Arts / Culture

Among the Greats: In conversation with British art historian, writer and podcaster Katy Hessel

Among the Greats: In conversation with British art historian, writer and podcaster Katy Hessel

When Katy Hessel was 21 and working the front desk at Victoria Miro’s gallery, she had a sudden epiphany that, despite studying art history and being immersed in the art world, she couldn’t name 20 female artists. Enter the launch of @thegreatwomenartists, a daily Instagram account that celebrates women artists, from the contemporary to the forgotten and the erased. The London-based art historian, curator and broadcaster now writes a fortnightly column for The Guardian, and hosts The Great Women Artists podcast, where she has interviewed artists including Marina Abramović and Barbara Kruger, and writers Ali Smith, Olivia Laing and Deborah Levy.

I caught up with Hessel ahead of her appearance at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival to discuss her Sunday Times and The New York Times best-selling book, The Story of Art Without Men.


Growing up, was art important at home? Do you remember the first piece of art that inspired you?

My god, that's such a good question. Well, I would always be taken to museums as a child. I'm from a big family, so we thought it was a perfect thing to do because the Tate Modern had just opened when I was a kid. It was so exciting, there were these new spaces for new types of art that were so expansive that, as a six-year-old, my mind was just kind of blown away by the sheer scale of it. So, it’s not an art piece, it's more like a space, and it has to be the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.

I remember seeing the Rachel Whiteread boxes there. I remember seeing Anish Kapoor, and Louise Bourgeois. It was just, vastness. And I think that is what I found so exciting.


You started your Great Women Artists Instagram account when you were 21. You now have almost 400k followers. Why did you start the account? Who were you back then? What were you doing?

I was working at a gallery on the front desk, and I started the account because I basically wanted to educate myself. I realised that I couldn't name 20 women artists off the top of my head. I had studied art history anyway, and I wanted to put that knowledge to good use. Instagram was a completely different ecosystem back then — it was a place for personal photographs. And so, to share art on it was kind of a new thing. But it really came out of wanting to educate myself and then being able to say, ‘Okay, we've got this tool, it's free, not only for me to use, but also, I can use it and broadcast to the masses’.


I very much enjoyed your recent interview with Hilton Als.

Thank you. I loved that one.



I loved the way he talked about what Toni Morrison called “language that doesn't sweat” – how to make information available to all kinds of people, not just people involved in the art world. This is something I feel you do very well in The Great Women Artists. Right down to the font you use for the podcast. Did you set out to make art history accessible?

Yes. I like to be playful. Art is something to be enjoyed and it's there to be shared, to be discussed … It's there to be fêted. Everything I do is reflective of who I am, I guess. I was 25 when I started it, and it sort of reflects someone who's 25 and started a podcast on their own. I never really believed that you have to have a certain way of looking, or a certain way of broadcasting. I think the best thing you can possibly do is talk from the heart.

I’ve just been reading All About Love by bell hooks. I love it because she legitimises love as a kind of academic subject. I feel like, in our rational world, you have to do things because there's a certain reason. But what she talks about, so beautifully, is the fact that love can be a reason for doing something. And my project comes out of a love of sharing information — if I've got it, why not share it? And then it comes out of a love of the subject as well, and speaking to people and educating people in whatever form I can. Because I think it's an amazingly rich subject. Maybe it was the people I grew up around, but they would say, “Oh, art is for someone else. Art is an elitist thing”. And, it's not. Art can be for everyone, and everyone can be part of this and it's so thrilling.


I'm struck by how wonderful it is for you to be able to talk about the thing that you love most with the people you admire most. I mean, it's the dream.

It really is. The podcast is also a little bit like… I do it so that I can meet my heroes. And I'm not going to deny that as a factor in it. It's an absolute dream. My god, I grew up reading Hilton Als. And if you told me five years ago that I would have interviewed him I would have died!

You have interviewed many of the world’s most fascinating women artists. Can you talk a little about the interviews that have been most meaningful and memorable to you?

Lubaina Himid was one of my favourite interviews ever. It was during lockdown, and we just spoke for hours. I've always admired her and always wanted to ask her certain questions, so to do that was just a dream. Of course, when you go to an exhibition, you want to ask people, ‘Why did you do this or why do you do that? How did you get from a thought to this?’ That's what I love about art — that people just visualise something so brilliantly, so ambitiously. I also love interviewing family members of artists, so Ana Mendieta's niece was a real highlight, as was Lee Miller's granddaughter and Paula Rego's son.


If there is one artist from history that you could have on the podcast, who would it be?

Oh, such a good question. Artemisia Gentileschi for sure. My god, I would have so many questions for her. Like, ‘What was life like 400 years ago? What was it like to be a woman then? How did you manage to be an artist? How did you read these subjects in the Bible? What were you portraying? Did you feel like you were an anomaly? Who were the other women at the time? Did you have a support system?’ There must have been other people like her around her, and we just don’t know about them. I hope there is an afterlife and I get to meet her.


Your book The Story of Art Without Men explores the women who have been left out of the history of art from the 1500s through to the present day. You have spoken about the book as a sort of companion piece, or continuation, of Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, which, in its first edition, did not include one woman artist. Can you tell me about your ambitions for this book?

It's ridiculous that I even wrote this book because it shouldn't really have to exist. But I wanted to write a book that told that story. And that story is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the women who contributed to art. I look at that book and I see so many gaps. I also just wanted to challenge myself. I think, if you want to understand something, write a book about it. I wanted to understand how certain movements got from A to B to C. It's about understanding, and trying to grapple with how and why certain people made art at a certain time, and what were the factors that contributed to that? And how can art give us an insight into the people of the past? And how can it tell us the stories of the people who lived before us?


Historically, women have had to work much harder than men to achieve in the art world. How far do you think we have come? What do you think we still need to change?

I think it's a really exciting time. I'm at the Venice Biennale right now and the theme is literally ‘Foreigners Everywhere’. It's about the new time now; the post pandemic world is not about exclusivity. It's about opening up and getting all different perspectives. I'm so excited for the next 10 years. The kids who were born over the last few years are growing up in a much more equal art world. They understand that these histories were erased, but they also understand that these are the histories we need to know about. It's so thrilling to be able to take my five-year-old nephew to an exhibition and there could be tonnes of women artists. It's really exciting, but there's also still so much work to do. I live in London where there is progress happening, but that's also not the case around the world. What we've got to also do is make sure that these things stick. I hate the word ‘trend’, but, you know, it cannot be a trend. These stories are around to stay.



Speaking of these stories, when the artist Françoise Gilot died in 2023, The New York Times ran her obituary under the headline “Françoise Gilot, Artist in the Shadow of Picasso, Is Dead at 101.” Many media outlets followed with similar references to Gilot as a muse. In your column for The Guardian, you asked the questions: ‘Does his name really have to be mentioned? Aren’t her career, her achievements, her name, enough to stand on their own? When will the media stop referring to women in relation to a partner they split from over seven decades ago, and perpetuating this blatant sexism? Can you talk a little about this?

I mean, it's just lazy. And I think if we keep doing this, how is it ever going to change? And also, don't assume that your audience is dumb. People are clever, and they could work this out if they want to, and they can work it out on their own terms. I think to have that clickbait-y kind of headline was just so reductive. No one should be defined by anyone else. I just think, if I was 101, and the newspaper did my obituary about some guy I dated in my twenties — I don't care who they are! You know… you had a life. Celebrate that life.


Also, the guys you date in your twenties are the worst.

Literally! I would be very offended.


Can you tell me a little about your audio guides project, Museums Without Men?

Yeah, it's so exciting. You know how you can go to The Met and be so excited to be there, but also overwhelmed at how many amazing things there are on view? I want to help guide people to certain artworks, but also, give them an introduction to works that perhaps they might not realise are by women.


When starting a new project, do you read other writers as inspiration? Do you look at a work of art to spark ideas? What is your process?

Always! And also, everything! It could be Renaissance art, or art that was made yesterday. It could be books by a scientist. It could be books by an academic… I just love having that range because actually, then you speak to real life issues as well. Like, I just mentioned bell hooks, who is instrumental in what I'm thinking about. I've been reading lots of Classicist books at the moment, and that's instrumental too. There's no set way to do anything. And I think you've got to go off what you're drawn to, and something will spark from that.


Lastly, I have two books that I keep close by at all times when I write. Do you have a writing Bible/security blanket?

That is the most beautiful question, and I have always wanted someone to ask me this! I love Nell Dunn’s Talking to Women. It’s this book that she published in 1967 and it's a compilation of interviews with artists and writers. I am 30 now, but I was 29 last year and all the women I interviewed were also 29. I take it with me everywhere I go. I just think it's the most beautiful book. It’s so interesting to see how times have changed and how they haven't changed.


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