Women in the Arts: Pearl Lam – 艺术中的女性:Pearl Lam

Opinion - 07 Aug 2018

Women in the Arts: Pearl Lam

‘My struggle has not been an issue with gender; my struggle has been that I started out when there wasn’t really an established art world’

By Pearl Lam

For this series celebrating women in the arts, the pioneering Chinese gallerist speaks about her career in the art world, from curating pop-up exhibitions in Hong Kong in the 1990s to opening her Shanghai gallery in 2005. 

As you were starting out in the arts, what were the possibilities for mentorship, collaboration and cross-generational engagement among women?

This question is very hard to apply to my world. When I started out in the 1990s, there was no art scene in Hong Kong or in China; there were no galleries, or very few, just a couple that were very new. So cross-generational engagement did not exist, whether between women or men. It was a brand new business; it was a brand new world. In China there wasn’t really a cultural scene, whereas in Hong Kong no-one cared about art or culture – forget about it!

What, if any, were the difficulties of embarking on a career in the arts as a woman?

The only thing I can comment on is that women artists perhaps felt that they weren’t given equally opportunities. There was a cultural expectation that women would have children; that they would have to look after them. I think being an artist is much more difficult as a woman. There were many female artists in China, including some married to male artists, who decided not to have children. Of the older generation, now in their 60s, many women didn’t have children. They chose to be artists; they chose their profession.

What specific experiences have you had that shaped your understanding of gender in the workplace, the media and the arts?

I’m from Hong Kong and opened my first gallery in Shanghai in 2005. In China, being a Communist county, women and men are supposed to be equals – according to Mao Zedong, women hold up half of the sky. And in Hong Kong the women are pretty strong and are given many equal opportunities. My struggle has not been an issue with gender; my struggle has been that I started out when there wasn’t really an established art world. We were the ones who were building it. Perhaps for that reason we don’t have the same gender issues as in the West.

What has changed today?

Today, in Hong Kong and in China, female artists have many more opportunities because, in general, the economy and the cultural scene have evolved. So all artists have a future and women can choose to have both a family and a career. In the 1990s it was difficult for artists, there was a sense of hopelessness. At that moment, there wasn’t any art market – buying art was not part of the ordinary lifestyle – and women were not encouraged to be artists because even men could not make a living. Women, in general, were having a tough time. But big changes have happened here. In Hong Kong we are now looking at gender issues more closely.

What are your thoughts about #MeToo and other initiatives to call attention to sexual harassment?

How to put this … in my world, in what I’ve known – both in Shanghai and in Hong Kong – women are very strong. So far I have not heard of any personal stories about sexual harassment; the women whom I have always known have stood up for themselves.

Main image: Pearl Lam. Photograph: William Louey

Pearl Lam

Pearl Lam is the founding owner of Pearl Lam Galleries, with spaces in Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Women in the Arts
Pearl Lam
Pearl Lam Galleries

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