By Charlotte Gruber

Four statements: First, the text says thank you to all the different type of people who can be a mother, because mothers are not always women. Sometimes women have a lot of other problems because they are artists and must work a lot, or because they are a part of a group of people that often are forgotten or hurt in society, like people of colour, queer people or single mothers. The second motivates everybody to join a movement where we make these types of mothers visible so we can help them. The third statement gives two examples of artworks. Because art can show us how we can think differently and better help mothers. The fourth statement says we need to see being a mother as a job, and need to see it as labour.

Mothers and Others

A word of acknowledgement: If in the following section, I (and others) make claims about the precarity of the mother-artist, I do wish of course, to include you in these considerations as well, dear artist-parent/caregiver who is not AFAB or related by blood ties. I know that you struggle too. I have witnessed some of your struggles as well, and I know that it is hurtful to feel unseen in a corner that concerns you and should count you when in all actuality, we mothers and others who care for and help raise little humans are a group of people who share a common struggle. This is important. On the basis of the notion of intersectionality, it should be clear that the reality by which each parent or caregiver in the arts experiences discrimination is a spectrum, which is determined by a number of different factors beyond the scope of gender and sex. Let’s attempt to cultivate solidarity in our struggles despite them presenting in slightly different ways upon closer inspection! But more important than discussing who is most precarious, it is important to create a dialogue – acknowledging and trying to come to terms with the unique struggles of parent-artists and the particular agonies of the mother-artist. Let’s call it a beginning. Even more important than to create space for parents to have such conversations, it is significant that those cultural workers, curators, artistic directors, programmers and decision makers who may or may not be involved in child-rearing join these conversations and invest themselves in making adjustments accordingly, so as to alleviate the immense additional strain on (young) women-artists in particular, who are already facing a more hostile environment than their male co-creators, partners and colleagues. Bringing children into the world and making sure they become wholesome beings might be the grandest contribution to society there is. In turn, a woman shouldn’t fear to lose her identity (professional or otherwise) or her access to vital resources such as income and residence. She should not be shamed, excluded or made to feel otherwise ‘less than’ for making that decision, and she shouldn’t feel cornered by mental and physical collapse because of the common misconception that it is her burden and responsibility to carry alone – because it is her child. It should not be naturalised that her work is not work, and it should not be normalised that there is inevitable sacrifice, which she simply has to accept. Not only, but especially not by her partners/co-parent, nor by the professional ‘families’ she creates value within.

There is an old saying about how to assess a man’s character, which tells us to look at how they treat their mother. There is a lot to learn from this – about society at large and any institution. If you want to scrutinise your institution, or for example, the artworld as a whole, look at how it treats mothers.

A movement to be part of

At least this can be called a beginning: Over the past ten years, the difficulties of mothers in the art world have been looked at quite a bit, and from different angles. In 2019, the five year study, “Representation of Female Artists in Britain” was conducted by artist and academic Kate McMillan and the Freelands Foundation. After publication, author Hettie Judah added a specific analysis of the overlooked aspect of motherhood, titled “Full, Messy and Beautiful”. In an article for Metropolis M, Richtje Reinsman points out exhibitions such as “Take Care” (Blackwood Gallery, 2017-2018), “New Maternalisms” (e.g. in Edmonton, 2016 & Santiago, 2014) and conferences such as “Motherhood and Creative Practice” (London South Bank University, 2015), “The Mothernists I” (PrintRoom en Upominki in Rotterdam, 2015) and “The Mothernists II” (Kopenhagen, 2017) which prove a heightened consideration of the theme in the field. At the same time, the number of insightful book-publications (Nine books were released in 2022 alone), and online initiatives and resources have increased to such an extent that I compiled lists as part of this Almanac for you to dive into at your own discretion. There is the free online “Artists Raising Kids Compendium”, the ongoing “a Residency in Motherhood project” from 2013, the “Artist/Mother” podcast and a connected resource, “Stay Home Residencies”, two movie documentaries, and many more such things. Some resources for institutions are featured in the almanac as contributions.

Being an invisibly disabled, separated, expat mother myself, and an artist, curator, academic and advocate – when not chronically underemployed due to the challenges there are – I have had my fair share of ostracising experiences.

Your voice is valuable

I’m sharing this as to outline two personal examples of how some curatorial or otherwise institutional decisions can be hugely transformative and empowering to an individual and increase the force and impact behind the art on display. This was the case for me during the summer of 2022 when I was working on this contribution, and visited documenta fifteen in Kassel and “The Milk of Dreams” in Venice. At documenta, the area “ruru kids” was particularly made for parents and even allowed caretakers to skip the line to the main building at the Fridericianum. Beyond that, there were ample areas in almost every location created to rest, sit, or lay down – even have a nap – and additional ‘quiet spaces’ to accommodate, for example, people with neurodivergencies.

Probably the most feminist Biennale so far, “The Milk of Dreams” was a deeply spiritual and healing journey of floating through endless corridors of art penetrated by an unseen female gaze oozing everywhere that made me feel appropriately portrayed as a woman for the first time in my life. I felt recognised and understood, and in turn, I understood a lot about my own experience as a woman and a mother operating mostly within a patriarchal panopticum: a house of crooked mirrors. The scale of whose impact we still must come to terms with.

As an advocate for mothers in academia and the arts, I have read a lot about the topic, and there is a recurring quote, specifically regarding artist-mothers that is reiterated and grappled with in the majority of contributions: “One can only be either a good artist, or a good mother. One cannot be both”.

It almost seems to be a patriarchal death-spell to artist-mothers, their careers and their children. As such, it is representative of the many systematic and deliberate mechanisms rooted in the fear of the power that women possess as unique life-giving creators, and of the mystical wisdom that this might carry. A kind of knowing, which in such capacity will (for now) remain inaccessible to men, and is thus perceived as a potential threat to their hegemonic position.

It makes sense that particularly in the area of art-making, which is so tied to creation, creativity, play, beauty, unexplainable talent, transformation and sublime insight into the threatening potential of the female maker, especially when giving birth as well, must be contested and demeaned, denied and annihilated.

Many reports have been carried out through the years, and all of them show how artist-mothers face intense, deliberate hurdles and discrimination after giving birth.

It does not make sense, and we are too little aware of how pervasively common it is, and how little sense it truly makes.

parental labour counts more, not less

With the words of gallerist Micol Hebron in the documentary Artist and Mother by Jori Finkel: “Why don’t we assume when a person becomes a parent, that their level of human experience gets so much more complex and expanded, so their work should be valued more, not less? That gallerists and curators and collectors should be even more excited about what’s going to happen with their work as a result of being a parent, and being engaged in this type of relationship with another human being?”

If there is any industry that should value the child as an epitome of play and improvisation and of discovering the world anew, it should be the arts.

If there is any industry that should value the mother as the epitome of creation… Well, you know where this is going.

Instead of the death-spell, let’s focus on another position from my research:

When after giving birth and the career of a female artist suffers, it says nothing about her work and everything about the people and institutional bodies who should be at the core of her support system.

It’s you, not her! A lot of improvement can be achieved if whoever reads this takes on the honest responsibility of making sure you are not one of those people, who turns a blind eye because it is her child, her decision, not yours.

Make sure your institution is not a house of crooked mirrors.

Take a closer look. If you are an artist who feels you are being rendered irrelevant: Make sure you take a closer look at what it is you’re looking at.

It is a waste of time hating a mirror
or its reflection
instead of stopping the hand
that makes glass with distortions
slight enough to pass
until one day you peer
into your face
under a merciless white light
and the fault in a mirror slaps back
what you think
is the shape of your error…

Audre Lorde, “Good Mirrors Are Not Cheap”