Theme Visual Arts

Written by Anne Sanders, National Portrait Gallery and Jim Berryman, The University of Melbourne

Art is different from traditional professions such as medicine or law. In the visual arts, there is little or no established career path, and professional accreditation is not required to create works of art. Perhaps for this reason, art is a field in which Australian women have excelled, at least in comparison to other male-dominated fields. Women artists were at the forefront of the modern movement in Australia, leading their male counterparts as the harbingers of the new movements and styles originating in Europe. Names such as Grace Cossington Smith (Thomas, 'Smith', ADB; Lemon, 'Smith', AWR) and Margaret Preston (Seivl, ADB; Heywood, 'Preston', AWR) need little introduction.

However, it is important to note that the female contribution to the art of 20th-century Australia was not confined to modern art. Until after the mid-century, modernism itself remained a marginal part of art in this country. Despite the leadership displayed by women modernists, especially in Sydney, women struggled for recognition in other spheres of art. The institutional establishment remained a male domain for most of the century. Before the 1970s, very few women were appointed trustees of the state and national galleries. A female state gallery director was not appointed until 1987. No woman served on the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, which from 1911 to 1972 had executive responsibility for awarding national commissions and assembling official exhibitions.

The leadership role of women artists in 20th-century Australia has received considerable scholarly attention (Eagle; Topliss). Curated exhibitions have been especially effective in broadening the public's knowledge of the significance of women artists. Janine Burke (Heywood, 'Burke', AWR) has been a leader in this area. In 1975, she curated Australian Women Artists: One Hundred Years, 1840-1940 (Burke 1980). This landmark exhibition was instrumental in elevating women artists, including Joy Hester (Burke, ADB), Lina Bryans, Ethel Carrick Fox (Zubans, ADB) and Hilda Rix Nicholas (Mitchell, ADB), into the mainstream of Australian art history. In 2001, Jane Hylton's critically acclaimed Modern Australian Women exhibition focused on leading women painters and printmakers from 1925 to 1945, including Clarice Beckett (Hollinrake, ADB), Dorrit Black (North, ADB; Lemon, 'Black', AWR), Grace Crowley (Thomas, 'Crowley', ADB), Freda Robertshaw, Joy Hester, Kathleen O'Connor (Watson ADB; MacKinney, AWR), Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor (Butler, ADB) and Grace Cossington Smith. This exhibition followed Joan Kerr's National Women's Art Exhibition (NWAE) of 1995 (Kerr), which was not actually a single exhibition but a series of independent shows highlighting Australian women artists of all media. The NWAE, held in about 150 venues across Australia, commemorated the twentieth anniversary of International Women's Year (Kerr & Holder).

In planning this thematic entry, we decided that a discussion of women and leadership in 20th-century Australian visual art should not be confined to artists. We have therefore broadened the scope to include women leaders in the wider visual arts field, including curators, art historians, critics and gallery managers. Traditionally, art history as a discipline has tended to concentrate on the artist as primary agent, leaving the role of 'secondary players' to sociologists of art. To help redress the relative neglect of art's non-creative practitioners, we have aimed to broaden the terms of art to include areas in which women have excelled, often behind the scenes. Our coverage is by no means exhaustive and we apologise in advance for any omissions, errors or oversights.

This thematic contribution follows an editorial decision to commission a separate entry for women leaders in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. This was a practical decision that was not intended to draw a cultural line between the art of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia. Given that these Indigenous artists have been given the close attention they deserve, however, the following discussion focuses on the leadership of non-Aboriginal women in the conventional category of Australian art.

Background and Context

Qualities of leadership, defined in terms of innovation, inspiration, precedent and influence, are congruous with the classic ideals of modernism. It is therefore fitting to begin with a brief summary of the early modern movement in Australia and the leadership role played by key women artists.

Interest in the origins and development of Australian modernism precipitated the investigation of Australian women artists of the early 20th century. Because the pioneering figures of the nascent modern movement were predominantly female, it was necessary for art historians and curators to recognise the significant contribution made by women to the development of Australian modernism. This was in contrast to international experiences and the masculine narrative of the modern master, as personified by the likes of Picasso and Pollock. In a situation quite unique to Australia, women were the trailblazers of the Australian modern movement. As Bernard Smith noted:

The introduction of post-impressionism to the country owed much to women: Norah Simpson, Grace Cossington-Smith, Thea Proctor, Margaret Preston, Isabel Tweddle, Dorrit Black, Ada Plante, Aletta Lewis, Vida Lahey and Mildred Lovett, to name only the more prominent. Indeed, the contribution of women to post-impressionism in Australia appears to have been corporately greater than that of men; and in individual achievement in every way comparable. This is unusual, for women do not normally figure as prominently in the visual arts as do men. (Smith, 198)

Norah Simpson (1895-1974) is credited with introducing post-impressionism to Australia in 1915. That year, Simpson's student colleagues, Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1981) and Roland Wakelin, became the first artists to publicly exhibit paintings influenced by post-impressionist techniques. Like many women artists, indeed many Australian modernists, Cossington Smith's contribution to Australian art history was not officially recognised for decades. Acknowledgement came in 1973, when she received her first major retrospective exhibition. Daniel Thomas, then curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of NSW, wrote in the catalogue: 'Grace Cossington Smith's art is important not only for its intrinsic artistic qualities but also for being the earliest significant Australian response to European Post-Impressionism' (Thomas, 1973, 6).

The role of women, in the formative years of Australian modern art, was most apparent in Sydney. Margaret Preston (1875-1963) and Thea Proctor (1879-1966) were two of the leading figures of the Sydney modern scene of the interwar period. Although Proctor's interest in form and colour made her sympathetic to the aims of modernism, she was not a modernist by self-definition. Preston, on the other hand, had a profound understanding and appreciation of modernist art theory and practice. Although comfortable with painting, her strong sense of colour, design and form found its greatest realisation in graphic techniques, notably woodcut.

Between 1932 and 1937, Grace Crowley (1890-1979) and Rah Fizelle ran an art school in Sydney devoted to the theory and practice of modern art. Crowley studied under Julian Ashton before travelling to France, where she gained an understanding of cubism. By international standards, the Crowley-Fizelle school was the most avant-garde in Australia, dedicated to a cubist-constructivist organisation of form. The establishment of the Modern Art Centre in 1931 by Dorrit Black (1891-1951) aided the promotion of geometric-cubist art in Sydney. Like Crowley, Black had studied in France under André Lhote. Although short-lived, Black's Modern Art Centre was a modernist hub; in 1932, it was the venue of Ralph Balson's first solo exhibition of abstract art.

When the American couple Frank and Margel Hinder (1906-1995) arrived in Sydney in 1934, they immediately joined the modernist circle of Crowley, Fizelle and Black. All shared an interest in cubist-constructivist abstract art. The group's art was not confined to painting, however. Sculpture was equally important, especially contemporary theories concerning sculptural materials and the dynamic effects of light. Margel Hinder's interest in three-dimensional construction was greatly influenced by the German émigré artist, Eleonore Lange (1893-1990). A native of Frankfurt am Main, Lange arrived in Sydney in 1930. As an educationist, theorist and sculptor, her influence on the development of Sydney modernism was considerable. At Lange's instigation, an important exhibition was organised, which included work by Balson, Crowley, Fizelle, Frank and Margel Hinder. H.V. Evatt opened Exhibition 1 at the Sydney David Jones Gallery on 17 August 1939. Lange expounded her aesthetic theories in the exhibition catalogue's essay.

How does Australian art history explain the predominance of women in the early development of Australian modernism? Bernard Smith attributed an apparent role reversal that saw women artists assume leadership positions in modernist innovation to the effects of the Great War, claiming a generation of male artists had been killed, thereby creating a niche for women to occupy (Smith, 199). This argument is easily discredited; other combatant nations, many of which suffered greater relative losses, were not similarly affected. Art historian Jeanette Hoorn, on the other hand, has argued that modernism was excluded from mainstream Australian painting because it was seen as being the province of women (Hoorn, 2). For Hoorn, female modernism was the 'other' to the dominant masculine pastoral tradition.

Attitudes and Obstacles

Landscape and nationalist themes had formed the basis of the Australian artistic canon since the establishment of the celebrated Heidelberg School in the 1880s. Heidelberg attained orthodox status in the early decades of the 20th century. Especially in the 1920s and 30s, powerful critics and art aficionados safeguarded the national school of landscape painting from the perceived threats of exotic modernism (Williams). James Stuart MacDonald and Lionel Lindsay were two of the most outspoken enemies of the modern movement in Australia. Their anti-modernist rhetoric was frequently expressed in sexist terms.

The likening of modernism to ephemeral fashion enabled reactionary critics to trivialise the achievements of women artists. Lindsay was inclined to stereotype modern women painters as haute bourgeois ladies of leisure. For Lindsay, modern art was not a serious art. Rather, it was a consumer fad that appealed especially to the superficial tastes of women, as he wrote in 1942:

To-day there are more women than men painters. They have more leisure, and the superficial nature of modern painting attracts their light hands: picture or hat, all is one. Living close to the moment, and accustomed to follow without questioning any and every mode, they find all styles equally pleasant which have been pronounced "advanced" and "the thing". (Lindsay, 52)

The sexist characterisation of modern women artists as docile followers of fad and fashion sheds light on contemporary attitudes towards both modernism and women. The equation of modern art with the latest vogue was intended to feminise modern art, especially in the eyes of men. But how did MacDonald explain the dominance of women in Australia's art schools? In 1958, he argued:

In the seventies of the 19th Century, for the first time in schools of Art all over the world, women had begun to outnumber men, and this majority, or excess, has steadily grown. This has not had the expected effect of producing more good women painters, for though at the schools they were able more often to beat men in competition for scholarships and the like, thereafter they faded out and in most cases were heard of no more. They could follow instructions but could not construct. (MacDonald, 130)

The antonymous relationship of the words 'follow' and 'lead' is salient. While women artists were proficient imitators of great art, they purportedly lacked the intellectual faculties required to create masterpieces of their own. Genius was seen as a male attribute. According to experts like MacDonald and Lindsay, women artists were destined to follow because females were naturally obedient and disposed to conform. This deficiency precluded women from leadership positions.

MacDonald and Lindsay were not lone cranks. Both held positions of authority in the institutional establishment and voiced dominant opinions on matters relating to art, culture and gender. Until the 1960s and 1970s, Australia's national and state galleries were the custodians of traditional aesthetic values, as manifested in the national landscape school and the pre-modernist Western canon. MacDonald had served as director of both the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1928-1936) and the National Gallery of Victoria (1936-1941). Lindsay was a trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1918-1929 and 1934-1949). Gallery Trusts were boards that typically comprised established male artists, gentlemen connoisseurs and influential businessmen. Executive power resided with the trustees; before the era of art-historically trained curators and directors, their opinions also influenced acquisition policy.

When Mary Alice Evatt (1898-1973) (Dale, ADB) was appointed to the board of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in March 1943, she became the first woman trustee of an Australian state gallery. This milestone is comparable to other significant precedents in which women first gained admission to exclusive male domains. In comparison, the National Gallery of Victoria did not appoint a female trustee until Dame Elisabeth Murdoch (Heywood & Lemon, AWR) in 1968. Mary Evatt was a painter but her greatest contribution to art was arguably in the areas of patronage and governance. Mary was the wife of Herbert Vere (Bert) Evatt, Labor politician and High Court judge. She learned modernist painting from her friend, Grace Crowley, and, in the early 1930s, was affiliated with the Sydney modernist circle. In 1936, she attended the George Bell School in Melbourne where she befriended Maie Casey (Langmore, ADB) and Russell Drysdale. Evatt met John and Sunday Reed (Haese, ADB) and supported the formation of the Contemporary Art Society.

Mary Evatt's appointment to the Art Gallery of NSW's board was a breakthrough for women and a victory for modernism; upon assuming this position, she voted for the awarding of the 1943 Archibald prize to William Dobell for his controversial portrait of Joshua Smith. Evatt served as a gallery trustee until 1970 and is credited with promoting travelling exhibitions (domestic and international) and championing modern Australian painting. In addition to her generous patronage, Mary Evatt made important donations to public art collections in Australia.

Notwithstanding Mary Evatt's pioneering achievements, women were largely excluded from art's institutional establishment until the 1970s. However, there were exceptions. Masculine art officialdom was generally more accommodating of women artists who practised traditional styles. Next to landscape painting, portraiture was at the top of the hierarchy of genres. In 1938, Nora Heysen (1911-2003) (Heywood, 'Heyson', AWR) became the first woman to win the Archibald Prize. Heysen was an excellent draughtswoman and her accomplished figurative style appealed to traditional standards and tastes. With Stella Bowen (1893-1947) (Christesen, ADB; Heywood, 'Bowen', AWR) and Sybil Craig (1901-1989) (Reilly, ADB), Heysen was appointed an official war artist in 1943. She thus became one of the first women artists to receive one of the most prestigious commissions in Australian art. Heysen was commissioned to depict the role of women in the homefront war effort but later served abroad in New Guinea and Borneo.

Lilian Daphne Mayo (1895-1982) (McKay, ADB; Lemon, 'Mayo', AWR) defied the sexist characterisations that diminished the achievements of women artists as leaders in their field. She excelled in her medium, sculpture, and is acknowledged as one of the greatest practitioners of the plastic arts in Australian art history. Mayo, a native of Brisbane, attended Julian Ashton's Sydney Art School. In 1914, she was awarded Queensland's first publicly funded travelling art scholarship and studied sculpture at the Royal Academy School in London. According to Graeme Sturgeon, Mayo was so talented she was admitted to the sculpture school despite the Royal Academy's policy against accepting women (Sturgeon, 89). In December 1923, she was awarded the school's gold medal for sculpture, which included a travelling studentship to Italy. Returning to Brisbane in 1925, Mayo embarked on a career in sculpture that included many public commissions. In 1937, Mayo became the only female foundation member of the Australian Academy of Art. An initiative of Robert Menzies, the Academy was viewed as an attempt to institutionalise traditional standards and tastes, largely in response to the growing influence of modernism. Mayo was art adviser to the Australian War Memorial from 1944 to 1962. In 1960, she was appointed the first woman trustee of the Queensland Art Gallery.

The leadership role of women artists in the development of Australian modernism was more apparent in the Sydney art scene than in Melbourne, where art historians have tended to focus on events arising from the war and postwar years. The bitter politics and infighting that marked the establishment of the Contemporary Art Society in Melbourne has dominated this account (Haese, 1981). Publicly, this was a male affair. The contributions of Sunday Reed (1905-1981), Joy Hester (1920-1960) and Ailsa O'Connor (1921-1980) (Francis, 'O'Connor', AWR), in shaping these debates, have been frequently overshadowed by their husbands, John Reed, Albert Tucker and Vic O'Connor.

In the postwar decades, Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker and their peers acquired reputations as national artists, painters of heroic subjects. The venerated names of the so-called Antipodean generation were almost invariably male. Inaccurately dubbed the 'precursors' of Australian modern painting, these 'towering masculine figures' (Peers, 16) were exalted as the modern masters of 20th-century Australian art, eclipsing the achievements of the earlier generation. The work of Janine Burke, Jeanette Hoorn, Caroline Ambrus, Helen Topliss and Joan Kerr has been important in rectifying the art historical record. Their efforts have helped restore women artists to positions of leadership in Australian art history, especially in modernism, where women were prominent.

The Rise of Professionalism

The post-World War II cultural landscape in Australia underwent rapid and major changes. The relative lack of a professional identity in the visual arts, with artists mainly associated and exhibiting with art societies, a small and under-developed commercial gallery system and staid national and (the few) regional galleries under the control of conservative trustee boards, was in for a major shake-up from the late 1940s onwards. The influx of professionally trained émigré artists, designers and art historians (many of them teachers) and entrepreneurial art dealers, together with the impact of the postwar baby boom population on the education system, had a destabilising effect on the conservative status quo. What emerged from different debates within art societies and the burgeoning state arts councils, as well as amongst art and craft teachers and art administrators, was the need to improve the status and professionalism of artists, art teachers and cultural institutions.

The rapid postwar developments in education, combined with the removal of gender barriers to work and career development, created unprecedented opportunities for women in the visual arts. From the 1960s to the mid-1970s, new ideas about art forms, new curricula for the teaching of art within a tertiary rather than technical sector, new professional identities and selection criteria to validate this new professionalism, new critical theories, within rapidly expanding and evolving institutional structures, backed by significant government patronage, came into effect in Australia (Sanders, 341).

Professionally trained art historians, Ursula Hoff (1909-2005) (Francis, 'Hoff', AWR) and Gertrude Langer (1908-1984) (Underhill, ADB) both completed PhDs in art history in the 1930s, Hoff at the University of Hamburg and Langer at the University of Vienna. Hoff had worked in curatorial and research positions for a number of significant museums and galleries in London. Langer, on the other hand, observed that, in Vienna, there were few positions available and those that existed were occupied by men. In response, she organised and gave art lectures from her home. Both women came from comfortable middle-class backgrounds and were encouraged by their respective parents to pursue higher education. Both emigrated to Australia in 1939, escaping German Nazification and an imminent world war-Hoff to Melbourne, initially as secretary to the Women's College at the University of Melbourne, and Langer, with her architect husband, eventually to Brisbane. Art history did not exist as a discipline in any Australian universities at the time of their arrival.

Hoff played a very significant part in the professional development of the role of curators, through research, publication and collection development, and in art history education in Melbourne. She was initially invited to give lectures at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1942; this was followed by her appointment in 1943 as the assistant keeper of prints and drawings. In 1968, Hoff was appointed deputy director, an important first in the field of gallery management, which was still a male-dominated arena. Upon her retirement from the gallery in 1974, she was appointed Felton Bequest adviser in London. During her tenure at the gallery, she maintained her international connections through her extensive research and documentation of the gallery's collections and through her scholarly writing in various international art journals. In 1947, and concurrent with her curatorial and administrative positions, Hoff was appointed a lecturer by the inaugural Herald Chair of Fine Arts, Professor Joseph Burke, at the University of Melbourne. Burke headed the first fine arts department in Australia, and it would be a further twenty years before another university, Sydney, established its art history department. In contributing to the development of art history as a discipline as well as assisting its practical realisation in setting the standards for a professionally trained curatoriat, Hoff was an outstanding example of an art historian and curator. Her institutional career path delineated what the profession offered, particularly for women.

Gertrude Langer's was a different experience. She had did not have art institutional skills and knowledge comparable to those of Hoff when she arrived in Brisbane in 1939. And Brisbane did not have the institutional presence that Melbourne had in its national gallery with the generous Felton Bequest; there was no director of the fledgling Queensland National Art Gallery until 1949 and, when Langer arrived, the gallery was located in the Exhibition Building on Gregory Terrace. Moreover, it was not until 1978 that a Fine Art Department was established at the University of Queensland. Langer carved out a space for herself, offering lectures on art history that, by the late 1950s, amounted to a full-year course, with over a hundred people attending the sessions. In 1961, at the urging of another female arts leader, Dorothy Helmrich (founder of CEMA and initiator of the arts council concept in Australia) (Hunt & Roe, ADB; Lemon, 'Helmrich', AWR), Langer established the Queensland Arts Council and was its inaugural president. From 1962 to 1977, she co-ordinated many activities including the annual summer creative arts schools, initially based at the University of Queensland. However, it was through her regular weekly column of art criticism and review in Brisbane's only daily newspaper, the Courier Mail-she held the position of critic from 1953 to 1983-that she was able to share her understanding of art and express her commitment to raising the standard of art writing, thereby giving support to the burgeoning commercial galleries and their artists. Langer was Australia's first female, professional art critic. In her push to establish art criticism on a professional basis, she helped found the Queensland branch of the International Association of Art Critics, becoming the Australian president of the association between 1975 and 1978. She was also a significant arts patron and donor to the Queensland Art Gallery.

Treania Smith (1901-1990) (Chanin, ADB) epitomised the female entrepreneurial leader. Having exhibited with, and worked as a gallery assistant to, founding director John Young, she took over the ownership of Macquarie Galleries-the leading contemporary commercial gallery in Sydney-in 1938. She worked in partnership with two women, Lucy Swanton (from 1938 to 1956) (see Chanin, ADB) and Mary Turner (from 1956 to 1976), until she sold the business in 1976. Macquarie exhibited many women modernists within its stable of artists and set a high professional and ethical standard in its dealings with artists and collectors. All three women were trained: Treania Smith and Mary Turner as artists and Lucy Swanton in art history at the Courtauld Institute. Having survived the difficult war years, the gallery launched the careers of many artists, including Ian Fairweather, Margaret Olley (Butterworth, AWR), Justin O'Brien and Jeffrey Smart, as well as supporting young abstract artists in its ground-breaking Direction 1 exhibition in 1956. During the 1950s, they held several successful exhibitions in Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide and initiated touring exhibitions to regional centres (Chanin, ADB). By the early 1960s, with the expansion in the number of commercial galleries offering representation to the increasing number of artists, Macquarie pulled back from interstate exhibitions and established a Canberra site in 1965. All three directors were art patrons, gifting their significant collections to state and regional galleries. Although by the 1960s it was very much viewed as the leading establishment gallery, Macquarie Galleries under these three women's stewardship had set a professional standard in commercial gallery representation.

As Treania Smith had recognised, the commercial sector offered an arena where women with knowledge of and interest in art and artists, combined with an entrepreneurial flair and social connections, could flourish. Expatriate artist and art dealer Allanah Coleman (1918-1998), who left Australia in 1950, was a key supporter of many Australian artists living in London during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1963 at Folkestone, she curated an exhibition of contemporary works by Australian artists living in Europe, entitled Australian Painting and Sculpture in Europe Today, which Sir Kenneth Clark proclaimed to be 'the most impressive group show of contemporary Australian art so far assembled' (Pierse, 209). The exhibition, designed to counter-balance the conservative CAAB controlled Tate Gallery exhibition, Australian Painting: Colonial, Impressionist, Contemporary, was viewed by a representative of the West German government and toured to Frankfurt. Coleman was also appointed commissioner general for the Australian participation in the Paris Biennale for Young Painters that same year.

In the early 1960s, while predominantly male painters in the two major metropolitan centres of Melbourne and Sydney fought mock battles over the dominance of abstraction versus figurative styles, the significance of painting as the apex of the fine art hierarchy was being challenged. The crafts and sculpture, long regarded as a Cinderella art form in Australia, were gaining currency, influenced by the breakdown of the barriers between fine and applied arts as interest grew in new design concepts founded on Bauhaus principles.

Marea Gazzard (1928-,2013) trained in ceramics first at East Sydney Technical College in the early 1950s and, then, during an extended period overseas, enrolled at London Central School of Arts and Craft. Travel in Greece and through Europe developed her interest in Etruscan and Cycladic sculpture. On coming back to Sydney in the early 1960s, she returned to East Sydney Technical College to study sculpture with Lyndon Dadswell. She began her exhibiting career in 1963 and, when Transfield built the first bronze foundry in Australia in Sydney, she began casting in bronze in 1969 (France, SMH, 30 November 2013, 23). Interestingly, a number of women sculptors featured strongly in major commissions and sculpture prizes during this period; they included Inge King, Norma Redpath and Margel Hinder. Gazzard had a successful exhibiting and commissioning career, completing the important Mingarri series for the Executive Court of new Parliament House in Canberra and, in 1989, was the first woman artist to be awarded a Creative Fellowship. However, it was her championing of the craft area leading to the establishment of the Craft Association of Australia (later Craft Australia) and its election to the World Crafts Council that revealed her significant leadership in this area. Gazzard was chosen as Australia's representative to the international body in 1968 and held several important director positions, leading to her election in 1980 as the first president of the World Crafts Council. She was instrumental in arguing that the Australian association should be part of the Asian representative section. In 1973, she was appointed inaugural chair of the Crafts Board of the newly restructured Australian Council for the Arts (under the direction of Dr Jean Battersby) (Battersby, Interview).

Inge King (b. 1915) and Norma Redpath (1928-2013) were both trained sculptors. King emigrated from Britain with her Australian husband, artist Grahame King, settling in Melbourne in 1951. Her training began in Berlin and London; however, war-time blitzes forced her to transfer to Glasgow School of Art. Upon graduation, she taught in Glasgow and London before travelling and eventually migrating to Australia. Redpath studied painting at Swinburne Technical College in the early 1940s and then, from 1949 to 1951, she studied sculpture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). In 1953 and 1955, King and Redpath exhibited together with two male sculptors, both émigrés, at the School of Architecture at the University of Melbourne, calling themselves the Group of Four. The link to architecture and their sense of professional identification continued when they formed the Centre 5 group of seven professional, principally émigré, sculptors, among whom Redpath and King were the only women. The Centre 5 platform was founded upon promoting better representation of sculptors through associating their practice with the prestige of a university discipline such as architecture. This group of sculptors would have significant influence on the education and development of a professional identity for sculptors in Melbourne during the 1960s, and on improving and professionalising the commission process.

Both King and Redpath made their mark on the early Mildura Sculpture Triennials, King on the cover of the inaugural catalogue in 1961 and Redpath on the cover of the second catalogue, as well as winner of both 1961 and 1964 monumental sculpture awards. Margel Hinder completed this female sculpture trifecta with her major fountain commission on the cover of the third Mildura event catalogue. Both King and Redpath secured major national commissions throughout this period. However, as King observed, securing a teaching position in sculpture when she first arrived was not possible: 'there were no women teaching'. It was not until 1976 that she was offered a part-time lectureship at RMIT (Scarlett, 318).

The Expanded Field of Art

For women and their leadership within the visual arts field, 1975 stands as particularly significant nexus. It is the year that the Act was passed that established the Australia Council as a statutory authority, under the leadership of its first (and female) CEO, Dr Jean Battersby (1928-2009). It is also the year that UNESCO inaugurated International Women's Year (with member nations subsequently invited to celebrate 8 March thereafter as International Women's Day). 1975 also saw American feminist art historian Lucy Lippard invited to give the Power lecture on contemporary art at the University of Sydney, after which she toured and lectured interstate. Feminist publications, LIP and Hecate, were both started in 1975. And the Women's Art Register began with women artists centred in the Ewing Gallery and George Paton Galleries at the University of Melbourne.

Also in 1975, Janine Burke (b. 1952) curated the ground-breaking Australian Women Artists: One Hundred Years 1840-1940 exhibition shown at the Ewing Gallery and George Paton Galleries at the University of Melbourne (under the direction of Kiffy Rubbo). An Australian response to Linda Nochlin's 1971 cri de coeur, 'Why are there no great women artists?', this timely exhibition toured extensively to critical acclaim and acted as a counter-weight to the dominance of Bernard Smith's Australian Painting. Nevertheless, as she records, Burke encountered disapproval from male curatorial staff at the National Gallery of Victoria to the selection of works, as well as antagonism towards her feminist position regarding Australian art history (Burke 1995, 341), and met with some critical opprobrium from male and a few female art critics. Even in 1975, one male art critic was still able to claim that '[women] could never professionalise themselves like men' (Ambrus, 175).

Women's Art Movement groups were established in Sydney at the Tin Sheds in 1974, in Victoria in 1975 and in Adelaide in 1976. The decade of the 1970s for women opened with Germaine Greer's (Francis & Henningham, AWR) explosive feminist exposé, The Female Eunuch, and is bookended in 1979 with her publication, The Obstacle Race, on the deeply endemic social and cultural barriers that women artists confronted across cultures and centuries.

Pat Larter (1936-1996) was in many ways emblematic of the 'anything goes', category-collapsing 1970s. Favourite muse and model to her husband, artist Richard Larter, Pat was also his artistic collaborator, pursuing mail art, as well as directing videos and films of their performances. In 1974, she exhibited examples of her mail art, under her own name (Hart, 89) and, in the process, assembled the most comprehensive archive of international mail art in Australia. She continued her collaborations with Richard while developing her own practice, exhibiting with Legge Gallery until her untimely death in 1996.

Photography, video and performance art, installation, ceramic, glass, sculpture and jewellery making were all burgeoning categories of art practice that women were actively involved in, and many excelled both as practising artists and as teachers. Since Rosalie Gascoigne's Venice Biennale exhibit in 1982, there have been a further eleven Australian women artists represented, with critically acclaimed Fiona Hall selected to show in 2015.

Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999) (Francis, N., 'Gascoigne', AWR), the first Australian woman artist to be represented at the Venice Biennale (1982), came late to art and recognition. Hers was a trajectory fashioned in the contemporary craft world of the experimental Sogetsu Ikebana school. Her acclaimed ikebana creations coalesced with the collapse of the rigid definitions of art, when installation and found objects were incorporated under the umbrella of sculpture. Based in Canberra, and introduced by her son to the constructivist work of Joseph Cornell, she had her first exhibition in 1974 at Macquarie Gallery's Canberra gallery. In quick succession, she was selected by artist Michael Taylor for a Gallery A exhibition in Sydney of emerging artists in 1975, and then as the second Survey exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1978, curated by the inaugural curator of contemporary art. Gascoigne had a strong exhibition presence until her death in 1999. She was a contemporary of landscape and environmental sculptors such as John Davis and carved out a distinctive aesthetic that celebrated the Monaro landscape of the Canberra region.

What is perhaps subsumed in this recounting is that the second wave of feminism emerged at a time of consolidation of the massive structural changes that had occurred as a result of the postwar boom-in population, wealth, and educational and cultural institutional expansion. This convergence of second-wave feminism with the rapidly expanding tertiary educational sectors-the parallel systems of colleges of advanced education and universities-and the expansion and professionalisation of the gallery systems, which embraced regional, university and state art venues, as well as a rapidly expanding commercial gallery and auction house sector, meant that these now professionally trained women were embedded within a rapidly expanding structural and networked framework. Whether one practised as an artist, academic theorist, art historian, curator, patron, gallerist or administrator, there were careers for women in all these areas, which was not the case only thirty years earlier.

In 1979, Professors Margaret Manion (Land, AWR) and Virginia Spate (both graduates of fine arts at the University of Melbourne with doctorates from Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania) replaced the inaugural male appointees of Australia's two leading art history departments, respectively as Herald chair of art history at the University of Melbourne and Power professor of contemporary art at the University of Sydney. One year earlier, Dr Nancy Underhill had been appointed the first head of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Queensland.

Expanding greatly on the initial research concerning Australian women's unacknowledged roles in the visual arts, Professor Joan Kerr's monumental research and publication legacy includes the biographical art dictionaries, Dictionary of Australian Artists, Painters, Sketchers, Photographers and Engravers to 1870, published in 1992, and Heritage: The National Women's Art Book, published in 1995. As part of the 20th-anniversary celebrations of International Women's Day in 1995, at which Heritage was launched, Kerr co-ordinated the National Women's Art Exhibition, a nationwide series of exhibitions in hundreds of venues all scheduled to open on 8 March. Educated in Brisbane in the 1950s, Kerr came to architectural and art history as a mature-age young mother through the particular inspiration of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner. Her broad-ranging dictionaries were the antithesis of Bernard Smith's highly specific Australian Painting and earned Kerr the wrath of a number of male art critics.

For many women, becoming an art teacher was a way of getting art training. The rapid changes in the education system due to the pressure of the baby-boom population offered increased job opportunities within the secondary and tertiary education systems, and, with the transfer of technical art schools to colleges of advanced education, which began in the late 1960s and continued throughout the 1970s, the problem of the professional status of visual artists began to be redressed. By the 1970s, with changes to state and federal public service regulations, women could continue to work as art teachers and lecturers whether married or not, ensuring that such benefits as long-service leave were afforded to them on the same basis as their male colleagues. Art colleges within the colleges of advanced education system offered increased status, wages and conditions to lecturers.

Betty Churcher (Francis, N., 'Churcher', AWR) who had originally trained as an artist, turned to teaching art as a way of supplementing the family income after her children were born. She transferred to an art teaching position at Kelvin Grove Teachers College in 1971, just as this teacher training institution was transitioning to the new college of advanced education system. Between 1972 and 1975, she was also the Brisbane art critic for the Australian newspaper. In 1976, she had accumulated enough long-service leave for a one-year sabbatical, in which she undertook to condense a two-year Master of Arts course at the Courtauld Institute in London into one year, completing her thesis. In terms of the selection criteria for senior positions in the new tertiary art school system, her art diploma from the Royal Academy of Art coupled with her MA from the Courtauld Institute, both prestigious academies, ensured that she was well placed for promotion within the emergent tertiary art school sector. She was appointed senior lecturer at the Philip Institute of Technology in Melbourne in 1977 and became a dean in 1980, the first woman to be appointed to such a position in a tertiary art institute. Churcher became a trailblazer for professionally trained women aspiring to a career path in the visual arts in Australia. She was the first woman appointed as director of a state art gallery, the Art Gallery of Western Australia, in 1987; this was followed by her appointment as the director of the then Australian National Gallery in 1990, the first female to hold this prestigious position from which she retired in 1997.

However, from the late 1990s onwards, in an increasingly feminised workforce within the institutional gallery sector, where women had successfully occupied the directorships of regional, university and contemporary art galleries, the leading positions in the major state galleries and national galleries remained male strongholds. The exceptions as directors of these institutions have been Bernice Murphy (1998 to 1999) and Liz Anne McGregor (1999 to present) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Sydney, and Louise Doyle (2010-2013) at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

The number of women establishing and running commercial galleries rapidly increased from the 1970s onwards. During the economic boom period of the 1960s, Gallery A, originally established in Melbourne by Max Hutchison and Clement Meadmore and representing the new abstraction, established a Sydney branch in 1964 under the direction of Ann Lewis and her business partner, Rua Osborne, in Paddington. Paddington was also home to Betty O'Neill's Hungry Horse Gallery, which showed a number of emerging artists including women such as ceramicist and sculptor Marea Gazzard and the Centre 5 sculptors, among whom Inge King and Norma Redpath were key members. Lewis ran Gallery A for twenty years and represented and promoted the work of many now established Australian artists; she also, through her links to Max Hutchison in New York, brought many American artists' work to Sydney. She was one of the earliest advocates of contemporary Indigenous art and a foundation member of the Australia Council's Visual Arts Board, as well as a commissioner for the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Lewis was appointed a member of the Museum of Modern Art New York's International Council (the second Australian woman after Lady Maie Casey), becoming its vice president in 1993. Following the closure of Gallery A in 1983, she became one of the most important private benefactors of art, mentoring many artists and curators and also donating significant parts of her collection to many regional and state galleries. She used her influence and wealth to promote and support Australian artists and art galleries, nationally and internationally.

Women commercial gallery directors have been leading initiators in terms of promoting Australian art and artists. Christine Abrahams was one of the key instigators of the Melbourne Art Fair (inaugurated in 1988), and Roslyn Oxley and Gabrielle Pizzi (Henningham, AWR) were early adopters, promoting the Australian artists they represented at prestigious international art fairs.

Janet Holmes à Court came into her own turning around the fortunes of the family company, Heytesbury, following the death of her husband in 1990. She continued to develop their collection of contemporary, particularly Indigenous, Australian art, becoming a leading arts philanthropist and establishing the Holmes à Court gallery in Perth. Since 2000, there has been a proliferation of private museums in Australia, many established by women, which are open to the public. Dr Gene Sherman, who developed the innovative contemporary commercial Sherman Galleries, representing many leading Australian artists, closed this venture in 2006 to establish the privately funded Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, which exhibits international and national curated exhibitions. Judith Neilson began collecting contemporary Chinese art and established her White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney, opened in 2009. The collector and patron of contemporary Australian art, Penny Clive, established her Detached Foundation in Hobart in 2008.

Since the 1980s, women artists and gallery professionals from multicultural backgrounds have contributed to the broadening and deepening of Australia's cultural fabric. Following on from Marea Gazzard and the Craft Council's decision to be included in the Asian sector of the World Craft Council, the push during the 1970s and onwards for a broader engagement with Australia's Asian neighbours was taken up actively within the visual arts. Darwin-born and Sydney-educated Dr Melissa Chiu, a recognised authority on contemporary Asian art, is the first Australian to be appointed to the Asia Society as museum director and senior vice president. Dinah Dysart and Hannah Fink, respectively inaugural publisher and editor of Art Asia Pacific, launched the magazine in 1993 at the first Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) at the Queensland Art Gallery, the APT itself having been inaugurated and co-directed by Dr Caroline Turner, then deputy director of the gallery.


Women artists played a pioneering role in the development of Australian modern art. However, notwithstanding the major contribution of women artists, the art historical account has generally focused on the conventional narrative of modernism as an aesthetic phenomenon. Second-wave feminism and the women's movement provided a catalyst for the acknowledgment and revival of these earlier female artists. Feminism also examined the effects of hierarchical divisions between fine arts and crafts, which often served to exclude female practitioners from privileged media and genres. Importantly for the visual arts as a field, the women's movement also raised an awareness of the effects of social power, ideology and institutional bias on the production and reception of art. This has had major implications for women and leadership in the visual arts.

Access to education and greater social autonomy has enabled more women to aspire to and obtain positions of leadership in Australian art. Dating from the end of the Second World War to the end of the 20th century and beyond, more women have excelled in leadership positions than ever before. With the expanding art world, these roles were not confined to practising artists. The over-riding theme that arises during this period is greater access to education for women and encouragement by family members or inspirational teachers and mentors to pursue further study. The rapid expansion in the availability and delivery of secondary and tertiary education, followed by Whitlam's 'democratisation' of tertiary education in the early 1970s, opened up opportunities for all Australians, but for women in particular.

The visual arts underwent an enormous transformation in 20th-century Australia. As practising artists and as gallerists and curators, women exercised leadership roles in all aspects of the Australian art world. However, because art history remains focused on the singular role of the charismatic artist, whose identity is frequently defined in masculine terms, the role of women in the broader field of Australian art has not yet been fully acknowledged.

Qualities of female leadership as exemplified in these brief (and selective) case studies include creating opportunities outside established systems, pursuit of educational opportunities, perseverance and, of course, creativity and vision.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Jean Battersby interviewed by Hazel de Berg in the Hazel de Berg collection [sound recording], 18 May 1972, ORAL TRC 1/603-604; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Ambrus, Caroline, Australian women artists : first fleet to 1945 : history, hearsay and her say, Irrepressible Press, Woden, Australian Capital Territory, 1992. Details
  • Haese, Richard, Rebels and precursors : the revolutionary years of Australian art, Allen Lane, Ringwood, Victoria, 1981. Details
  • Hart, Deborah, Richard Larter, Clark, Deborah and Mendelssohn, Joanna, National Gallery of Australia (NGA), Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2008. Details
  • Hylton, Jane, Modern Australian women : paintings &​ prints 1925-1945, Repr. with corrections edn, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia, 2000. Details
  • Kerr, Joan, Heritage : the national women's art book, 500 works by 500 Australian women artists from colonial times to 1955, Craftsman House, Sydney, New South Wales, 1995. Details
  • Lindsay, Lionel, Addled art, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, New South Wales, 1942. Details
  • MacDonald, J. S., Australian painting desiderata, Lothian Books, Melbourne, Victoria, 1958. Details
  • Pierse, Simon, Australian art and artists in London, 1950-1965 : an antipodean summer, Ashgate, Farnham, England, 2012. Details
  • Scarlett, Ken, Australian Sculptors, Thomas Nelson, West Melbourne, Victoria, 1980. Details
  • Smith, Bernard, Australian Painting, 1788 - 1960, Oxford University Press, London, England, 1962. Details
  • Sturgeon, Graeme, The development of Australian sculpture, 1788-1975, Thames and Hudson, London, England, 1978. Details
  • Thomas, Daniel, Grace Cossington Smith, Cossington Smith, Grace, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales, 1973. Details
  • Topliss, Helen, Modernism and feminism : Australian women artists, 1900-1940, Craftsman House, Roseville, New South Wales, 1996. Details
  • Williams, John F, The quarantined culture : Australian reactions to modernism, 1913-1939, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1995. Details

Edited Books

  • Burke, Janine (ed.), Australian Women Artists, 1840 - 1940, Greenhouse Publications, Collingwood, Victoria, 1980. Details
  • Eagle, Mary (ed.), Australian modern painting between the wars 1914-1939, General Editor: Phipps, Jennifer, Bay Books, Sydney, New South Wales, 1990. Details
  • Hoorn, Jeanette (ed.), Strange women : essays in art and gender, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1994. Details
  • Kerr, Joanne and Holder, Jo (eds), Past present : the national women's art anthology, National Women's Art Project, Craftsman House, North Ryde, New South Wales, 1999. Details

Journal Articles

  • Burke, Janine, 'Anima: Relevance of Women's Art in the 1990s', Art and Australia, vol. 32, no. 3, 1995, pp. 338 - 343. Details
  • Peers, Juliette, 'Women Artists as Drivers of Early Art Historical Activities and Alternative Art Historical Narratives in Australia', Journal of Art Histography, vol. 4, June. Details

Newspaper Articles


  • Sanders, Ann E, 'The Mildura Sculpture Triennials 1961 - 1978: An Interpretative History', PhD thesis, Australian National University (ANU), 2009. Details

Online Resources

Digital Resources

Jean Battersby interviewed by Hazel de Berg in the Hazel de Berg collection [sound recording]
8 May 1972
National Library of Australia
National Library of Australia Oral History Collection