Five Museums Unveil Audio Guides Celebrating Lesser-Known Women Artists

The project—titled Museums Without Men—debuted in the U.S. and the U.K. during Women’s History Month

The Horse Fair
The Horse Fair by French artist Rosa Bonheur hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

In honor of Women’s History Month, five museums in the United States and the United Kingdom are debuting curated audio guides dedicated to the work of women and gender nonconforming artists.

The project, titled Museums Without Men, is the brainchild of Katy Hessel, an art historian and author of 2022’s The Story of Art Without Men,

“While I always encourage people to go into museums, I also want them to look that little bit further,” writes Hessel in an essay for the Guardian. “[I want them to] hunt for the work by women and gender nonconforming artists, and subsequently realize how much more work there is to be done.”

Participating institutions include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in California, the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., the Hepworth Wakefield in northern England and Tate Britain in London.

Hessel hopes the guides will shed new light on gender disparities in renowned art institutions, which remain predominantly focused on art by white men. The Guardian’s Lanre Bakare points to a striking 2019 study of 18 art museums in the U.S., which found that 87 percent of the artists were men and 85 percent were white.

Katy Hessel
Art historian Katy Hessel has curated new audio tours examining gender disparities in art museums. Hugh R Hastings / Getty Images

When Hessel visits museums, she always looks for works by women—and when she spots them, she finds that the accompanying labels often mention other male artists. “None of the male artists had female names on them,” she tells the Guardian. “We should talk about artists as artists, not as ‘the wife of,’ ‘the muse of’ or ‘the daughter of.’”

In the audio tours, Hessel provides information about each artist’s life and career while placing each artwork within a larger cultural context. They are designed for art lovers of all levels, and they focus on figures that visitors may be unfamiliar with.

At the Met, for example, Hessel points visitors to The Horse Fair (1852–55), a 17-foot-wide work by French artist Rosa Bonheur, which hangs in a room filled with female nudes by male artists. According to Hessel, Bonheur attended a horse market herself, but she had to obtain a permit from French authorities to wear trousers in order to blend in with the men.

“It was the largest ever painting dedicated to animals in the 1850s when it was made,” says Hessel in the guide. “Because women were prohibited from [studying nudes], they had to look at other genres. And so that’s why we see so many artists investigating still life and landscape. But Rosa Bonheur really pioneered animal painting.”

Hessel will focus on no more than 12 pieces of art at each museum, providing visitors with a curated experience without overwhelming them, reports the Guardian. The audio guides, which are being released on a rolling basis throughout March, are available on each museum’s website and on Hessel’s website.

“My hope is that this is just the beginning of a project that opens people’s eyes to artists they might not have known about, revealing stories that speak to humanity and show us a different perspective,” writes Hessel in her essay. “Ultimately, the aim is to show people of all backgrounds, genders and ages that they too can be part of this conversation.”

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