In her latest book, How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and Other Parents), art critic and writer Hettie Judah, draws on interviews with artists to highlight some of the success stories that offer models for the future. From alternative support networks and residency models, to studio complexes with onsite childcare, and galleries with family-friendly policies. The work is part of the Hot Topics series, edited by Institute faculty Jeffrey Boloten and Juliet Hacking and in collaboration with art world publishers, Lund Humphries. Read a complimentary excerpt of How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and Other Parents) below.
The old cliché that one cannot be both an artist and a mother has proved remarkably durable. It lingered on through the feminist avant-garde of the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s, some of my artist contemporaries decided not to start families because they feared that as mothers they would not be taken seriously. The cliché still bedevils artists today.
In part, it is born of old-fashioned prejudice: to those who consider women artists an inferior proposition, artist mothers seem beyond the pale. In part, too, it arises from the seductive potency of the artist as a countercultural figure – for what is one to rebel against if not domesticity and the conventions of family life?
There are real challenges to being an artist mother, but they arise neither from a lack of ability nor a lack of bohemian spirit. As we shall discover over the course of this book, many of the problems artist mothers face result from conventions within the art world itself. Such problems are pervasive, and found all the way from our colleges to our great galleries. They are structural hindrances that impede not only mothers but all artists caring for children, and many art world professionals besides.
The art world’s mother problem has long roots. Before we explore the situation in the present day it is worth taking a brief art historical detour to refresh our memories as to how we got here: a quick sprint through a few case studies over the last century, to see how the art world’s prejudice around motherhood took hold, and the impact it has had.
In the mid-1890s, an exceptional generation of female students passed through London’s Slade School of Fine Art. Founded in 1871, the Slade was progressive: the only London art school to offer the same opportunities to male and female students. Crucially, these included life drawing, considered a foundation skill for a professional artist, the lack of which had condemned many women to careers painting flowers and interiors. Edna Waugh, Gwen John, Ida Nettleship and Gwen Salmon won the respect of tutors and male contemporaries, as well as the school’s coveted awards. Of those four names, the only one familiar to museum visitors today is Gwen John. She was also the only one to abjure married life and domesticity, recognising that she would need a life ‘free from family convention and ties’ if she were to continue to work.
Her friends’ lives after the Slade give some idea of the ties – and mortal hazards – bound up in the conventions of family for women artists at the turn of the century. Nettleship married John’s brother Augustus, and proceeded through a series of back-to-back pregnancies. ‘It may only be because there’s nothing else to do, now that painting is not practicable – & I must create something’ she wrote to a friend as her family expanded. She died of puerperal fever aged 30, shortly after giving birth to her fifth child in six years.
Edna Waugh married a champion of children’s rights and took his name (Clarke Hall). Her husband was unmoved by her exceptional talent, and her creativity was left to stifle amid domestic responsibilities. When she achieved a solo show at the Redfern Gallery in London in 1924, by then aged 45, critics could not ignore her status as a middle-aged woman with children. One even alluded to her having surrendered her genius ‘for the sake of marriage and motherhood’. Salmon married fellow artist Matthew Smith, who admired her work, but nevertheless left her to look after their sons alone so that he could paint undisturbed by domestic cares.
Remembering these ‘remarkably brilliant’ women many years later, Augustus John noted, without a trace of irony, that ‘in talent, as well as in looks, the girls were supreme’ among Slade students of their day, but that their ‘advantages for the most part came to nought under the burdens of domesticity’.
This story – of brilliant talents quashed by domestic cares – might be repeated endlessly. No doubt there is a version of it for every 19th-century art school that admitted women students. Such tales have become deeply embedded in art world mythology, repeated as evidence that it is tough enough for a woman to make a career as an artist, and near impossible to do so as a mother. The reality is rather more complex, as Edna Waugh herself pointed out in 1924. In a reply to her critics, she insisted that talent does not have to be ‘sacrificed at the altar of domestic happiness’. Among the obstacles she faced as an artist mother was prejudice: the perception that, in having a family, she had relegated art to the status of an afterthought.
The avant-gardes of the early 20th century thought domesticity a drag. The modern, liberated, bohemian lifestyle was also fretted with double standards: free love tends to have consequences, and in the days before reliable contraception and legal abortion it was the women that dealt with the sticky end. Living with Jacob Epstein and his family as a young woman, Isabel Rawsthorne found herself pregnant by the older artist. Ahead of the birth, she legally changed her name to ‘Margaret Epstein’ so that the sculptor and his wife could raise her baby as their own. Rawsthorne erased herself from her child’s life: as a single woman living as an artist in a conservative society, to have kept the baby would have been ruinous.
A visionary, experimental life of the mind was considered at odds with such bourgeois considerations as gainful employment and family duties – which was tough if you were, for example, Jacqueline Lamba, attempting to raise a child with fellow Surrealist André Breton. Even before pregnancy, Breton had regarded Lamba as a muse rather than an artist. She described him introducing her to his friends as a ‘naiad’, which seemed to him ‘more “aesthetic” than a struggling painter: he saw in me what he wanted to see, but he didn’t really see me’. After the birth of their daughter Aube, Breton’s life continued much as it had before, but Lamba had to put aside her own ambitions. Her life of the mind was evidently not of concern within this arrangement.
Eileen Agar was one of the few women to exhibit (and be credited for it) among the Surrealists in the 1930s. Like Gwen John, she had made a conscious decision to try for something ‘more worthwhile than the usual repetitive routine of marrying and having a brood of children’. Family was regarded as a trap.
Too often, those women artists that we do remember as mothers are judged harshly. Barbara Hepworth has been unkindly remembered for having briefly placed her baby triplets in the care of a nursing college (no such condemnation has been extended to their father, Ben Nicholson). It is only recently, with the publication of material based on private correspondence from the time, that the heartache and hardship that Hepworth went through as a young mother, living alone and supporting herself through her work, has come to light.
Wouldn’t it be glorious if all of this were the stuff of the distant past? If artists didn’t feel pressured to choose between motherhood and a successful career? If the art world was no longer hung up on carefree youth? If a woman in her late forties wasn’t seen as ‘mumsy’ and unserious, exhibiting again after taking a break to raise children? If family was not considered a trap for women, because childcare was equally shared between partners? If mothers in the public eye were no longer judged for all they did and didn’t do? Alas, as yet, this is far from the case.
There have been a number of recent studies into gender balance – notably ‘Women’s Place in the Art World’ (2019), led by Charlotte Burns and Julia Halperin in the United States, and the annual ‘Representation of Female Artists in Britain’ (2015–) reports funded by the Freelands Foundation in the United Kingdom. In 2019, I started discussing invisible factors in the data with Dr Kate McMillan, author of the recent Freelands Foundation reports. Her 2018 report showed more female than male students undertaking postgraduate studies in creative art and design, and that over the past decade there had been rough gender parity in selection for New Contemporaries – a prestigious showcase for early career artists.
The fortunes of male and female artists then started to diverge: of the artists represented by London’s leading galleries, only 32 per cent were female. McMillan and I became curious about what impact, if any, motherhood was having on this. The mid-30s are a sweet spot for many artists: the years when they might get gallery representation, major commissions and institutional shows. They are also often the years many start a family. Was there something about the art world that made it particularly difficult for artists caring for children to flourish?
It has become unacceptable to ask a successful woman in any career how she balances domestic and working life. For good reason: we don’t ask men these questions. I am not advocating a return to the bad old days, but sometimes, in the right context, these forbidden questions become important, and in failing to ask them we end up maintaining the very structures that make it hard for working parents to thrive.
McMillan commissioned me to write about the impact of motherhood on artists’ careers for her report the following year. My initial enquiries turned into a substantial piece of research drawing on interviews with over 50 artists at stages of motherhood from pregnancy to grandmatriarchy.
The interviews built up a picture of an art world that excluded the participation of mothers (and other artists with caring responsibilities) on multiple fronts. Sometimes this exclusion was the result of structures that had endured unquestioned since the mid-20th century. In many cases, exclusion was the result of sheer thoughtlessness: no one had taken into account the possibility that an artist might also be a mother, and had made no provision for this. There was an overwhelming sense that old prejudice dies hard – the condescension extended to Edna Clarke Hall, the presumption that Jacqueline Lamba no longer had a life of the mind, the judgement levelled at Barbara Hepworth lingered on. Much of the problem was rooted in bigotry.
The findings of that study were outlined in the essay ‘Full, Messy and Beautiful’, which raised the problems faced by artist mothers. How to tackle those problems? In 2021, together with a group of artist parents, I put together a manifesto aimed at institutions and residency programmes: How Not to Exclude Artist Parents. Many artists and institutions have found the manifesto useful. In this book I will go further, drawing on my original study (hereafter ‘the Study’) to identify problems facing artist mothers, and then looking to artists, networks and organisations that have pushed for change and pioneered creative solutions. My initial research was conducted with artists based in the UK, but this is an issue that, to a greater or lesser degree, affects artists around the world: while I have broadened the geographical scope, a short book such as this carries inevitable limitations. We will hear from a creative support network in South Korea, a residency programme in Canada and an artist tackling the ‘mother-shaped hole’ in art schools in the Netherlands. This is an area of great concern to many artists, and we can all learn from these initiatives.
Many of the issues faced by artists are faced by all mothers: parenting is complex and consumes time and attention; it places huge demands on your body; it restricts your time and mobility. This does not stop with the years of pregnancy, babies and breastfeeding: an artist in her 50s worrying about the mental health of her adult child is still actively mothering. The impact of motherhood on any career is modified by many intersecting factors, among them the number of children in a family, the parents’ socio-economic status, their access to support networks, and the special health and care requirements of both the children and the parents. As we shall discover, however, there are certain peculiarities to the art world that make it an area of specific concern.
Discussions around artist parenthood are complicated if only because the people involved are as diverse and opinionated as any other group of artists. Things can quickly become factional. Many involved feel very strongly about using the term ‘mother’: in some cases because the figure of the mother carries huge cultural importance, in others because using the more neutral term ‘parents’ conceals the gender care gap, and erases centuries of unpaid women’s labour and exclusion. Many others feel equally strongly about using the term ‘parent’, arguing that to continue framing this as a woman’s issue perpetuates gender imbalance: instead we should be reinforcing the idea that these questions are of equal importance to all.
The ‘other parents’ of this book’s title includes not only artist fathers and those who don’t identify by the term ‘mother’: it also extends to others within the arts. The same structures that artist mothers struggle against will likewise have an impact on writers, curators, gallerists and many other parents within the art world. The group held within those parentheses is far larger than the group that stands outside them.