Sally Smart: An interview by Natasha Bullock

Sally Smart is one of Australia’s most significant artists. With a career spanning decades, she has a long-held interest in the ways in which women have been represented in history, art and literature. Natasha Bullock sat down with her to discuss why the time has come to acknowledge women artists and women in the arts across all fields, and why Know My Name is an initiative for all time.

Sally Smart in her 2019 NGA Play installation, National Gallery of Australia

In 1971, American art historian Linda Nochlin wrote her pioneering article ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ She comprehensively outlined the bias of white male privilege that has dominated western art discourse over the centuries. Sally, do you think much has changed?

Nochlin went on to write that the reason was one, the bias, and two, the opportunities. Women artists were there, but they weren’t given the opportunities to be able to show that they were there, and then they couldn’t sustain their practice because they were not visible. They were not recognised because of bias and because of patriarchy.

Yes, some things have changed, but this is still an issue. We are still, in 2020, having discussions about why it takes so long for women to be recognised. The recognition is getting there, but it is not when women are younger. Why is that? We still have more women graduating from art school. We know that there is an impact that happens when women have a family, we do know that that’s an issue.

There are other impacts, always in human being’s lives, around why something may take longer — a financial impact, a health impact or a human impact. People have been through wars, artists went through many, through the twentieth century. And so, it’s not that, is it? That isn’t the reason.

Instead, the issue is that it is tied up with value and commercial markets. So, in the end, it’s patriarchy (and the impeding structures) that hasn’t changed.

‘we need leadership, and it has to be unequivocal leadership with guiding mechanisms for structural change. And that’s what’s really exciting about this exhibition and this initiative. It’s not just for women artists, it’s for the whole of culture.’

It’s a sad indictment on society if not much has changed. What you’ve outlined provides some of the reasons why and also shows why we have to push hard for structural and societal change. As you know, the Know My Name initiative is driven from a real desire to tackle the issues. While it originally found its genesis in an exhibition, it has come to represent something greater and more ideologically far-reaching. The project is structural and organisational and will permeate all aspects of the National Gallery of Australia’s internal and external activities from 2020 onwards. Sally, why do you think it’s important for the National Gallery of Australia to lead this initiative?

Because we need leadership, and it has to be unequivocal leadership with guiding mechanisms for structural change. And that’s what’s really exciting about this exhibition and this initiative. It’s not just for women artists, it’s for the whole of culture. It’s critical for other communities. It’s critical for multiple communities in our society to recognise that, through our engagement in progressing equality for women artists, we activate broadly, in our own sector and beyond, to make visible, to demonstrate the process, the decisions — really clear decisions — about how we are implementing change. The National Gallery of Australia can be in a guiding and practicing leadership position.

You could call it the ripple effect?

Absolutely. Even around the language and what it looks like, I think that’s always really important. From language, we have education, and we have young school students and groups coming in from all across the country. We need the whole of culture on this, not just young women or women artists. We need young men and men. We must bring everyone with us. We have a platform of communication that’s critical, educational language, that is everyday language through art, meaningful for everybody. It’s then that we can build points of connection.

Sally Smart ‘Imaginary anatomy #7’ March 1995 Australian Print Workshop Archive 2, purchased with the assistance of the Gordon Darling Australasian Print Fund 2002 © Courtesy of the artist

Know My Name includes a number of initiatives that speak to a set of guiding principles that will establish a direction for the National Gallery of Australia’s future programming and for the structure of its organisation and how we can achieve gender equity at a leadership level. The initiative includes a suite of activities, including large exhibitions, a major publication about women and written by women, commissions, an international conference, Wikithons to build the profiles of women artists on Wikipedia, a national art event that has presented the work of women artists across Australia on billboards and other assets. What is your hope once all of this rolls out?

For the National Gallery of Australia, this initiative must be ongoing. What does that look like? That looks like major exhibitions with women, solo exhibitions that really tell the story of that woman artist’s work, and the criticality of that work. It is not just about the numbers and names, it’s about the value the institution gives to an artist’s work. That includes the critical contextual material such as publications, visual documentation and the space allocated to the presentation of her work.

This approach will be generative. The more visible and more complex it is, the whole ecology of art can be valued. It’s not going to happen naturally, there are preconditioned unconscious biases in a system that has shrouded women’s work. There is now a global momentum toward gender equality broadly, and specifically in the arts with various international initiatives growing awareness. I think this momentum is timely and important to harness.

We all have to be in this, individually, and as an institution. The National Gallery of Australia is absolutely committed to this and in terms of leadership, clearly and concisely with language and contextualisation, Know My Name promises to be brilliant.

Natasha Bullock is Assistant Director, Curatorial and Exhibitions, National Gallery of Australia.

Sally Smart is an Australian artist and member of the National Gallery of Australia’s Council and Know My Name Project Board.

Know My Name is a defining moment in the history of the National Gallery. With your help, this initiative will deliver a vibrant national program of exhibitions, artistic commissions, education initiatives and creative collaborations that celebrate the diversity and creativity of Australian women artists. Donations at all levels are welcome and bring us ever closer to realising our ambitions.



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