Q&A – The Great Women Artists' Katy Hessel on representing women in the arts

Katy Hessel is the force behind the hugely popular Great Women Artists podcast and Instagram account.

She is a London based curator and art historian on a mission to correct the imbalance of women within the history of art. She has curated and recorded a series of Dior podcasts on Feminist Art, has recently hosted BBC4’s Inside Museums episode on the ground-breaking painter Artemisia Gentileschi's exhibition at London’s National Gallery and has a book in the pipeline for release in 2021.

Representing women fully in the arts is important and Katy’s research celebrates the work of so many women who have managed to reach notoriety or have remained in the shadows. For anyone who wants to learn and be inspired, Katy is an open resource.

We Folk:
The Great Women Artists Instagram and podcast have both been huge hits. I’d love to know why you started the platform.

Katy Hessel: Yes absolutely! It was just after I finished studying Art History at UCL. I had attended a major art fair in London, looked around me, and realised I couldn’t see any non-male artists. I was frankly shocked, and thought what can I do in my capacity as a twenty-one-year-old with no platform? So began @thegreatwomenartists. Instagram was so different back then, but it’s incredible how people now use it as a tool to bring attention to activist issues.

WF: Podcasts are an incredible resource for learning through an informal encounter. Other than the prolific output of your own podcast this year, you have also hosted the Feminist Art series for Dior Talks. What have these experiences been like?

KH: Both podcasts have been an incredible experience. My podcast, The Great Women Artists Podcast, came about after having so many enriching conversations with artists, and about artists from the past. It seemed crazy that there was nothing like it out there, and with everything I do, I was determined to make art more accessible for people.

Both podcasts are a great way of learning something in an informal context, and to bring an ‘academic’ discussion into a more conversational atmosphere – you don’t need to know anything about art, or even have stepped inside a museum to listen.

Meeting Tracey Emin and having the opportunity to discuss her career with her was a life goal achievement. Having grown up with her work, I had so many questions! I also wanted to ask her about things I’ve never heard her speak about.

Same with Lubaina Himid, the Turner Prize-winning artist. Her work, like Emin’s, is so varied, and to be able to conduct the podcast myself is such an amazing opportunity to ask the questions I’ve always wanted to know the answer to.

Both have also allowed me to meet and interview so many other heroes of mine, as well as Lubaina Himid & Tracey Emin, I met Judy Chicago, Olivia Laing, Es Devlin, Tate Modern Director, Frances Morris – and the list goes on!

WF: What do you think are the obstacles preventing more equality in the arts, what do you think needs to change?

KH: Gatekeeping! Giving people a voice! We must provide scholarships and awards. Museums should have mentorship programmes for people of all different backgrounds, and those with power should be going into places like community centres and youth clubs, and taking the time to encourage the next generation of artists, curators, writers! The only way we can break down these barriers and ensure equality all around is if we all work together. Those at the top need to help those at the bottom, and show them that certain positions are achievable no matter where you are from. Check out an essay I recently wrote for Harper’s Bazaar Art Issue on correcting gender bias and gate keeping!

WF: What role do you think the arts have to play in the world right now - how do you feel about the future of the arts?

KH: Right now, we need the arts more than ever. I’m outraged at the UK government’s take on the unimportance of arts jobs, as well as lack of funding compared to so many European countries. The arts is what makes the world a fantastic place! We need investment in artists, museums, theatres etc. more than ever to give us hope and light at this awful time. The arts can transport people to places like no other, and at times like these, they are needed more than ever.

Great Women Artists Podcast
Dior Talks Podcast
BBC4's Inside Museums

Image Credits (in order of appearance)
1. Flora Yukhnovich
2. Antonia Showering
3. Toyin Ojih Odutola
4. Loie Hollowell
5. Judy Chicago
6. Juno Calypso