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We Shall Arise Now

Only 2% of Artists included in the National Gallery of Ireland virtual tour are female and it took a transition year student to point it out, writes Emma Dwyer

I remember a school visit to the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI). We were shown Carravagio, Jack B Yeats, and Paul Henry paintings. This was Art: oil paintings by the lads. But why did I only now hear of Yeats’ sister Lily – an accomplished embroiderer who founded the embroidery department of Cuala Industries. Is that not art? Or the other Yeats sister Elizabeth who published several books on art, and was a founder of Dun Emer Press. Not worth mentioning alongside the Lake Isle of Innisfree?


It was the 90s, we were kids and we didn’t question the lack of female representation in the gallery or our books. In retrospect, I wonder how aware we were, and how much critical thought was encouraged. My only memory of any sort of feminist activism in school was signing a petition for girls to be allowed to serve at the altar during our confirmation year. It was a success.

It heartened me to hear that artist and PhD researcher Fiona Woods’ daughter – a transition year student – was livid at the National Gallery of Ireland’s online virtual tour. She pointed out that only 2% of the 120 artists included on the tour are female. “Herself and her friends are very strongly feminist and they are critically savvy. They recognise it and call it out when they see it,” explains Fiona. “It’s interesting because I have noticed from teaching over the last 20 years that there was a period when feminism went out of fashion, people didn’t want to be called feminists, but this generation are so not taking this crap anymore.” Fiona had a choice – to say that’s just the way it is or to do something about it, so she set up an online petition that calls for NGI to rectify this state of affairs.

National Gallery of Ireland’s virtual tour is being used as an educational resource by many schools in place of actual tours of the building during the pandemic. During closures, it was vital that NGI as a national cultural institution continued to connect with the public. The gallery initially created a selection of online content but feedback from their audiences spurred them to create virtual tours. The tours were created with an existing exhibition planning software package, that uses blank, exact-scale models of galleries. With the support of a sponsor, the Annenberg Foundation, the virtual tours are an adaptation of those blank gallery models.

Sean Rainbird, Director of the National Gallery of Ireland says, “The tours are of one of the Gallery’s four wings, the Dargan Wing, which contains art made mainly before 1800.” He says in the past for the vast majority of female artists the opportunity of building and establishing a successful artistic career was not a realistic option. “While we cannot make changes to the history of art, of artists’ lives, careers and markets, we have been looking at this closely in recent years. In our acquisitions policy, curatorial discussions and programming, we are committed to working in a responsible, sensitive and meaningful way to address inequality in our collection,” he adds.

The virtual tour features the permanent collection currently hanging in those galleries, which is selected by the Director and the Gallery’s curatorial team, with one or two amendments. The tour doesn’t include more recent works where acquisitions for the collection have attempted to redress the gender imbalance. Fiona asks, “What is the classification of work in this period? It’s defined in very narrow terms: painting and fine art terminologies. Of course, women didn’t have access to those.” She further adds, “Museums all over the world are being held to account for display as a very political activity. They can’t be unaware of the statement they make by putting those rooms on display.”

Discussions about this have been pursued in the National Gallery of Ireland, against a long tradition of male dominance in art-making, the market, collecting, recognition and in institutions. On their website a separate, less visible, section called ‘Celebrating Female Artists’ includes works solely by women. “The fact that those artists are ghettoised by their gender is not cause for celebration. Another generation of young women should not have to turn a blind eye and shrug off systemic discrimination by public institutions,” Fiona wrote in her petition’s appeal.

After Fiona initiated the petition it was shared widely online, it currently has approximately 450 signees and has been sent to the National Gallery of Ireland. Fiona hopes to spark a conversation around the matter with this one example of how we are experiencing gender imbalances in our cultural institutions. “This is a public matter, somebody said to me ‘why don’t you just contact them by email?’. But I said no it’s a public institution, it’s publicly funded. It’s an educational resource and it’s a public discussion. It needs to be public,” she says.

There’s an opportunity for the National Gallery of Ireland, and other cultural institutions to look at their own choices. There’s an opportunity to be transparent and pose the gender imbalance questions to their audiences rather than having students point it out themselves. Fiona’s petition, much to the mock mortification of her daughter, won’t change history but it does open up a conversation about our history and how this is being presented to us and our children through our national publicly funded museums.


Sign the petition here.