Art, Feminism and Wikipedia: Reflecting on an Edit-a-thon

Megan Hyde
May 4, 2018 · 4 min read
Photograph of Roshni Kaila, UWA 2018 Student Guild Women’s Affairs Officer, speaking at the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, 17 March 2018. Credit: Caine Chennatt.

Gender inequality exists in the world. Thanks to activist Tarana Burke’s influential #metoo, this fact has been brought into the centre of an international conversation. While raising awareness is a crucial step, figuring out how to combat such inequalities through action can seem daunting, especially for those without a platform or position of power. And, of course, women are already disproportionately underrepresented within powerful positions.

In 2013, Art+Feminism launched an international campaign using Wikipedia’s democratic platform to empower people, especially female-identifying, to take action. The campaign’s target is two-fold: to improve coverage of women in the visual artists and to teach women how to edit Wikipedia. A 2011 survey from the Wikimedia Foundation, the organisation that runs Wikipedia, found that only 9% of its contributors identified as female and less than 1% as trans. And this gender gap is just one of Wikipedia’s biases, as geographical, lingual and socio-economic factors heavily influence participation rates. These disparities undoubtedly affect the content of the world’s most influential online encyclopedia.

Photograph of participants during the LWAG edit-a-thon, 17 March 2018. Credit: Caine Chennatt.

I have been following Art+Feminism’s work since its beginnings and was excited by the prospect of bringing together Paper Mountain and Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery for a weekend-long edit-a-thon. The collaboration seemed fruitful: two art organisations with activist-underpinnings and overlapping but still distinct audiences. Paper Mountain’s communal spirit and co-working Common Room seemed an ideal space for such work; LWAG’s Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art, the largest public collection of women’s art in Australia, is a gem and national leader in this field. LWAG gave the initiative institutional backing; Paper Mountain gave it a DIY spirit.

Our call on social media for artists’ names to frame our research efforts ignited a lively response. Many chimed in with the names of artists, friends and influencers. Such a vocal reaction was heartening and suggested that this work resonated strongly with many in Perth. The buzz garnered allowed us to reach new participants, including a long-time Wikipedia editor whose expert assistance during the workshops was invaluable (thank you, Samuel!).

At the same time, I worried: how do you begin to start such an initiative when there are thousands upon thousands of fantastic, underappreciated female artists? And was the list that was being generated on Facebook feel too much like a clique, a who’s-who of women in Perth’s art scene? What about women not connected to Facebook? What about those who were no longer living?

Photograph of participants at work editing Wikipedia at LWAG, 17 March 2018. Credit: Caine Chennatt.

For our research efforts, we focused on the artists included in the current Cruthers Collections exhibition, FLORA, as well as female-identifying artists associated with WA in general. We scoured the State Library and the University of Western Australia libraries, gathering primary sources on over 180 artists, with a special focus on those from indigenous and immigrant communities. We provided these sources as well as the social media-generated list (which overlapped) to attendees, who could select one of these artists or an artist of their own choosing.

Together Samuel, Kate and Caine at LWAG, and I were able to familiarise roughly 40 participants across the weekend with the process of editing on Wikipedia. We edited content, added citations and created pages for numerous artists. It was a spirited and collaborative two days, filled with the generosity of individuals willing to give their time to help improve recognition of women artists. For me, the most fulfilling aspect was the conversations: the questions, provocations and discussions that sparked around the room.

Photograph of participants on a snack break at the LWAG edit-a-thon, 17 March 2018. Credit: Caine Chennatt.

Familiarising women with editing Wikipedia is an important step in improving content on a site with enormous reach, but it is not without challenges. Not only does it take significant time to learn how to edit Wikipedia (not to mention the hostile editing wars that can later deter), but women artists face a dearth of representation within the media. How can you create Wiki pages for artists when there is a lack of published content on those artists to begin with? How can you reference forms of knowledge linked to oral histories?

In 2008, artist and activist Elvis Richardson began publishing data on gender representation in the contemporary visual arts in Australia, the results of which are presented in The Countess Report. One of Richardson’s findings: ‘A major influence on the perceived visibility and impact of female artists is their extremely low representation in art media — considerably lower than their actual presence in exhibitions and on gallery rosters’.

I would love to see more Perth organisations working together to improve awareness of female-identifying artists through Wikipedia. After all, Art+Feminism provides tools and resources to make the process much easier. But Wikipedia does not publish original research; it is an encyclopedia that references information from previously published sources. Improving the numbers of female Wikipedia editors is productive work but it does not address the fact that women, especially women from marginalised communities, are still neglected in art and mainstream publications.

Insights and personal reflections from staff, along with…