Our Artist Director Kitty was recently interviewed by Sotheby’s Institute of Art student Mary Ahearn for her dissertation on gender inequality in the art-world. It was a pleasure! Mary also writes editorials for ArtTactic and is currently on the prestigious Peggy Guggenheim Collection internship programme in Venice.
We thought you might be interested in reading an edited version of the interview 🙂
MA: The first thing people see on Subject Matter’s homepage is the phrase “We Make Buying Art Easy”. The website offers services for both first-time buyers and experienced collectors and represents a wide range of artists, from upcoming to established. How did you come up with this idea and would you say the business model of Subject Matter is disruptive to the established customs of the art world?
KD: It was primarily my co-founder Liezel’s idea when she first had a gallery in Tokyo. She was entirely fed up with the intimidating, perfect “white wall” gallery spaces where no-one spoke to you and you felt uncomfortable the second you walked in. We’ve all had that experience! She wanted to create something that was easy and friendly – but more than friendly, it actually worked with you. Quite often, when you are buying art, you feel as though you are jumping through hoops just to buy the piece. That is completely different from any other purchasing experience, because normally it is the seller who is keen to sell to you! Art really should be no different, because we all have to make money for our artists; at the end of the day that is the most important thing. Making it difficult for people to buy art seems totally counter-intuitive. Subject Matter comes from the central concept of making art buying easy, and to change the established art-world narrative, which seems to only make art-buying easy if you are very wealthy or fit a certain image. We want to create a sense of inclusiveness and openness throughout the website.
MA: Are you yourself a collector?
KD: Yes, I guess so…not big but I do have quite a lot of photographic pieces. I love buying from degree shows in particular, because it is so exciting to see the next generation of artists. I love to support artists at that stage in their careers as well because it is a time when they go from this very protected institutional world and out into the big wide world.
MA: How does Subject Matter work to promote female artists?
KD: Subject Matter works to promote women at a very early stage in their careers, at a time when artists often need a lot of support. We are always at the end of a phone, a WhatsApp message or an email and will do whatever we can for them: they are like our family.
Anyone who follows our Instagram will know that we are very vocal about women in the art-world! In fact, let’s just have a moment for Instagram – which is a really great tool for women artists to get their voices heard through a completely separate route from the usual art-world channels. Instagram totally disrupts those channels: if you put your work up there, and it is beautiful, and you use the correct hashtags, people will see it and it speaks for itself. It levels the playing field so much.
To return to the question, we are also actively looking for more female artists, especially from under-represented parts of the world. There is a great emerging art scene in Pakistan, and the female artists there are strong characters, growing up from the underground because everything is so much more low-key there. Again, we’re drawn to a more disruptive environment where there isn’t really an established art-world, so female artists find it easier to have a voice. However, we’re treading carefully, we don’t want it to be tokenism, but that is where our eyes and ears are.
MA: I recently interviewed the ex-director of the Huis Marseille Museum of photography in Amsterdam, Els Barents. She explained to me that photography is one of the rare fields in which there is more of an equal gender balance. She explained that, because photography is a relatively new medium, it has historically been easier for women photographers to make a profile and establish themselves compared to other much older mediums. In your experience, is photography a relatively gender-equalising medium for artists? What are the steps, if any, that should be taken to have a more equal representation of female artists in photography?
KD: I can’t speak to the statistics, but I would definitely agree that women photographers have not needed centuries to establish a profile in the same way that female painters have! The one negative that I would add is that there is often a particular narrative imposed on female photographic artists – that of a fragile, sad woman, sitting in her bedroom in her underwear smoking and looking thoughtful or miserable. We’ve all seen it so many times! It disturbs me, because I know that they are often very talented artists and could be saying something very different. But I believe young artists (both male and female) respond to what they see in major institutions because that is where they hope to be someday. So therefore I would like to see museums and institutions setting the tone by collecting and exhibiting more crazy, different work, because then I feel that female photographers would feel freer to explore their artistic horizons.
MA: You want people (not just collectors) to feel comfortable buying art. Do you find that a lot of first-time collectors and buyers are women?
KD: Yes, we want people to have art in their home. Most of our first-time buyers are actually couples, because often when people want art in their home it’s because they have bought a new house. Definitely, in those cases, it is the woman that drives the transaction.
MA: Do you think that is due to the fact that women in couples assert their taste more, or do you think it’s more to do with women taking more interest in the decoration and aesthetics of their house?
KD: I think it’s a bit of both and we know for a fact in some cases, it’s the latter.
MA: In what ways does Subject Matter’s online platform make it more able to represent and support female artists than a gallery with a physical space?
KD: The online platform allows us to be global. Essentially, it’s a window of the world for artists. They don’t have to be seen at a particular time, in a particular place, and then not have another show for four years. Also, with the traditional gallery model, the work either has to be a new series, or a retrospective. With Subject Matter, we just exhibit work that we like, and that we think will sell at any given time. It can be new work, but it doesn’t have to be. As a gallery model, that is therefore much more forgiving of an artist’s life choices. Some of our artists who have been represented by us for years have gone and done other things. Some of them have been working on Masters degrees, artists’ residencies, having babies, travelling the world, and they are free to live their lives while their work is still very visible.
MA: Are you looking to expand the business?
KD: We are not looking to expand at the moment. It is just Liezel and myself, and we work four days a week and the other days we are with our kids. We also have Andrea, who is our amazing assistant, and she does about two days a week.
Something I’d just like to share: Andrea started working for us about 18 months ago, and we saw how impressive she is and how hard she works. And how much she loves art! So we encouraged her to set up her own business – &Art – where she offers her services as an administrative adviser to small art businesses. It’s been really rewarding for us, because we’ve seen her talent, and we have been able to mentor her while she set up her own business. We didn’t just want to encourage her to do it, but actually support her by bringing her clients and putting her name out there.
Being in the art world and saying you support women artists is only one dimension. The other dimension is supporting the women around you, who sit with you every day. Helping Andrea in this way is something that we are proud of.
MA: In my dissertation, I discuss technology and the internet as an exciting tool that can be utilised to narrow the gender gap in the art world. For example, the annual Art + Feminism Wikipedia edit-a-thon wrote new or improved entries for over 6,000 female artists last year, demonstrating how technology and the internet can increase access to information about female artists to the general population. Do you see Subject Matter, and new online galleries in general, as having a role in this new wave of employing the internet to attempt to narrow the gender gap in the art world?
KD: Yes absolutely. From a personal perspective, the gallery being online is probably the only way that Liezel and I can have a business and have children. When you are talking about women in the art world, having children is something that holds a lot of women back – not just women artists but also women gallerists, dealers and curators. If we had a physical space, we’d have to be opening and closing every day, and would need to be there for private views and late evenings. Our children are young [Kitty has a son, 6 and a daughter, 2 and Liezel has a son, 3] and we need the flexibility that being online gives us. And as I said before, if our artists want to take a break out of their careers – for whatever reason – it doesn’t matter. Their work is online, so it carries on without a glitch. It might be that they don’t produce much for a year or two, but that’s fine, because you wouldn’t see that reflected on the website unless you looked specifically at the date of the work. And if buyers respond to the work, and love it, does it matter anyway whether it is older or more recent work?
MA: It seems that online galleries are the future of efficiency.
KD: Right. It gives us the freedom of not having to be physically in a space, and it actually gives us more time to hustle, and to work for our artists. We have meetings all around the city, and work harder and more efficiently. Particularly because we have children, we have deadlines every day and commitments we cannot break. Examining the online model, and the way in which it helps women, is massively important. We could not have built this gallery and this business if we had to have a physical space.
MA: It sounds like online galleries aren’t just helping female artists, but also female art entrepreneurs like yourself. And maybe even collectors…
KD: Yes, and even women collectors themselves are responding more. I wonder how many years these female collectors went to galleries and were ignored or marginalised…
MA: Probably many thought that when it comes to collector couples, the husband is more important…
KD: Yes, and now there is a much more open world for them, where no-one cares if they’re male or female. They are just buying art, and they shoot us an email to talk about buying art.
If you are interested in Mary’s research about the role of technology in gender inequality in the art market, just drop her a line at email@example.com – it’s her passion and she’d be delighted to chat further about it.