Sexism in the arts is so subtle, but there’s change happening

CLAIRE FOX met with four women steering the Cork arts scene, to chat about female involvement in the arts, gender equality and the battle to secure funding
Sexism in the arts is so subtle, but there’s change happening
Mary McCarthy of NSF. Picture Clare Keogh


MARY McCarthy has been Director of the National Sculpture Factory on Cork’s Albert Road for two periods — once from 1996-2001 and returning again in 2009, where she remains Director.

During these two periods, Mary took on other roles, such as Director of Programmes for Cork’s stint as European Capital of Culture in 2005 and Executive Arts and Culture Manager for Dublin Docklands Development Authority from 2005-2009.

The National Sculpture Factory may look like a regular red-brick building from the outside but within its walls is a large and unique studio space custom-made for sculptors to build their projects. The factory also provides training and support to artists and hosts exhibitions and events.

While many associate the heavy lifting that comes with sculpting as a boys’ club, Mary says that currently the ratio of men is to woman on their studio floor is equal.

“A lot of the work we do is quite large and physical. Sometimes it can be 70% male but right now it’s about 50/50 in the studio. It varies and it’s project by project and because people rent the space we would have less control over them, but in our own programmes we would pay close attention to gender equality,” says Mary.

“Our staff is balanced and the staff is 50/50 precisely and we would be very conscious of this.”

Mary studied a postgraduate degree in Arts Management in UCD in 1993. She credits this course, as well as the determination of current Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys, in ensuring an increased number of women are present on arts boards, and the reason why Cork is leading the way in terms of female involvement in the arts.

“Minister Humphreys is really pushing that every organisation has a gender policy. I think that’s really important. Sexism in arts is so subtle and predominately happens on boards that are male and chaired by men. The Minister has an extraordinary record of making women chairs and that is important as it’s redressing a balance,” says Mary.

Mary is also Chairperson of Culture Ireland, an organisation which promotes Irish arts and culture abroad, and she is a board member of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA).

Before being elected the new leader of Fine Gael, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar stated that he planned to double the funding of arts over the next seven years, does Mary see this as a becoming a reality or is it just another empty manifesto promise?

“It would be very welcome. It’s good to see Fine Gael having an ambitious policy for arts and culture because the party’s policy when they got elected would’ve put up some challenges for the cultural sector. There were funding cuts and some organisations were at risk.

“I think, like everywhere, the last few years have been really tough on everybody,” continues Mary, who has seen Cork come out the other side of the recession in the last nine years.

“Cork had to redefine itself in some ways in the cultural sector because the recession was hard and everybody was very hard hit and on 30-40% less funding than they were before, so that’s a very significant decrease of public funding. I think Cork is well placed to capitalise from the next economic period of stability.”


Visual artist Angela Fulcher. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Visual artist Angela Fulcher. Picture: Denis Minihane.


For sculpture and installation artist, Angela Fulcher, the phrase “full-time artist” is a contentious one. Being an artist isn’t a nine-to- five job with steady income and, a lot of the time, the amount you are paid doesn’t reflect the hours of painstaking work put in to a project.

“I had a show in the Galway Arts Centre called Unbounded and one of the works in there was called Belt. It contained about 180 belts all stitched together by hand,” recalls Fulcher, who is originally from Dorset in England. “That’s like three months full-time work. The struggle for artists is getting their time paid for, whether it’s for a gallery or a project. You have to include a fee in your application but it’s never representative of the time put in.”

When Fulcher was a child her mother owned a jewellery shop in London, with such an early immersion into the world of art and creativity, it is hardly surprising that Angela too went down the artistic route.

“It was a really creative space. I would’ve spent a lot of time in there at weekends and after school,” remembers Angela. “She did glass engraving by hand, so she often took photographs of people and their pets and put those she’d engraved by hand onto the glass. She would’ve done life drawing too and I would’ve posed for her for portraits.”

Based in Cork since 1998, Angela has a studio located at the Cork Arts Collective on Dean Street within the walled gardens of the iconic St Fin Barre’s Cathedral. The Collective began in 1985, providing studio space for artists and residency for visiting artists at their guesthouse on Chapel Street. For Angela, the Collective symbolises how Cork provides a great support system for its artists.

“Cork is a really supportive network to emerge into from college. There’s a good cross- section of everything with emerging artists setting up and there are established artist institutions which are all accessible and I would say that it’s very easy to move around on that scene. Everyone knows everybody.

Ireland in general is like that,” smiles Fulcher, who holds a degree in Fine Art from the Crawford College of Art and Design.

With commissions for sculptures notoriously often going to men, I ask Fulcher whether she feels this is sexism or are there just more male sculptors than female ones?

“It’s traditional that the people who lean towards working with heavy materials are men. I wouldn’t say that women in this day and age are discouraged from doing it. I did welding but it’s more physical and it’s tough and demanding,” explains Angela, who specialises mostly in indoor projects.

“You have to find ways to constantly get around doing things that physically you can’t do. Whereas, if you are a 6ft male who’s 13 stone, you can do it. I wouldn’t say that it’s sexism.”


Anne Boddaert. Pic: Diane Cusack
Anne Boddaert. Pic: Diane Cusack


While most consider Paris the capital of art and culture, Anne Boddaert has swapped her native France for Cork’s Crawford Gallery since 1999.

She was given the official title of curator in 2005 and is now in charge of organising educational programmes for the Emmet Place gallery.

“The learn and explore programme and education programme is something I always wanted to push and I worked and developed programmes both to do with particular exhibitions and then some more general art classes,” begins Anne, sitting in the gallery’s private library.

“I organise and let artists do the teaching and that’s one of the things I’m really passionate about — that it’s qualified, professional people who run workshops and not just anybody.”

For Anne, the real challenge within the arts is funding and trying to justify money being given to the arts when it could be attributed to arguably more vital public services, such as health and education.

“Art isn’t always valued and there are always comments like, ‘Why are we putting money into the arts when we can build an extra toilet in that school?’ I think that’s a very narrow way of looking at things, however, sometimes the bigger picture is just not there. It’s hard to earn an income from art too,” said Anne.

With this struggle of earning a regular income in mind, Anne ponders whether it is more difficult for women than men to succeed in visual arts as they often have to balance a family as well as make a viable living.

“There is no doubt that if you want to pursue a career, things have to take second place. The provision of childminding is hard. It’s not impossible but very difficult and there’s very little help,” says Boddaert.

She points out that she endeavours to feature female artists in every exhibition, but admits it’s difficult to do when curating historical pieces as women were often left out of the artistic canon.

“There probably were as many female artists as male but they just weren’t collected by national institutions or by museums, or they might be in private collections and not cared for and have aged badly. The historical balance wouldn’t be there at all, unfortunately, and again it’s not because they didn’t exist, it’s because they are lost and that’s the big part to be very sorry about. It would be easy to say, even in literature as well, that women didn’t write but it’s not true”


Kevin Tuohy, Arts Office, Artist Aaron Bevan and Catherine Fehily, Head of Crawford College of Arts and Design. Picture Darragh Kane
Kevin Tuohy, Arts Office, Artist Aaron Bevan and Catherine Fehily, Head of Crawford College of Arts and Design. Picture Darragh Kane


Two years ago, Catherine Fehily left her job as Faculty Director for Arts, Media and Design at Staffordshire University and returned to Ireland to become the Head of the Crawford College of Art and Design. Apart from missing the lush Derbyshire countryside, she is enjoying her new role. Her route to academia was an interesting one, as she first began taking photographs while she was a tour guide in Amsterdam.

“I was working as a tour guide for an American photographer in Amsterdam, and they had a photography club and I learned how to use their dark room. It started as a hobby but in time it was something I realised I could pursue more seriously. I applied to study in Derbyshire when I was 25,” says Catherine, who quickly fell in love with the academic way of life.

Crawford College has 800 students and while it is smaller than most other art colleges in the country, Catherine feels that it provides a unique experience for students.

“I think we offer the real art college experience. Staff know all the students really well. Our students are very well looked after. Their work is very ambitious. They’re really challenged to push themselves.”

The Crawford’s students are in the majority female, yet Catherine feels that this majority will shift and that working in visual arts is challenging regardless of gender.

“I don’t think the job of feminism is done by any means but in the arts world it’s tough for everybody. For those who want to make a living from practising their art, it’s the hardest path of all and it’s a personality thing, rather than a gender thing. I think those who are really driven to do it, do it and our students aren’t under any illusions as to how tough it is.”

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