LONDON–The number of women CEOs on Britain’s FTSE 100 stock exchange was a total of eight when Kate Bryan, the British art historian and global head of collections at Soho House, first conceived of Vault 100 in April 2016. Recently opened, the ambitious permanent collection is housed within the former vaults of the old Midland Bank—in the belly of the City of London— at The Ned, London’s highly anticipated new hotel and member’s club. “It’s like the Ritz and Soho House had a baby,” said Ms. Bryan, describing The Ned which is a collaboration between Soho House, the global private members club, and developers Sydell Group.
Inside, Ms. Bryan has put together an art collection that imagines a reversal of traditional gender bias: Vault 100 is a salon that includes 92 art works by leading female British artists alongside eight works by men in collectives. During the final days of the acquisitions process, the number of women CEOs on the FTSE 100 fell to seven, “so I gained a place for a work of art by another female artist” she said, flashing a smile.
Having previously worked at the British Museum and Hong Kong’s Cat Street Gallery, Ms. Bryan was named head of collections for Soho House in 2016. Initiated as soon as she accepted her role at Soho House, Vault 100 reveals much about her thinking and attitude towards art. “I was trying to reconcile the creative identity of Soho House with The Ned, which is largely financial and quite masculine,” she said. “This collection became a platform for social commentary in the city, as art can play an important role in public perception. In creating a permanent collection, as opposed to an exhibition, we gave Ned memberships through the acquisition of works to lots of women, actively bringing them into the heart of the city.”
When selecting works for the Vault 100, Ms. Bryan requested a maximum size of 40cm x 40cm. Intimate in scale, gems that might never have left the studio were discovered. Soho House’s main collection is predominantly black and white, so color in these new acquisitions stands out including the vermillion in Phyllida Barlow’s “Crush” and the cobalt and cerulean in Deborah Tarr’s “Big Sur.” “Rachel Howard gave us a male nude in ink on paper that relates beautifully to Tracey Emin’s ‘I can’t get enough’ (2014) in gouache on paper,” said Ms. Bryan. “So many of the artists selected recommended others artists for the collection, which meant there were no egos.”
Ms. Bryan’s decision to create a permanent collection through acquisitions made for a very rigorous selection process. As a consequence, the artists exhibited in Vault 100 could emerge as a definitive list of collectable artists living in Britain today. “By putting our money where our mouth is we are endorsing what we believe is the best available work from 100 of the greatest artists working in London today,” Ms. Bryan said. “The financial world is much less balanced than the art world. By having such a ridiculously low number of men in the Vault 100 collection it highlights the imbalance of art world better.”
This addresses a primary imbalance currently high on the agenda in the art world: the inequity in the number of female artists collected versus male. Why when there is a very low barrier to entry for women in the art world (65-75% of MFA students are women according to statistics from the National Museum of Women in the Arts) are the numbers so diminished at the top? London’s Tate Modern director Frances Morris has long been asking this question and has purposely championed artists such as Marlene Dumas, Agnes Martin and Louise Bourgeois and ensuring the new wing of the Tate Modern, the Switch House, had a 50/50 male-female split.
Some argue that while a large number of women may begin as artists, they do not remain so. Perhaps the most contentious issue is taking time out to have a family, as British artist Tracey Emin pointed out to fellow artist Annie Kevans (both selected for the Vault 100) before she had her baby girl, suggesting it might be the end of her career. In addition to prohibitive childcare costs, most networking with critics is done at night. Only stronger female networks with purchase power can address this imbalance. Ms. Kevans inclusion in this collection alongside artists who juggle motherhood like Annie Morris, Nancy Cadogan and Echo Morgan demonstrates that artists can be both.
Despite the statistics, there are brighter opportunities on the horizon; Maria Balshaw, previously head of the Whitworth, Manchester’s award-winning contemporary art museum, was appointed Director of Tate. Collectors like Poland’s Grażyna Kulczyk and London-based collector Valeria Napoleone are building important female-orientated collections. “We need more permanent collections like the Vault 100,” said Ms. Napoleone, who recently launched “Valeria Napoleone XX,” an umbrella platform for projects and initiatives to increase recognition and validation of art practices by female artists. While the focus of Vault 100 is women artists, Ms. Bryan also chose works from collectives like Troika, Langlands & Bell, Levack Lewandoski, of men working alongside women.
It is the caliber of the collection that will stand the test of time, and gender, just like sexual orientation, could become a non-issue. But for now, in a city where the decision makers are over 75% male (according to the Office for National Statistics only 33% women are in managerial roles and only 7 out of 100 in the FTSE 100), there is hope for more disruption from women like Ms. Bryan through platforms that ask what it means to be a woman artist.
By Nico Kos Earle, an independent curator and arts writer. She also conceives and curates group shows internationally as an incubator for early career artists.
Featured Image: Kate Bryan, the British art historian and global head of collections at Soho House, in Vault 100.