By Hettie Judah
“‘If it weren’t for you, I’d have been a famous artist,’ my furious redheaded mother used to say.”
– Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1974)
“I remember complaining to him once, ‘Jeff Wall doesn’t have to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the middle of his photo shoots!’ And he, age four, replying, ‘Oh yeah? What else does Jeff Wall not have to do?'”
– Justine Kurland, ‘Six Years on the Road, as an Artist and a Mother’, The New Yorker (2016)
The taboo of motherhood as a subject for art has been broached recently in shows including Birth at TJ Boulting (2019) and Matrescence / Maternality at Richard Saltoun Gallery (2019/20). Yet we seldom discuss the impact motherhood has on the artist, her ability to make, show and sell work.
The parting of fortunes for men and women artists begins in the period between early career recognition (e.g. selection for New Contemporaries) and gallery representation.(1) In other words, at around the time they become parents. The statistics make the impact of motherhood on a female artists’ career apparent, but the question of why – and what we might do to change things – is complex.
The observations below are drawn from some 50 interviews with artist mothers responding to a public invitation in April 2020.(2) These artists come from a range of regions and socioeconomic backgrounds and were interviewed at various stages of motherhood, ranging from late pregnancy to grandparenthood.(3)
The impact of motherhood can be felt as soon as an artist knows she is pregnant. Already there may be a shift in the behaviour of curators, gallerists and commissioning bodies.(4) One pregnant artist had performances cancelled without consultation. Another experienced tension with a gallerist who did not approve of her decision to start a family.(5) Others report work drying up, and diminishing communication from institutions, galleries and funding bodies. It is therefore hardly surprising that many artists worry they might lose work and choose to hide their pregnancy with voluminous clothing for as long as possible.(6) Within an already insecure and unpredictable profession, pregnancy adds another layer of worry: will you be able to complete projects in time? Will you lose out on commissions? Will you be able to work afterwards?(7)
Who’s (still) carrying the baby?
At the Royal Academy Schools in the 1980s, a tutor sternly instructed students not to marry another artist because their careers would be in competition.(8) Ignore that tutor: artists with partners in the creative industries are far more likely to share childcare than those with a spouse in a more traditional profession.(9) Otherwise, there is seldom a question of who will take responsibility for children: with a family to support, and art rarely offering a stable income, it is the artist mother who tends the family, and the salaried father who pursues a career. These roles are cemented with subsequent children, and a vicious cycle commences: the longer the artist remains less able to work, and less visible to the market, the less likely it seems that her art might generate money for the family.(10)
For single mothers, of course, there is no question of who will shoulder the burden of care.
Giving birth and taking care of a baby is only the beginning. Childcare involves more than being physically present in a space and tending your offspring. Caring for children takes mental energy – the logistics of who, what, where, when – it involves anticipating children’s needs, keeping them fed, educated, attended to, delivered, collected, inoculated, medicated.(11) Even artists who shared childcare with a partner felt that as the mother, they carried the ultimate responsibility for logistical and administrative aspects of running a family.(12) All this is physical and mental energy that is no longer being used for art.
Objects in time and space
Newborns have scant respect for mothers’ other forms of creativity. Before birth it seems inconceivable that feeding, cleaning and comforting a newborn could be a full-time process. As a result, there is an enduring notion that an artist might continue working in her studio while a baby slumbers contentedly alongside her. Perhaps a few artist mothers achieve this idyll: more however receive a rude shock and find themselves with babies who will not settle.(13)
And it is not only newborns who require care. Taxiing older children between schools, sporting, creative and social fixtures can consume hours.(14) Making art needs time and focus – even for artist mothers who continue working, the 10 or 12-hour days that she might have pursued in the studio before, become a thing of the past.(15)
Motherhood can also change an artist’s access to space. With less freedom to work, and the financial pressure of a family, many give up their studio while their children are young, and work instead, from home. This has an impact on the work, which, through necessity, often becomes smaller – art of a domestic scale historically associated with women artists. Many also switch to media better suited to a few stolen hours: video, sound, photography and even textile work rather than painting.(16) Working from home, too, precludes materials, tools or a messy environment potentially hazardous to a young child.(17)
Blood, sweat, tears and heartache
There are artist mothers who make it work, achieving a successful career, while shouldering childcare. In all cases the effort is formidable. One artist with four children, who are now in their late teens and twenties, describes a working regime that started at five am, painting for three hours before her partner left for work, spending the day with the children, then painting again once they were in bed.(18)
Motherhood can bring creativity and energy, keen focus and renewed drive: many artist mothers also experience a subsequent crash,(19) bouts of depression, and persistent anxiety from constantly working on borrowed time.(20) The struggle to work has an impact, too, on artist’s relationships. Once the children have been accounted for, often the choice is between time with a spouse or making art.(21)
The Witching Hours
Few aspects of the art world better illustrate its power structures than the persistence of the witching hours, the six to eight pm private views, during which, artists, gallerists, collectors and the press socialise, exchange gossip and do business. Making art can be a solitary occupation and these periods away from the studio, building and maintaining a network are important.
Spending time with a peer group has an impact on an artist’s career:(22) this is an industry that relies to a large degree on word of mouth, and that legendary, intangible quality of “buzz”. Artists who are respected by their peers will often in turn attract the attention of dealers and collectors. Out of sight risks being out of mind. To put it simply, six to eight pm is when artists come into contact with their industry.
For parents of nursery and primary school aged children, six to eight pm are witching hours of a different kind, occupied by the immovable trinity of supper, bath and bedtime.(23) There is a direct and very evident clash for anyone in the art world responsible for young children.
Could artists not be more flexible and take kids with them? Some do (generally fathers, generally with a partner on hand to share the wrangling).(24) But children aren’t mute accessories – they may not wish to be in a crowded gallery. They may be tired and fractious. They will require attention from parents and a watchful eye: galleries are rarely designed with children in mind. At an opening with her toddlers, one artist recalled feeling like a 1950s housewife, there to tend the children, not regarded as a person of interest by others in attendance.(25)
A More Global Art World
For artists responsible for children, travel to biennales and fairs, to investigate new markets, or to install exhibitions becomes difficult if extended childcare isn’t available at home or offered by the host institution.(26) Residencies, which provide crucial time and space to think about and make work, are likewise out of the question for many artist mothers, though it was noted that artist fathers seldom seem to see parenthood as an impediment to such opportunities.(27) Even on a residency for women artists, the request for a young child to travel with an artist was framed as a ‘choice’: the fact that the artist would need to have her child with her was not established as the norm.(28)
The Persistence of Bohemia
Superficial but true: image remains part of this industry. Artist mothers unable to participate in the “bohemian lifestyle” – the nightlife, parties and wild behaviour – have found themselves cut off from their peer groups.(29) One described the switch to motherhood as an experience akin to selling out or joining the bourgeoisie.(30) Artist mothers re-entering the art world in their forties and fifties experience an image problem: not old enough to be a late-career discovery, not young enough to be a fresh talent, and unlikely to be established in the way her male contemporaries are.(31)
Historically, the infamous “pram in the hallway” has been regarded with suspicion,(32) if not hostility, within the art world. While things are starting to change, the prejudice lingers. One artist felt “eccentric” for carrying work to a gallery in the base of her pram.(33) Another was informed by an art world insider that they couldn’t think of any women artists whose career had continued to flourish after having children.(34) This narrative is remarkably persistent: artists put off having children (or decide against starting a family) because they fear they will not be taken seriously.(35)
The Selfish Mother
The guilt experienced by artist mothers is rooted in broader cultural issues: art doesn’t come with a fixed wage or an established career trajectory, the making of it doesn’t have an easily quantifiable value. With childcare costly, how dare you spend money to work without guaranteed financial reward? How dare you take time for your work away from your children?(36) How dare you bring children into the insecurity of an artist’s lifestyle?(37) With guilt, too, comes concern that the artist will be considered a selfish mother.(38) Mothers are meant to be selfless. How can they demand time and space for their own work? Yet if they do not, and continue to fit art making around the demands of a family, they are belittled as hobby artists.(39) Art becomes something nice that mummy does.(40)
Less able to work, the momentum of an artist’s career diminishes, and she may find herself forgotten.(41) Re-entering the market after years spent caring for children, a previously well-established artist was told to drop her prices by her gallery. It took many years to build them back up.(42) Having spent time out of the loop, many artist mothers lose confidence, again falling into a vicious cycle: wary of putting themselves “out there” for opportunities, they become less and less visible, and fear they no longer have anything to offer.(43)
No Such Thing as a Level Playing Field
There are abundant modifying factors that affect the impact of motherhood on an artist: the number of children she has, her financial situation, the existence and level of assistance from extended family, the health of her children, herself and her family. Artists, like other women, may suffer postnatal depression, miscarriages, difficulties in conceiving, abusive or controlling partners, or bouts of severe illness, they may be widowed and left to support a family alone, find themselves responsible for extended families of step children, or have children whose special educational needs demand a career break of many years.(44) They may also be responsible for other kinds of caregiving, such as looking after elderly parents.
What might make a difference?
Access to affordable childcare has a huge impact: artists who share childcare with a partner, or who have extended family on hand can continue working,(45) while others struggle. The prohibitive cost of childcare in Britain is an issue for most working mothers: without a steady or guaranteed income, artists may find it hard to justify unless they need to meet a specific deadline.(46) Could studio complexes offer crèche facilities – perhaps cooperatively run by artist parents?(47) A number of artists raised the fact that childcare could not be counted among artists’ costs when making an application to Arts Council England.(48)
There are calls for more specific funding, more opportunities, more dedicated spaces and residencies for parents and children.(49) Museums provide well for family visitors: this same welcome should be extended to the artists they work with.(50) Certain institutions go out of their way to support artist mothers, offering a template for best practice: The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, for example, anticipated that an artist would need to travel with her child, and provided care while the artist was installing her exhibition, for the opening event and even for the morning after.(51) Another artist found galleries willing and helpful, reprogramming shows to suit her, and making sure that she was well looked-after when travelling pregnant or with newborn twins.(52)
Support doesn’t need to be costly: a gallery that is flexible, loyal and communicative with artist mothers can make a big difference.(53) Flexibility on the part of art institutions would include the assumption that an artist will need to bring a child with them on a residency, will need childcare while finishing work and installing an exhibition, and while being present at openings and exhibition events. If these requirements continue to be framed as a “choice”, the burden of flexibility is placed on the artist herself, together with associated costs. In not being flexible, and assuming all artists can work 10 to 12 hour working days, galleries miss out the work of artists of diverse backgrounds and life experiences.(54)
With its evening events and international travel schedule, the art world pre COVID-19 was not well suited to artist parents. Perhaps the pandemic will force a change, a softening, a focus on local scenes, or change in tone that could make it more inclusive?(55)
Where are the artist mother heroines to look up to?(56) Where are successful artist mothers represented in popular culture?(57) Brilliant artist mothers exist – celebrating them is important if we are to shift the enduring cliché that a woman cannot be both.
This Story Has a Happy Ending
A paradigm shift is necessary precisely because motherhood is not a catastrophe: it should be a cause for celebration. Artist mothers have described a renewed focus,(58) a new direction in their work,(59) and even inspiration for a complete change of career.(60) Some enjoy making work with their children and bring family life into their art.(61) Others maintain two separate spheres. A shift is already underway: where artists of an earlier generation who were upfront about motherhood are now regarded as pioneers,(62) younger artists are already experiencing acceptance and even celebration of their motherhood within the art world.(63) This has been facilitated by a new generation of curators, writers, academics and artists who no longer feel obliged to prove themselves within old patriarchal structures, but instead feel liberated to explore territory that has for too long been dismissed or overlooked.(64)
As one artist mother puts it: “The secret is that this is the best life. Fucking hard work, but full, messy and beautiful.”(65)
With thanks to all the artists who responded to the call and helped with my research: Kathryn Ashill, Nicola Bealing, Helen Benigson, Ingrid Berthon Moine, Holly Blakey, Chloe Bonfield, Sarah Boulton, Harriet Bowman, Jemima Burrill, Faiza Butt, Jenifer Corker, Rosalind Faram, Flan Flanagan, Emily Fleuriot, Laura Ford, Nina Mae Fowler, Emma Franks, Naomi Frears, Gaia Fugazza, Clare Gallagher, Angharad Harrop, Emma Hart, Sophie Hipwood, Rachel Howard, Abigail Hunt, Cecile Johnson Soliz, Joanna Kirk, Nicky Knowles, Sarah Kogan, Maria Konder, Catherine Kurtz, Laima Leyton, WK Lyhne, Paula MacArthur, Joanne Masding, Martina Mullaney, Ishbel Myerscough, Maureen Nathan, Elene Neocleous, Daniella Norton, Selina Ogilvy, Anna Perach, Candida Powell-Williams, Kate Robertson, Macarena Rojas, Xie Rong, Victoria Sebag -Montefiore, Cally Spooner, Clare Strand, Emma Talbot, Fern Thomas, Ehryn Torrell, Steph Von Reiswitz, Rezia Wahid, Clare Woods and Samar Zia.
Hettie Judah is chief art critic on the British daily paper The i, a regular contributor to The Guardian’s arts pages, and a columnist for Apollo magazine. Following publication of her 2020 study on the impact of motherhood on artists’ careers, in 2021 she worked with a group of artists to draw up the manifesto How Not To Exclude Artist Parents, now available in 15 languages. She recently published the book How Not To Exclude Artist Mothers (and other parents) (Lund Humphries, 2022) and her work in this field includes the Hayward Touring exhibition On Art and Motherhood (opening at Arnolfini, Bristol, March 2024) and an accompanying publication. In 2022, together with Jo Harrison, she co-founded the Art Working Parents Alliance – a supportive network and campaigning group for those working in the arts.
1. Dr Kate McMillan, ‘Representation of Female Artists in Britain’, Freelands Foundation, 2020. 2. All interviews were conducted over Zoom and via email. 3. All artist participants were either born or based in the UK. 4. Rong, Wahid, et aliae. 5. Myerscough. 6 Fowler, et aliae. 7. Bonfield. 8. MacArthur. 9. Fowler, Hart, Woods, et aliae. 10. Faram, Franks, et aliae. 11. Hart, Leyton, Thomas, et aliae. 12. Ibid. 13. Faram, et aliae. 14. Woods, Zia. 15. Johnson Soliz, et aliae. 16. ‘Marcy’, Zia, Berthon-Moine, et aliae. 17. Berthon-Moine. 18. ‘Martha’. 19. Boulton, Corker, et aliae. 20. ‘Marlene,’ et aliae. 21 Zia, et aliae. 21. Zia, et aliae. 22. Norton, et aliae. 23. Lyhne, et aliae. 24. ‘Martha,’ et aliae. 25. Talbot. 26. Rojas Osterling, Burrill, et aliae. 27. Berthon-Moine. 28. Hart. 29. Leyton, Rojas Osterling, et aliae. 30. Perach. 31. Bealing, Talbot, et aliae. 32. ‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’ Cyril Connolly (1938), Enemies of Promise, Chapter. 14: ‘The Charlock’s Shade’ (p.116). 33. Kirk. 34. Myerscough. 35. Johnson Soliz. 36. MacArthur, Berton-Moine. 37. Leyton. 38. Ogilvy, Corker et aliae. 39. Franks, Faram et aliae. 40. Sebag-Montefiore. 41. Knowles. 42. Ibid. 43. Lyhne, Franks et aliae. 44. Johnson Soliz, Burrill. 45. Myerscough, Hart et aliae 46. Zia et aliae. 47. Konder. 48. Masding et aliae. 49. Ogilvy. 50. Berthon-Moine et aliae. 51. Hart. 52. Spooner. 53. Bealing, Kurtz. 54. Johnson Soliz, ‘Marcy’. 55. Bolton. 56. Ogilvy. 57. Johnson Soliz. 58. Powell-Williams. 59. Harrop, Knowles et aliae. 60. Fleuriot. 61. Wahid, Burrill, et aliae. 62. Ford. 63. Spooner. 64. ‘May’. 65. ‘Martha’.