Book cover: abstract artwork

Melinda Rackham and Elvis Richardson
CoUNTess: Spoiling Illusions Since 2008

“There are so few senior women artists,” a friend lamented recently. Women, trans and non-binary people make up more than 70 per cent of visual arts graduates in Australia, but only 30-40 per cent of exhibiting artists. What makes them disappear?

In 2008, Elvis Richardson started a blog that exposed this gender disparity, collating data freely available online. The anonymous project grew, becoming a regular public intervention. Now it is also a book: CoUNTess: Spoiling Illusions Since 2008 lays out the challenges at every stage of an artist’s career, from a high school syllabus dominated by male artists, through the complex maze of tertiary education and into major collecting institutions.

Along the way, we learn of the precarity of working artists’ lives: scraping a living from meagre artist fees, often making art at a personal cost. Statistics can be stark: male artists earn 44 per cent more than their non-male colleagues (more than triple the current average gender pay gap). There are also less-visible markers such as “professional respect”, or how work is framed and presented, that reveal contradictions between the art world’s belief in meritocracy and its actual practices.

The book retains an early blogosphere aesthetic, with embedded comments, plentiful citations, a mix of hard data, analysis and Richardson’s first-person stories. It references both the glossy catalogue and the activist poster, playfully undermining formal authority as it goes. It’s visually attractive, designed for linear reading but equally engaging when flicked through, allowing images, stories and data to overlap. At its centre are 40 works of art by women and trans and non-binary artists, amplified by the context.

Few women artists will be shocked to learn attrition is disproportionately female. Rackham and Richardson map the forces of this “downward mid-career spiral”. The authors’ feminism is fiercely intersectional, aware of class and the specific challenges of First Nations, LGBTQIA+, racialised, disabled and older artists. While I longed for more personal stories from a diverse range of artists, I was also reminded of the uneven costs of speaking out.

A lot has changed since 2008, including institutional awareness. CoUNTess was consulted by the National Gallery of Australia for its recent Know My Name project. But our biases are not going away; now they are encoded in algorithms. Rising costs are making precarity harder to bear. A spectre of “inevitable” neglect still looms over many non-male artists’ careers.

We don’t speak enough about the emotional dimensions of these structural deficits, how it feels to play when the game’s rigged against us. This book states an intention to be “welcomingly humorous, justifiably enraging and rigorously researched”, but it exceeds those goals. Its candidness also makes it deeply moving: a heartfelt and irresistible call to action. 

Countess.Report, 236pp, $70

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2023 as "CoUNTess: Spoiling Illusions Since 2008".

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