Lisa Fehily on making female artists household names

Interview

Embracing the current push led by museums, galleries and public collections to highlight the work of women artists, Lisa Fehily has opened Finkelstein Gallery, an all-female commercial art space in Melbourne. Fehily hopes Finkelstein Gallery, and the10 female identifying artists it represents, will build on the momentum generated by worldwide initiatives #5WomenArtists and #KnowMyName. As the dust settles on Fehily’s first exhibition, Finkelstein Gallery Presents, Briony Downes talks to her about being part of a global movement to redress gender disparity in the art world.

Briony Downes: First of all, where does the name Finkelstein (which literally means ‘sparkle stone’) come from?

Lisa Fehily: It’s actually my maiden name. Finkelstein was my Dad’s name before he had to change it in London years ago, so I’ve gone back to his original name.

BD: Your background lies in art consultancy, gallery directing and collecting. Your previous gallery, Fehily Contemporary in Melbourne, focused on emerging and mid-career artists. What made you decide to go in the all-female direction?

LF: Well, I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years now. I really felt the time was right to open this gallery. For me it reflects part of the change in society; a woman is now being valued for who she is rather than trying to be equal to a man.

I’ve been particularly inspired by the National Museum for Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington DC, and I’ve been watching their annual social media campaign #5WomenArtists since it began in 2016. Interestingly, this year, the NMWA partnered with the Tate in London with the same social media campaign to help drive their focus on five solo exhibitions by women artists that will be presented across the Tate galleries during 2020-2021.

We even see it here in Australia with the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra launching #KnowMyName, a similar initiative striving to make Australian women artists household names. In addition to building up the number of women artists in their collection, the NGA will be working with The Countess Report to update industry guidelines on equality.

In light of these changes, I believed it was time for a call to action. That’s the foundation Finkelstein Gallery has been built on.

BD: Can you tell me how you selected the artists Finkelstein Gallery currently represents? Do you see this number of female artists growing in the future?

LF: As a commercial gallery director, you are always looking at artists and essentially it becomes about who are you really passionate about. When you represent an artist, you are representing something so close to their hearts, their innermost expression of how they feel, how they are aware of the world and so many other important issues. It is about your passion for them. And for me, it’s also about what can I do to help them achieve what they want to achieve.

I’ve deliberately kept the gallery small, so we’ll only ever represent 10 Australian artists. It enables me to work with each of them on a continuous basis week by week. Sometimes when you are part of a gallery with many artists, it can be hard to get that consistent approach.

Cigdem Aydemir, The Ride, 2017. HD video with sound. Courtesy of Finkelstein Gallery and the artist.

BD: Soon a day to day basis in a commercial gallery, how do you help women artists achieve their goals?

LF: From an Australian perspective, because we are a small country and don’t have a huge art history background, it’s about widening your audience – from collectors and the general public to institutions and independent curators. Bringing them on the journey with the artist and letting them be part of their development is essential.

For example, our artist Deborah Kelly has been invited to London to make a work specifically for the Wellcome Trust. While Deborah is there in November, it is important for me to connect her with local curators and other galleries, galleries showing female artists, institutions that will be interested in the type of work Deborah makes. It’s about making a strategic plan to maximise these opportunities when they arise.

BD: Why do you think we are currently more open to an all-female gallery space?

LF: Contemporary art mirrors society, so we are seeing the changing role of women reflected in the contemporary art industry. Change is slow but definitely happening and women artists are becoming much more visible at large scale events and exhibitions.

A founding member of New York based feminist collective Guerrilla Girls [who uses the pseudonym Gerda Taro] was at Sydney Contemporary this year talking about art, activism and the #KnowMyName campaign with the NGA’s Assistant Director, Alison Wright. Our broadening understanding of what it means to be female in a contemporary world brings a depth to a female artist’s work that is yet to be completely explored or appreciated.

At Finkelstein Gallery we currently have Between Intimacy and Trespass, 2019, a work by glass artist Kate Baker. Kate was telling me the other day it is actually about motherhood. All across the surface of Kate’s silver mirrored panels are these incredible handmade markings and technical notes from the last four years, which all encompass the time her daughter was born and the early days of parenting. Kate’s work really reflects that dilemma for an artist between absolute dedication to their career and the demands of motherhood. That voice needs to be heard.

I really believe timing has been extremely important and I think Finkelstein Gallery will continue to be a small cog in a global movement of change.

BD: Finally, in your opinion, what can art audiences actively do to mend the gender disparity in the art world? What can we do to help female artists?

LF: With my commercial gallery hat on, I would say collect. Support female artists by becoming part of their journey. Purchase their work and assist them in their ability to continue making art.

More generally, I would say attend. Attend exhibitions, view the work, share it and encourage people to be open to all artists’ work, to make sure we really give every artist a fair chance.

Finkelstein Gallery Presents
Finkelstein Gallery
29 August – 28 September

Briony Downes