Against an Art World That Excludes Mothers

Gari Melchers, “Mother and Child” (ca. 1920), oil on paperboard, 23 1/4 x 19 3/4 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum (image via Smithsonian Institution)

It comes as no surprise that artists who become mothers have a difficult time maintaining their art careers. Indeed, this is so obvious that I initially wondered why Hettie Judah, who is the chief art critic for the British newspaper the i, would even write a book about it. It seems apparent that pregnancy diverts energy; the responsibilities of raising children are all-consuming; the bulk of duties fall on women; and the art world discriminates … I could go on. 

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How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and Other Parents) by Hettie Judah (2023) (image courtesy Lund Humphries)

But in six short chapters, Judah provides context on the history of sexism in the art world and examples of possible solutions to abide this dilemma. In How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and Other Parents) (2023), she notes that there are currently more women graduating from art schools than men, but these proportions are not replicated in sales or museum acquisitions for women artists. She writes that today, only 32% of artists represented by London’s leading galleries are women, and historically, women have been excluded from art schools and life drawing sessions since the 1800s. 

Judah then moves into personal narratives from interviews with more than 50 artist mothers. A few accounts from Judah’s book illuminate current innovations meant to help parent artists pursue both endeavors simultaneously.

The Artist/Mother network in the United States, for example, began as a podcast and has since become a multi-faceted gathering place, demonstrating how women artists are successfully forming collectives and spaces to make, critique, and show work. In South Korea, Social Club for Parenting Artists aims to help facilitate a community for parents who still wish to pursue their art careers. In South London, Mother House Studios provides working space for artists alongside play spaces for their children. 

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Hettie Judah (© Alex Schneideman; photo courtesy Lund Humphries)

One artist, Lenka Clayton, applied for and received funding to formalize her own stay-at-home artist residency, meaning she no longer had to leave home for weeks or months at a time. During her residency, she explored the “fragmented focus, nap-length studio time, limited movement and resources, and general upheaval that parenthood brings,” allowing these conditions to shape her work. Some of the grant money also went to childcare: three hours, three times a week, for two years. 

A brilliant project called galerie asterisk* in Berlin presents exhibitions that re-configure timelines for parents and their children. The gallery represents 139 artists, all of whom are parents. Artists can apply for retroactive solo exhibitions in the year their children were born, conceptually marking the years when childbirth, and the art world’s lack of support for new parents, took them out of commission. The shows are listed on the gallery’s website with one image and a mention of the exhibition, making up for gaps in the artists’ CVs during years of childbirth.

Judah’s important book examines the current climate of discrimination against parents who are also artists and points to the impediments of motherhood as symptomatic of wilder societal ills. She makes a valid point in her conclusion, arguing an art world that “does not include artist mothers fails to engage with life in full.”

How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and Other Parents) (2023) by Hettie Judah is published by Lund Humphries in association with Sotheby’s Institute of Art and is available online and in bookstores.

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