Can someone truly be an artist AND a mother?
Art Critic and Campaigner Hettie Judah argues for a major and necessary shift in the current attitudes towards and treatment of artist mothers (and other parents: artist fathers, parents who don't identify with the term 'mother’, and parents in other sectors of the art world). Her new book, How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and Other Parents), published in September this year, draws on extensive research and intensive interviews with international artists.
“This is not an issue of the past,” says Hettie of this old-fashioned prejudice. As she describes in her book’s introduction: ‘The art world’s mother problem has long roots’.
We were midway through our call; me, typing furious notes into my computer, Hettie, walking her dog, wind blustering around her. We had been discussing structural hindrances that impede “not only mothers but all artists caring for children, and many art world professionals.”
As recently as Frieze 2022, Hettie tells me how parents were left seemingly uncatered for by the outstanding lack of changing rooms – or indeed if there were changing rooms, they were not clearly signposted.
Artists had commented on parents being forced to change babies in the centre of the toilet area and there being little space to breastfeed. Judah ponders on the number of pregnant people she saw, and how next year there would be another influx of small children roaming around the fair. Where will milk be expressed next year? Where will these children be changed?
I had been keen to speak to Hettie for a long time. I wanted to thank her for her work. In my own capacities in the art world, I have shared many conversations about parenthood since Judah’s Guidelines of the same name as her new book, went viral on Instagram in 2020. Questions and conversations opened up that had been unspeakable before. The ‘forbidden’ questions of parenthood were being asked; artists were being listened to. Artists were even being asked their needs! It’s important to note throughout our conversation that these issues don’t just affect parents. They affect everyone: those with mobility issues, those who are neurodiverse. Everyone.
In the packed introduction of her new book, the prolific writer examines the fact that the root of this issue does not come from the artists, but from the often-unmoveable conventions of the art world. I ask which convention she would see abolished first. Judah cites “childcare costs.” Currently, there are many legislative issues surrounding childcare – childcare cannot be registered as expenses for tax purposes, and artists cannot add childcare to the budget for many funding bodies. “If you can’t count childcare as a work expense,” – a caring responsibility that disproportionately affects women – “that is misogynistic legislation,” Hettie shares. Removing the possibility of support with childcare costs reinforces the idea that artists are, and should always be, carefree, wealthy single people – the antithesis of the nurturing, maternal figure.
Love, Celebration and the Road Ahead_pictured_works by Rodalind Faram, Rachel Howard, Emma Franks, Kathryn Ashill, Emily Fleuriot, Martina Mullaney, Jemima Burrill, elsa James, Ingrid Berthon-Moine, Naomi Frears
Hettie's work encourages the destruction of that binary. To shift our ideas of what we think of as an ‘artist’. To understand that middle-aged women are just as capable of making exciting avant garde work. This conviction that mothers who paint ARE, in fact, cool, is shown as the result of the Contemporary British Painting Prize, of which Hettie this year sat on the judging panel: by coincidence, the two prizes went to women artists returning to the studio after taking years out to raise a family.
Published by Lund Humphries, this call to action is not an easy read. Hettie tells me stories of artists terrified that their pregnancy would be ‘found out’. Stories of curators losing projects for having children. The book further delves into the extensive – and often heart- breaking stories – of over 50 artists. We discussed Xie Rong’s performances being cancelled, and Renee Cox’s pregnancy being taken as both an accident and an inconvenience. This process of research was incredibly emotional for Hettie, speaking to “people that had gone through this pain... of feeling like disposable human beings.”
Hettie’s “immediate response is to help.”
Enter the APA (Artist Parenting Alliance), and the AWP (The Artist Working Parents Alliance). The APA is for artists: providing a network of intelligence and experience, creating a supportive ecosystem. The network discusses art world constraints on a human level, from negotiating contractual agreements to arranging museum visits with families.
The AWP, founded by Hettie Judah and Jo Harrison, is a network for curators, gallerists, academics, and all those working in the art world. AWP is for all parents: it is crucial to have a broad range of expertise and experience to draw on. Both are keenly responsive and shaped by their members.
Hettie‘s momentous and ground-breaking book concludes with a positive look to the future, as did her original essay for Freelands Foundation: Full, Messy and Beautiful. Indeed, many positive changes have been seen in recent years: galleries have begun shifting opening times and changing times of events. One example that came up in our conversation was the Sadie Coles Gallery, which hosts events in the middle of the day. Hettie is “cautiously optimistic” in these early days of discussion. Much of the response has been from women, from parents – those directly affected. It MUST be bumped outside of this parent echo chamber and bubble.
Truly, “if you don’t think this book is for you, it’s for you.”