In 1968, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) hosted Australia’s first comprehensive look at colour field painting in an exhibition called The Field. It featured forty artists in a nod to the future, the avant-garde, the emerging. Fifty years later The Field Revisited was staged, exactly mirroring the original exhibition. One major blind spot was exposed in a 21st century context: of forty artists on display, a mere three were women.
In May, three significant examples of colour field paintings by women artists – two of which were omitted from The Field – hung in the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery to mark the launch of a new organisation seeking to address issues of gender inequality in visual arts. The Sheila Foundation, as it’s called, is inspired by the memory of Lady Sheila Cruthers, who’s life-long dedication to supporting women artists culminates in an art collection of national significance.
Sheila’s son and The Sheila Foundation director John Cruthers, who works as an art consultant in Sydney, says the organisation is “painting women back into the future” of Australian art.
“When you go into Australian art museums, it’s a bit shocking. Only 1 in 4 or 5 of the works on display are by women,” says John. “So, despite many women artists working throughout Australia’s art history, not many made it into our museums. This is the way the master narratives within Australian art have been written.”
“Sheila would love the new foundation and its determination to continue her decades-long fight to bring women artists back into the light,” he says.
The Sheila Foundation has already funded The Countess Report (2014), a deep dive into gender parity in the visual arts industry that informs the organisation’s goals. The report found that while 75% of art school graduates are female identifying, they make up only 34% of nationally exhibited artists. The foundation will seek to remedy this in three key ways: by purchasing and commissioning works; by providing scholarships for female art historians and curators; and by hosting an annual symposium on female Australian art.
All of this with Sheila’s collection – the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art – at its core. When the collection was donated to UWA in 2007, it was comprised of over 400 works by more than 150 female artists. The collection grew in doubles – Sheila and John would acquire both a portrait and a “general example” of each discovered artist’s work. Sheila’s first acquisition was a self-portrait by Western Australian artist Elise Blumann; a depiction of Blumann’s arrival in WA, independent, stoic, resolved. It’s a common trend in the collection, which Sheila came to refer to as The Artist & Her Work.
In his speech at the foundation’s launch, John describes his mother’s dedication to women artists in depth. According to John, Sheila was not simply collecting from artists, but “always seeking to understand their struggles.” No piece from The Artist & Her Work could perhaps better exemplify this than Julie Dowling’s Wudjula Yorgah (White Woman) 2005, which Dowling calls a “token of respect” for Sheila’s unwavering support of her early career.
Another piece, by prominent 1970’s feminist painter Ann Newmarch, For John Lennon and my two sons (1981), exemplifies the power of rewriting female perspectives into art history. Newspaper clippings, photos of her young sons and adverts for toy pistols are collaged onto a blood red background. It’s a powerful reaction to the fatal shooting of Lennon in 1980 and a comment on how, as text inscribed below the piece reads, “homicide, genocide become household word… news becomes entertainment and toys teach a disrespect for humankind”.
The perspectives revealed by the Cruthers Collection underpin the importance of The Sheila Foundation’s work. Both are resources for the rethinking of Australian art, and as a result, a rethinking of the narratives that help make sense of our lives.
“What began as a hobby for my mum and me has become a collection of national significance,” says John. “Through Sheila, we want to overturn systemic bias and improve gender balance in all sectors so that women artists have equal opportunities to male artists to fulfil their talents and potential.”
The Artist & Her Work, showcasing pieces from the Cruthers Collection, will remain on display at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery until 7 December 2019. Pairs of works will be exchanged throughout the exhibition period to create a dynamic collection showcase that will reward repeated viewing.