Of all walks of life, you would expect the liberal arts to be notable for its lack of glass ceilings, and at first sight there are accomplished woman at the head of national arts organisations.
Jude Kelly as artistic director of the Southbank Centre has helped transform what had been a frumpy, frankly anti-social institution into an outward looking art centre that welcomes a passing trade of 28 million a year; Julia Peyton-Jones has run the Serpentine Gallery, a temple to the contemporary, for more than 20 years; Kathryn McDowell has run arguably the world’s best orchestra, the LSO, since 2005.
They have been successful, are hugely admired around the world and have all had appropriate Honours List gongs in recognition. But, as Farah Nayeri says in Bloomberg News, they are not the topmost jobs, are they? Kelly is not the chief executive, Peyton-Jones is not running Tate, McDowell does not programme the Proms.
The fact is that several of those apogee posts in the arts are coming up for grabs, and no woman was even seriously considered for Tony Hall’s job at the Royal Opera House – the most likely, Ruth Mackenzie, didn’t get an interview, while the interim chief executive was a woman, Sally O’Neill, who also wasn’t considered – which Alex Beard will start next month; or Michael Boyd’s which Greg Doran now has at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where there has never been a female artistic director.
There are no obvious female names in the frame for the National Theatre, the British Museum or Tate, which must become available soon. Although women serve with distinction and assiduity on the boards of cultural organisations, Liz Forgan (at the Arts Council until January) and Jenny Abramsky at the Heritage Lottery Fund are the exceptions in chairing them. Even the two women that have thrust themselves to the fore in publishing here, Gail Rebuck at Random House UK and Vitcoria Barnsley at HarperCollins, have recently gone after 22 and 13 years at the top respectively.
Women are facilitators in the arts, assistants, producers, seldom the top dog
The assumption that it is because even our artistic institutions have been sculpted by men over the decades to suit their own thought processes, and that women see things and do things differently.
Nicholas Hytner, for one, is likely to welcome a female successor in March, 2015. He has condemned critics as “dead white men” for not recognising the talents of female directors, and last year said it would take a decade for the theatre to be gender-balanced as audiences are.
Women are facilitators in the arts, assistants, producers, seldom the top dog. Often the assumption is that they don’t want to at the pyramid’s point, finding it easier to keep in the lower echelons in order to manage child care (an insult, surely, to all women) or that they don’t have vision (has that argument ever come across Zaha Hadid?) or that they are best as muses rather than makers (downright Victorian). Successful women politicians have to behave like men to get on, and though journalism is supposed to be the ultimate egalitarian profession, a female national editor is still an oddity.
The answer is partly in the women themselves and them having faith in their own talent and the power of their own vision; too often they believe they are “not ready” for the main role. But it is also in the collective attitude of the cultural establishment – no-one can surely believe that Ruth Mackenzie has no vision and no self confidence – to explore the potential properly, and give us a chance of the new thinking at the top has been the cultural sector missing.