The role of the “digital influencer” in the art world is often drawn into question, and conversations about their importance are heated, with lines drawn between the devotees and the detractors. Wherever you stand, there is no denying that a successful Instagram account, often tallying tens of thousands of followers, can draw attention to art in a way that even the best museum outreach programme has often failed to. Everyone from the Met in New York to the V&A in London have enlisted the services of social media specialists and bloggers, who have been known to gain earlier access than traditional press pundits.
Katy Hessel, founder of The Great Women Artists Instagram account, could be seen as one such influencer (although it is not a term she readily applies to herself). She makes use of the digital platform to offer an art-historical perspective on the times that we live in, drawing attention to female artists past and present through regular posts on everyone from Anni Albers to Maisie Cousins. Her celebration of female artists throughout history has led to her new exhibition, In the Company Of, at TJ Boulting in London. Three historic female artists, Barbara Hepworth, Lee Miller and Alice Neel, are being exhibited alongside twelve dynamic contemporary female artists.
“Instagram is quite a democratic platform in the sense that anyone can exhibit online, and you don’t have to reveal your age, gender, sexuality”
The mixture of artists is reflective of Hessel’s approach to her Instagram feed, placing the work of contemporary artists in a broader historical context and upholding the legacy of women who might otherwise disappear from view. It is also clear that the championing of female artists can never happen too early, as demonstrated by the fact that several of the artists included in the exhibition were discovered by Hessel on Instagram. “I think Instagram is quite a democratic platform in the sense that anyone can exhibit online. It’s not biased; you don’t have to reveal your age, gender, sexuality. It therefore allows for people from all backgrounds to be free from judgement, and I believe that it has allowed women artists to thrive in particular,” she reflects.
“It’s a platform that is taken seriously in the art world—Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst all use Instagram, for example, and it’s seen as a very valid tool. It’s also extremely valuable in the art world where it can be quite elitist, as it offers a different perspective through bitesize knowledge,” she adds. The exhibition offers a real-life context to the Instagram account, drawing connections across genre, era and medium. Sculpture and painting sit alongside photography and installation, placing contemporary artists like Juliana Cerqueira Leite in direct dialogue with the surrealist photographs of Lee Miller, while Alice Neel’s expressive and psychologically charged painting style can be felt in the work of Caroline Walker. Viewed together, the connections between them can be traced and understood, building a network of support and mutual trust for female artists.