What’s the outlook for gender representation at Tate? #tidytuesday

I’ve decided to begin this little project’s journey by joining the Tidy Tuesday fun, also for the first time, and catching up on last week’s challenge.

What is Tidy Tuesday?
Tidy Tuesday is an open space for anyone looking to practice their data visualization skills, mainly using R, the tidyverse package and the principles of tidy data, on real life datasets. A new dataset is published on Github every Tuesday and the emphasis is on learning, sharing and exploring.

When I saw the topic and datasets chosen, I knew it was the perfect starting point for DataTales too: artists and their artworks acquired by Tate.

As someone moderately interested in art who enjoys roaming the spacious halls of galleries and being either shocked or awed, in equal measure, I visited Tate Modern a good number of times while in London. (I like visiting about as much as questioning its sources of funding but that’s beyond the point today!) Tate’s four galleries are famous for their world class exhibitions and their own collections. That’s why I was excited to get my hands on the data.

Fun fact: this is not my first data encounter with Tate. One of my first student projects was on Olafur Eliasson’s work, inspired by the exhibition In Real Life. I still believe there’s data for every beat — not just markets and elections!

How old is the art at Tate?

As most good expeditions do, this one started with picking a route at random and going where it leads me. At first I wondered how old Tate’s art collection is, which period is most or least represented. Since I didn’t do any research before diving head first into the data, even the first result surprised me!

Tate seems to have quite an obsession with the Romantic first half of 19th century. The last few decades that may have democratised and digitalised the art world do not even come close. Sure, Romanticism was widely influential and gave the world many greats from across the arts, including Goya or Delacroix, but was it really *that* big? And does Tate keep buying Romantic works to this day?

When did artworks come to Tate’s hands?

I wanted to get a better idea of how many artworks were added to the collection each year — for that purpose, I plotted a neat treemap.

library(treemap): as it turns out, ggplot does not yet have its own treemap geom and the libraries available are limited and less intuitive, tips for making prettier and more flexible treemaps in R would be much appreciated!

Treemap showing proportion of artworks acquired each year

When the poor thing loaded, I couldn’t believe my eyes! Did I make a mistake? If not, apparently Tate obtained more than half of its works (37,893 to be exact) in 1856. Must’ve been quite a shopping spree that year. Right?!

Well, not so much.

As some of you may know, the Tate is home to the world’s largest collection of art by Britain’s very own Romantic star, Joseph Mallord William Turner. The watercolor artist most famous for his landscapes, also considered the predecessor to Impressionism, is virtually a trademark at Tate. In 1856, five years after his death, astounding 37,711 of Turner’s artworks were acquired by the institution, mostly sketches and drawings. By 2014, this number further increased to 39,389. That explains a lot.

There is only one Turner but a lot of men

While Turner’s massive collection is unmatched by his peers, the most amply represented artists at Tate are overwhelmingly men. There is no woman in the top 10, top 20 nor top 30 artists by number of works. Dame Elisabeth Frink comes closest, as 34th. The overall numbers speak clearly.

Although Turner stands for over half of Tate’s works which may explain the overrepresentation of men, the situation is not very different in the case of individual artists.

The underrepresentation of female artists, not to mention other gender identities that were missing in these datasets altogether, is a lasting issue in museums and galleries worldwide. So I decided to look a little closer!

Gender gap in the arts

Each of the charts below draws attention to different aspects of the issue. The first plot tells us when the majority of artworks were acquired within each gender category. Apart from a bump around the acquisition of Turner’s magnum opus, we can see that the majority of female artist’s work arrived to Tate in the last 50 years. Nonetheless, as the second chart shows, the gap in gender representation may be closing but remains large at scale, highlighted by the logarithmic scale.

Of course, there’s a simpler way to put it.

Out of balance

We could imagine gender balance as an oscillation around 50 % (that is between women and men) of newly acquired artworks, sometimes above and sometimes below, to start building a representative collection of voices speaking up for people across the whole spectrum of society. That is, of course, before we attempt to balance out the earlier trends.

According to this premise, balance was nowhere to be seen back in 2014. The percentage of artworks created by women never rose above 40%.

(Under)representation mapped out

All in all, there is a lot of space for change! The picture bellow is far from a reflection of British or global society, or even Tate’s own target group. It would be nice to see a more colourful scheme in the coming years.

Safe to say, the available data is outdated as it ends in 2014. A few years have passed since then, more paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures were created, bought and displayed.

What would Guerilla Girls say?

Curiously enough, it was in 2004 already when Guerilla Girls set up camp at Tate Modern. The all-female art group’s prints-slash-manifestos highlight the very issue of underrepresentation. With their bold visuals and fact-based slogans, they have been on display ever since. Let’s hope their demands are pursued with greater fervour than in the first ten years of their tenancy.

“Guerrilla Girls — V&A Museum, London” by Eric@focus is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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