‘Even in Sweden’ – Jason Oakley salutes The Mothership Project in the latest issue of The Visual Artists News Sheet

In the Nov / Dec Issue of The Visual Artists News Sheet, Jason Oakley salutes the efforts of initiatives such as The Mothership Project in tackling the alarming persistence of shallow presumptions about the incompatibility of parenthood with pursuing a dynamic art career.

“Women in the art world have had enough”.
Jennifer Thatcher, The Mother of All Battles, Art Monthly, June 2013

“… and this is Sweden, the land of legislated gender equality and paid parental leave for both fathers and mothers. If things are so bad there, they can only be worse elsewhere.”
Jennifer Allen, The Parent Trap, Frieze, March 2012

SERIOUS attention has recently been focussed on how the artworld harbours some pretty retrograde attitudes and practices in relation to women artists and artworkers in relation to parenthood. The UK publications Art Monthly and Frieze have explored the subject in articles respectively titled The Mother of All Battles and The Parent Trap.

The reported issues include attitude shifts that occur when women artists and artworkers reveal that they’re planning or raising a family – the presumption is that they’re no longer ‘in the game’. In the broader context of the ‘precarity’ of cultural workers, questions arise as to how financially pressed artists can balance – or even justify – childcare costs against the time and monies devoted their practices. It seems that women still find themselves in the situation of having to choose between having an art career or children – it’s shocking that this dilema hasn’t been consigned to the refuse bin of history.

At a more structural level, attention has been drawn to the lack of even the most basic childcare facilities in art venues, studios and academic institutions. Seen as equally problematic is the lack of alternative opportunities for networking, other than the child-un-friendly evening-time exhibition openings, talks and events.

Critical mass around these issues has also been growing in Ireland. Sheena Barrett, Curator of The Lab, Dublin has paved the way with the ‘Baby on Board’ series of parent and child meetings for art workers. This initiative has been allied to artist and academic Michelle Browne’s ongoing research project ‘Mothers and the City’. In Belfast, PS2 has ran an experimental childcare facility. In addition Visual Artists Ireland have also explored the topic with a profile of UK activist group Enemies of Good Art in the Visual Artists’ News Sheet and presentation by the founder, Martina Mullally, at the Get Together 2013.

Founded in April, The Mothership Project, a new Irish networking group, has been going from strength to strength. They’ve been profiled on RTE radio and in the Irish Times; and operate an informative website. The groups genesis was sparked by artist Seoidin O’ Sullivan’s email exchanges of ideas, views and links with over 20 female art workers. The group has so far conducted three public sessions, addressing the logistics, economics and status associated with being an artist / parent. Upcoming meetings will consider alternative childcare models and support networks.

The Mothership Project’s most recent session, entitled ‘Perception: How Does Having a Child Affect the Artist Within a Reputational Economy?’ was hosted at the VAI offices at the beginning of September. Sixteen parents, 3 toddlers and 2 babies were in attendance. Artist Naomi Sex (PhD Gradcam) outlined the socioeconomic history of the concept fo the ‘reputational economy’ – including its migration from the realms of business-speak and the lexicon of the social sciences . Alternatively dubbed ‘the attention seeking economy’, the concept is now in vogue as a means to understand the power-dynamics between artists, curators, collectors, critics and institutions.

Where’s the anger? Why so polite? Aren’t the problems facing artist mothers absolutely horrendous? This was the sharp end of the spectrum of viewpoints aired. Artist-mothers felt ‘invisible’ in professional terms, perceived to have “fallen off the face of the world”. There was agreement that informal networking situations – openings, talks, conferences, residencies, performances and events – were hard to access. This added up to an exclusion from the everyday peer exchanges that organically generate inspiration, affirmation and opportunities for artists. Some lamentable attitudes in the commercial art world were reported: collectors seeing female artists who had started families as a bad ‘investment’, presuming a lack of future productivity and commitment to their art careers.

Others expressed more hopeful views – having children had been empowering and had sharpened their sense of what was really important in life. The situation was just a challenge. Wasn’t there everything to play for in countering shallow art-world attitudes and very visibly overcoming the difficulties and misconceptions? In this regard, the Mothership Project was recognized as a valuable tactical and strategic resource in itself, bolstering the reputational ‘capital’ of art-worker mothers and providing an alternative networking space.

The Mothership Project and the other endeavours mentioned here all welcome the participation of men – ‘art dads’. But, undeniably the issues at stake are glaringly feminist. Jennifer Thatcher, writing in Art Monthly, noted a reluctance in male artists to define themselves as parents, and highlighted double standards: men garner praise and attention when they involve themselves in childcare; women are patronizingly pre-judged as being unavailable to work out-of-hours. 1 Frieze’s Parent Trap article cites statistics attesting to how women still make the biggest time-commitment to childcare, even in the ‘progressive’ art world – yes, even in the Swedish art world2.

Expect to hear more from the Mothership Project, they have more work to do.

Notes & Further Reading:
1. Jennifer Thatcher, The Mother of All Battles, Art Monthly, June 2013
2. Jennifer Allen, The Parent Trap, Frieze, March 2012


The Visual Artists News Sheet is published by Visual Artists Ireland
Jason Oakley is Publications Manager at Visual Artists Ireland