Katy Hessel

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This month's ‘Woman of Influence’ is Founder of the Instagram account @thegreatwomenartists, Katy Hessel. Ubiquitous in the contemporary art world for being one of the biggest advocates for addressing the industry’s gender imbalance, Hessel has created the account to celebrate female art daily. Readdressing our traditional views on the canon of art history, which resonates strongly with the likes of E H Gombrich’s The Story of Art (in which he references all male artists), Hessel is also known for her growing list of curatorial projects.

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Since her 2017 exhibition ‘Great Women Artists of Instagram’ at Mother, Shoreditch, Hessel has curated shows and hosted talks with galleries and institutions that include Newport Street and Frieze London. Most recently, Hessel announced her up and coming Summer Show in association with Victoria Miro, where she will be working with Caroline Walker, Flora Yukhnovich, María Berrio; all of which are rethinking traditional genres, touching upon themes of migration, the workplace and the gendered language of painting. In addition to this exciting exhibition (in typical Hessel fashion - juggling a number of projects all at once), Katy will also be hosting all of the Marguerite Salons series held at Chiltern Firehouse. This will involve Hessel interviewing a selection of career savvy women, questioning them on the dos and don’ts, how they got to where they are in their field, and what advice they can give to young women in the arts trying to carve out a career.

In the run up to the first event of this series Marguerite Salon on the hustle of launching a successful business, we spoke with the busiest woman in the game to get the lowdown on how she juggles her relentless schedule, who her mentors have been and how to navigate using social media productively.

You decided to create Great Women Artists of Instagram having visited a famous contemporary art fair in 2015 and noticing the huge disparity in the representation of female artists. Since then, do you feel the balance has/is being addressed to its full potential?

2015 was an interesting time in the sense that I think a lot of people (probably mainly women!) in the art world were having very like minded thoughts, and wanted to act and do something about the shocking gender disparity we face in this industry. Since then, we have seen so much support and action poured into this issue, such as clubs like Marguerite, as well as the focus on women-artist group exhibitions – at Victoria Miro, White Cube, and Hauser and Wirth in the past couple of years – and institutions spotlighting more women artists and artists of colour in both their collections and solo exhibitions. The balance is still being redressed, but we still have so far to go. The National Gallery still only have 26 works by women in a collection of over 2300!

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You have a notoriously busy schedule. How do you juggle everything (full time job, Great Women Artists, talks, events, studio visits, writing, planning exhibitions...the list goes on)?

Ha! I often get asked this. Great Women Artists to me is a complete joy. I recently found a bunch of notebooks from when I was a teenager keeping diary entries about exhibitions, so it’s always been something I’ve done (I know, proper nerdy…!). But I love it. Victoria Miro is such a fantastic gallery and huge supporters of GWA. I run a talks programme there (only for women artist exhibitions!), and this summer, very excitingly, the two are going to go hand in hand with the exhibition I have organised for this summer. In terms of fitting everything in, I try and cram in around two meetings before I start at the gallery at 10am – much to the dismay of the person I am meeting!  

Then there’s weekends, and evenings! But it all doesn’t feel like work so I am very lucky I enjoy every moment.

Do you have a career highlight since starting Great Women Artists?

Definitely the shows I have curated. This summer’s exhibition at Victoria Miro will probably be the highlight, but it was pretty cool taking over a floor of Tate Modern in February for their women’s themed Tate Lates.

What would you say is the biggest lesson you have learnt since starting your online platform?

Consistency! Without dedicating at least 30–40 minutes every day on my posts for the last 3.5 years, Great Women Artists would be nowhere near as big as it is now. You have to consistently support the cause you are fighting for and be as authentic and enthusiastic as you can. If you want change, you have to do something about it, however big or small – but be consistent!  

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You use Instagram every day to advocate the practice of a female artist – how do you avoid letting social media totally consume you/do you find it difficult to switch off?

The good thing about my field of social media is that it’s purely advocating artists in a positive manner as opposed to promoting an idealised lifestyle, which I hope will leave people feeling inspired as opposed to anxious. Social media is work for me – it’s how I find most young artists, it’s such an exciting and useful tool, but I definitely have to be careful about using it too much!

What would your one piece of advice be to a young female starting their career in the arts?

Meet as many people as possible, and use Instagram as a tool to introduce yourself to people and meet with them face to face too. Go out your way to show that you really care about this industry and that you want to do something great. Intern as much as you can in as many different places – galleries, auction houses, art fairs, online platforms, institutions. Having a rough idea of the route in the art world you wish to take is a huge benefit, as you will just enjoy it so much more, and therefore thrive.  

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What do you enjoy most about running Great Women Artists?

Working with artists. Studio visits, writing about their practice, interviewing them, and coming up with concepts for shows that will show off their work and place it in the best possible and most interesting ways!

You meet so many inspiring women working in the arts, do you have a mentor?

So many! So many! There is a ridiculous number of women killing it in the art world right now and I am so lucky to work with so many supportive women, especially at the gallery. Gemma Rolls-Bentley was amazing to me when I first started out, giving me so much advice and putting me in touch with the right people. Then there’s people like Frances Morris, or Kimberly Drew, who are probably the people I most look up to in the art world. They have both changed so much for the better, and continuously and tirelessly work hard to readdress art history in such an inspiring way.

Can you tell me a bit about the series you will be curating with Marguerite this summer?

It’s a series of panel discussions – on topics ranging from social media to podcasts – with some of the best in the industry. I can’t wait to interview them about the dos and don’ts, how they got to where they are in their field, and what advice they can give to young women in the arts trying to carve out a career.

You recently announced The Great Women Artists' next show in association with Victoria Miro at their London gallery, which will include three female artists: Caroline Walker, Flora Yukhnovich, María Berrio – can you tell me more about this exciting project?

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Yes! It's so exciting. It is a summer exhibition featuring three young artists who rethink traditional genres to touch upon themes of migration, the workplace, and the gendered language of painting. NY-based María Berrio is known for her large-scale collage works that reflect on cross-cultural connections and global migration seen through the prism of her own history; Caroline Walker for her quietly luminous paintings that focus on intimate portrayals of women at work in domestic and public spaces; and the really exciting Flora Yukhnovich, who was on The Great Women Artists Residency at Palazzo Monti last year, who adopts the language of the Rococo in her large scale works.

If you could invite four artists to dinner, dead or alive, who would you chose and why?

Alice Neel, she’s the artist who has definitely had the biggest effect on my art historical career, but then I’d also have to invite the very exciting up-and-coming (and great friend) Antonia Showering because we would both have so many questions (we are obsessed, it’s how we first bonded!). I’ve also watched so many interviews with Toyin Ojih Odutola – she looks like so much fun, as well as her artwork being some of the best ever created in art history. Then I’d have to say Artemisia Gentileschi, because what was it like to be one of the great painters of the baroque, as well as being a female artist at a time when women were virtually banned from even taking up apprenticeships?! I think it would be a very lively, and opinionated, dinner…!

Want more? Check out @thegreatwomenartists here!

Words by Lara Monro and Photography by Luke Fullalove.