Where Have All The Men Gone?

Men and the Visual Arts


Right from the outset I must stress that this is not a scientific document and all the issues dealt with are hearsay and opinion. I’d also like it to be known that I am not a chauvinist who is ‘picking on the ladies.’ Some of the opinions expressed do however reflect the situation pretty much as it is, and it does give one reason to think. Hopefully this may lead to some real scientific scrutiny.


From time to time I am invited to exhibitions, or to talk to art groups and have noticed that there seems to be fewer and fewer men attending these events. Is that merely coincidence or is this a reality? Are men falling away when it comes to the arts and if so why would this be?
Please forgive me for constantly harking back to when I was younger in these articles but I guess when you reach a certain age you have a lot of that ‘once upon a time’ stuff to fall back on.


I do remember though that in the groups and collectives I was associated with back then there were many more men or at least a more equal balance than is the case now.


As far as the professional artists I knew back then, most were men as were the art gallery owners.


When I started mulling over this occurrence it seemed a fairly simple question, that is, ‘if there were lots of men back then what has happened to them and why so few now?’ It turned out to not be that simple.


I decided to do some research, and so spoke to many people over a period of months and also sent e-mails to those people I thought may have some ideas or answers relating to this phenomenon. The response was really interesting and diverse. Almost everyone seemed to agree that the men had gone AWOL but the reasons for it varied greatly and in some collectives the men are still there and still flying the flag for art.


Going really far back in my school days there were far more boys in my matric art class than girls, in fact we had only three girls. But then others tell me that at art school they experienced the opposite, and then again talking to someone who has very recently been at the DUT in Durban that there was parity during his sojourn. He also noted that it appeared that reasons for taking the art course for men and women were different. The women essentially wanted to teach and the men wanted to become career artists. So maybe things haven’t changed much even though reasons for studying art may be a little different between the sexes. So then, is the dearth of men an illusion …or is it?


Liz Pearson of the South African Society of Artists (SASA) in Cape Town says they have very few male members, and they’d love to have more. Sue Hoppe at EPSAC in Port Elizabeth says they have plenty of guys there. Almost even numbers.


As I indicated at the beginning of this discourse, here in KZN men are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to Art Collectives, but when it comes to Pro artists there seems to be more men than women. Is this merely an illusion or not?


Possible Reasons


If I am correct in supposing that there are fewer men in the peripheral sectors of the Visual Arts than there used to be, what then are the reasons?


Those that responded to my question, many being leaders of or committee members of arts organisations put forward a number of reasons which make interesting reading. For instance Liz Pearson of SASA says that it is well known that “most of the top selling living artists are male. Men tend to be more confident and more assured about their abilities and their art, so they set about marketing themselves in the strongest possible way. Women on the other hand, especially older women whose kids have left home, now decide to pursue their art – something which was denied to them during their younger years, but now they are unsure of themselves and join societies for that ‘assurance’ that what they are doing is ok. The groups give them that and they also love to ‘get together’ and chat.”


The majority of SASA members are female and Liz feels that having more men would perk up the meetings.


This then may well be the case that women tend to feel instinctively more secure in a group. Safety in numbers? Liz’s submission perhaps explains why there are more male chefs and professional artists (competitive/aggressive) but does not explain why there were so many men in the groups I belonged to in years gone by. Could it be that when those groups were started they had different objectives to those they have now?


We know that not much attention is paid to past minutes or constitutions (See previous articles) and so the original objectives have become muddied or obscured. That being the case that they were created to improve the standard of art and provide a repository of skills and knowledge. This may have changed to represent a more social bias now. It also does not explain why some Societies like EPSAC in the Eastern Cape have an almost 50/50 split? Is it that under new leadership they have pursued parity more aggressively or possibly that the new leadership has made them more goals oriented and competitive and it has become rather more purposeful than merely a social collective? If this is the case then perhaps this Society once again has more appeal for men and so their support.


I took some trouble to speak to a number of art teachers about the number of boys in relation to girls taking art at high school level, and here the result was confusing. Some teachers were adamant that there were more girls taking art while others claimed there was parity. The people I spoke to were in KZN and it is possible there could be geographical differences or the fact that in KZN most schools are single sex schools rather than co-ed. I could not access information on black or Indian schools other than being told that most of the teachers in white and mixed schools are female and in Indian schools are male. (Interesting?). It was indicated to me that the black schools usually do not have Art as a subject at all.


When I took art at school I can only remember three girls in our class and at least 15 or more boys. That was in the then Transvaal in the 60’s and early 70’s.


Some years after my time at school, Carl Roberts the well known sculptor tells me that when he was at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape, they only had three men in the entire degree arts course. At the same time Ian van Zyl (Popular wildlife artist) who was at Johannesburg School of Art, had much the same experience as Carl. (Neither had any complaints about the mix they tell me). Steve Mandy however who recently took a fine arts course at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) art school tells me they had an equal number of men and women. It seems then that my notion that there are far more women than men in art is not necessarily consistent. It seems that in certain areas or time slots you have parity, or even more men, but on average there is a huge majority of women in art…this is especially so in many of the groups of amateur and semi-professional areas of the visual arts.


Other people who wrote in in response to my enquiry, such as Brian Phillips of the North Coast Art Group states that women far outnumber men in their collective. So too is the case with the Botanical Artists Society and the Watercolour Society of South Africa.


Kim Donaldson and Ian van Zyl, both very well established professional wildlife artists, share some interesting facts. They say that by far the majority of wildlife artists are men, and buyers of that form of art are too. Kim who has lived and worked in the USA for many years tells me the situation over there relating to this matter is very similar to what we have here.


Rob Wareing who has been doing the workshop circuit in England for many years and has been commissioned by many of the approximately 3000 art collectives in the UK to share his skills with them says that wherever he has given his workshops by far the majority have been women.


Carl Roberts has also brought to my attention the fact that entrants to the Jabulisa Annual exhibition here in KZN South Africa, as per the statistics included in their catalogue, says of the 135 artists selected , 52 (38.5%) were male, and 83 (61%) female. Many more females than males. Courses given over the last couple of years at Durban’s KZNSA seem to be essentially an all female thing. The courses are I understand to teach artists the skills to assist them to become professional artists but it seems nary a man has participated. Then again I’m told that in many of the visual arts outreach programmes in black communities they are 100% all male.


Buying patterns would make an interesting study on their own and one of my experiences in such patterns is that in the few hundred nudes I have painted over the years only two have been bought by men. All the rest by women. Contrary to this most of my other subjects have been favoured by men. I am however getting a little off the main issue (even though buying patterns could also warrant a closer look), that being that in all but the professional levels of art and possibly in advanced arts education the women by far outnumber the men.


Why is this so?


We go on: Further investigation has revealed that in just about all the private art classes that I approached as well as in my own, the majority of students are female. This included evening classes. This is interesting as some collectives told me they believed that there were more women in collectives because most groups had changed to meeting in the daytime and especially on Saturday mornings. Most men work during the day so can’t attend daytime meetings during the week and are probably reluctant to attend Saturday meetings as that is probably their only day free to do gardening, shopping, paying bills or just relaxing.


The suggestion then is that women do not like to attend meetings at night for security reasons? Why then are there a majority of women at evening private classes and so too at most of the art exhibitions held at night? Men are generally in the minority in attending these activities.


It is strange when one considers that if one looks at books or registers relating to ‘professionals’, visual arts practitioners the majority are men (Much the same as with top Chefs, Dress Designers and Hairdressers)


Considering what has been said so far I feel there is little doubt that there are far more women involved in the arts but then there is a majority of women in the world so could this be the reason? Unless I am very much mistaken it seems that as one moves down the hierarchy from Professional / Academic to amateur, decorative art or craft, the number of women increases to a point where there are very few men involved. This is a pity and I believe men could and should make a greater contribution.


I must make a point at this juncture, and that is that many of the arts groups and societies were started by women and were not originally intended as a social or as hobby enterprises but to further and raise the standard of art in their communities.


When I have brought up the issue of standards in the past some readers have taken me to task and said Art is Art and as long as people enjoy it what difference does it make. Well then if we accept that, then we must believe that Mills and Boon, Tolstoy or Shakespeare and even Mozart, Amy Winehouse or Mariah Carey all have the same value, and if people enjoy that we should not bother about standards in art, music or literature?


South Africa has had many well established and excellent professional female artists. Perhaps pro rata more than most other countries but the majority are still men. In schools most of the art teachers appear to be women. In academic circles there seems to be a better balance, but if you look at the numbers of professors and well remembered art lecturers the men seem to have the edge.


When you look at the semi professional and amateur artists and private teachers the women dominate by a huge margin. Should we not endeavour to have a better balance?


There can be many reasons given for this imbalance and the reasons male artists become professional could be because they have to take on the mantle of bread-winner so take learning skills and being competitive very seriously. Also that they do not have to hold back to raise children. They are more ego driven. (My description here of a professional artist is one who derives the majority of their income from the sale of their paintings or sculptures via private or public commissions or established reputable art galleries)


Contrarily one can also then say that among the masses there is the tendency among misguided families to see a man becoming an artist as a sissy kind of thing to do, and as in my case being told to get a real job or qualification first and then after that had been achieved to then consider art. On the other hand women in the past were not expected to work after marriage or provide for families so had the financial security to go into art. Why then didn’t they?


There are so many reasons and excuses why or why not we have this situation.


It is very difficult to come up with ‘real’ answers because statistics relating to the visual arts are almost non-existent in South Africa. However help may be at hand as there has recently been a serious attempt at creating a national arts register and a data-base which will provide the statistics we so sorely need. This I am told will soon be released and that hopefully this may enable us to finally reveal answers to the questions we ask in this Newsletter as well as many others questions relating to the visual arts community.




What will having these statistics and information mean to us? Frankly I’m not sure but possibilities are that we could try and change the way that society understands and views art, as well as the people like you and I who make, provide education, skills and market art.


Perhaps we can then also understand and address the reasons why so few men, especially in the less professional strata’s of art become involved.


Of course we can ask if it matters that they become involved or not? What difference will having more men in art collectives or attending exhibitions make?


Well for one thing, in some statistics I discovered on the net with the help of my friend Pat Johnstone in the UK, it tells us that in the USA that by far the majority of Fine Art collected and bought is by men (I am not referring to décor work). So if that applies here, having more men attend exhibitions may increase sales of artworks.


Many men have skills in running committees, managing projects and the fact that men tend to be more competitive could raise that elusive aesthetic bar that is so often mentioned when discussing art. Having more men on committees with the skills developed in the corporate world could possibly help make the collectives more efficient. (I must add I know many very competitive, skilled ladies)


I have presented the situation as I see it. It is a topic often discussed especially in recent years.


I need to ask this of the ladies. Do you want more men in the arts organisations realising that the nature of those groups may be changed? Do you believe it is a sissy thing for your sons to become artists and would you discourage them? Also to the men. Would you discourage your daughters from becoming professional artists?” It may be interesting to examine the reasons for our viewpoint, and also those of society in general?


One of the things that I’ve been wondering about is how would a male dominated or female dominated arts industry affect the industry? Do women market differently to men? Do female artists favour different colours or materials to men, and do materials suppliers and manufacturers have knowledge of this, or for that matter have they acted on that knowledge, or have they given it any thought at all. One may ask the same of Arts Education?


Many of the materials we took for granted in years gone by are no longer available now. When one asks the manufacturers or art materials stores why this is so the answer is often that there is no longer sufficient demand for those materials or products. Why is this? Could it be that the nature of the industry has changed and where it was once male dominated with certain requirements and needs, it is now female dominant with women having different requirements?


We need to kick our arts industry into top gear. At the moment it is running in low, low gear or that seems to be a general consensus. Why would this be? I really do believe we need a change in public perception and we need men and women together to take it a lot more seriously at all levels. It is not fair to leave it to the women to do it all. Men must play their part – or is it they feel that healthy Arts and Culture in our communities and society is of no real importance? If this is the case they need to familiarise themselves with some international statistics relating to the arts. How much employment does it provide, how much money does it generate, and how much in the way of taxes does it garner in? How it affects the well-being of our communities and Society in general? I’m sure they will be staggered at the results. Over and above the aforementioned how far does it go to ensure a mentally well balanced and caring population?


I’ve had my say and I’m sure you have Thoughts on the subject too?


Till next month….


Written: May / June 2010


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