple works from the artists, eight of whom are from Australia – Cigdem Aydemir, Kate Baker, Monika Behrens, Coady, Deborah Kelly, Louise Paramor, Lisa Roet and Kate Rohde – alongside two international artists – Sonal Kantaria from the UK, and Kim Lieberman from South Africa. The artists work across media, including performance, visual art, sculpture, glass and text.
Despite Finkelstein Gallery being clearly an affirmative action project, Fehily is reluctant to call herself a feminist, though she eventually conceded it with a qualifier. “I’m a feminist in that I feel that [women] need more opportunities in our industry. We’ve been overlooked,” she said. She isn’t interested in equality; rather, she wants female artists to be valued “for who they are”.
Fehily also sees a more general purpose in pursuing the project at this time: an understanding of how “desperately difficult” it is for artists in Australia to secure funding to make new work.
“Funding in general is really hard to come by,” she said. “So for me it’s very important to open a commercial space now and to create a new group of private collectors who could hopefully be our philanthropic donors for the future. I feel we’ve got a part to play in that.”
Despite the gallery putting female artists first, establishing Finkelstein has involved working with curators, collectors and institutional representatives regardless of gender. She isn’t closing the door to representing artists other than women in the future, but Fehily says that for now, “I think it’s really important that we are female-run, we consist of female artists.”
“As contemporary art mirrors society, I think it’s the perfect time for our gallery. If others spring up that are just representing women artists, I’d be thrilled with that too. I think that it’s certainly part of a global recognition and understanding of a woman’s voice, and I’m privileged to hopefully play a small part in assisting that.”