Frances Morris, Tate Modern's first female directorTATE PHOTOGRAPHY

The news this week that the Tate Modern has announced its first female director in Frances Morris is welcome. But the fact that her appointment doubles the number of women at the helm of the top art galleries shows institutions must do much more to promote women and smash the artistic glass ceiling.

The under-representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in executive positions is just one small symptom of an industry dominated by white, European men. Female artists are almost entirely absent from historic art collections; their work goes for much less commercially and they are still massively underrepresented in contemporary art institutions.

When Frances Morris graduated from King’s College with a First in Art History in 1982, most Cambridge colleges were only just starting to admit female undergraduates. That didn’t stop Morris from smoking a pipe, donning Land Army Breeches and joining King’s Women. She thought she looked cool, but a tutor told her she was dressed like a horsewoman. Devilishly clever, she went on to do her PhD at the Courtauld Institute and has been at Tate Modern since 1998. But her success is the exception, not the rule.

Of the top 10 most visited art galleries in the UK (Arts Newspaper 2014 attendance figures), only two have female directors – Penelope Curtis at the Tate Britain and now Frances Morris at the Tate Modern. The National Gallery has been headed by men during the entirety of its existence, but that didn’t stop it from appointing its 14th male director this year. The British Museum, The Royal Academy of Arts, the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Museum of Scotland, Somerset House, and the Dulwich Gallery all have white males mostly responsible for the overall direction of the collections. And closer to home, both the Fitzwilliam here in Cambridge and the Ashmolean in Oxford are – you guessed it – run by men.

Art galleries are a public celebration of what we value most in a society, of what we find compelling and magnificent, beautiful and haunting. It matters what hangs on the walls and who holds the power of taste and distinction. This isn’t to say that a male curator is always less likely to commission work by female artists, or vice versa. But the case for diversity in all areas of the arts, from what hangs on the walls, to who sits in a boardroom, is clear. It’s not even that having a broad range of backgrounds, genders, ages and races is ‘good’ for the art world: it’s integral to its very being.

It is painfully obvious that differences in opinion, style, background, and world view drive art forward and endow it with an immense capacity for wonder and delight. Without diverse workforces, we will not unlock the full potential of the arts and creative industries. By limiting the opportunities of substantial sections of Britain’s population for recognition and success, we and the whole world miss out on their talent as a result.

Redressing the historic gender imbalances in the modern world is, however, not straightforward. Should we go about reinserting overlooked female artists into seventeenth-century art collections, or is this trying to rewrite history?

The idea of quotas is no less controversial. In a 2013 interview with the White Review, Morris said “if we implemented a 50/50 rule in our collection displays, we’d probably be drawing upon 1/5 of the collection to represent 50 per cent of the display.” Professionals in the creative industries should still try to draw from as many backgrounds and perspectives as possible. In her time so far at the Tate, Frances Morris has curated three major retrospectives of female artists: Louise Bourgeois in 2007, Yayoi Kusama in 2012 and Agnes Martin in 2014. Bourgeois is an example of an artist continually overlooked by the art world until feminist art theory brought the issue to attention in the 1970s. Her collection of paintings and mass sculptures explore psychological events from her childhood, domesticity, motherhood and sexuality.

According to Bourgeois, when she brought her work to the trustees of the MoMA in the 1930s, ‘They were not interested in a young women coming from Paris. They were not interested in her three children. They wanted male artists, and they wanted male artists who did not say they were married.’ It took 50 years and the persuasive efforts of a young female curator for MoMA to display Bourgeois’s work - in what was its first female retrospective.

The situation has improved. It is true that women fare better in curational and executive positions in the European and American art scene. In second-year History of Art lectures today, you’ll be hard pressed to spot the two male students out of 27: a very different gender ratio to 1982. Before 1900 female artists comprised one per cent of collections at the Tate Britain, by 1965 this had reached 30 per cent. But overall representation of female artists in London art galleries has plateaued ever since. We should celebrate Morris’s success, but remember that there is much, much more to be done.

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