Why do we still not care about female artists?

© Guerrilla Girls 2012

© Guerrilla Girls 2012

In 1723, Dutch painter Margareta Haverman was thrown out of the Académie Royale when the painting she submitted was deemed to be too good to have been painted by a woman. Some would argue that little has changed in the Western art world.

Yet, 2015 could be said to have begun well for women: in London South African artist Marlene Dumas is presenting an important and widely publicised exhibition of her work at Tate Modern and this is just a few months after Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting ‘Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1’ smashed auction records and achieved a price of $44.4m at Sotheby’s in New York, the highest amount ever paid for a work by a female artist. However, in a world so heavily concerned with appearances it should come as no surprise that looks can be deceiving. One need look no further than the recent private treaty sale of Gauguin’s ‘Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?)’ for $300 million dollars making it the most expensive piece of art ever sold, or take the most expensive sale at auction for a male artist: Francis Bacon’s ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ which sold for $142.4 million in 2013, nearly $100 million more than O’Keeffe’s record.

It’s all very well to say that art that dates back to before the advent of the feminism is never going to be fully representative of women, but the fact is that female representation in modern and contemporary art really isn’t much better. Jonathan Jones writing for the Guardian after O’Keeffe’s landmark sale explained: “Women are allowed to do art, nowadays, of course. They are just not permitted to be great at it.” He added “Money speaks volumes, and it is telling us that women are still not allowed into the pantheon of greatness, but have to stay in their own curious antechamber of fame.” This ‘antechamber of fame’ will be made all the more clear in September 2015 when Saatchi will present an all-female exhibition entitled ‘A Woman’s Hand’: half of the world’s population squashed into one patronising exhibition.

In 2013 Georg Baselitz shocked much of the art world when he proclaimed “Women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact,” Adding that women “simply don’t pass the market test, the value test…As always, the market is right.” Sarah Thornton, author of Seven Days in the Art World, came out in opposition to the artist’s inflammatory remarks, saying: “I disagree with him; the market gets it wrong all the time. To see the market as a mark of quality is going down a delusional path. I’m shocked Baselitz does. His work doesn’t go for so much.” However, despite the disapproval of many art professionals, the sad fact of the matter is that Georg Baseltiz’s opinion is reflected almost universally in the art world.

The East London Fawcett (ELF) (a section of the Fawcett Society, who campaign for gender equality in the UK) organised the Great East London Art Audit which involved collecting data about the representation of female artists over the course of a year. Conducted between 2012 and 2013, the results were disheartening, if unsurprising: out of 134 commercial galleries in London, which between them represent 3163 artists, 31% of the artists represented by the galleries were women. In addition, only 5% of the galleries surveyed represented an equal number of male and female artists. ELF also surveyed 133 solo shows presented by 29 non-profit galleries and museums in London and found that only 1 of the 29 galleries exhibited an equal number of male and female solo shows.

Elsewhere the notorious Guerrilla Girls collective which formed in New York in 1985 continues to campaign for female artists. The group regularly protests and in 2011 they re-conducted their now infamous survey of art in the Metropolitan museum to find that just 4% of the artists in the modern art sections are women (only a 1% increase from 1989) , although 76% of the nudes are female. ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?’ therefore remains a very valid question.

L.A. based artist Micol Hebron has started ‘Gallery Tally’ a campaign that asks people to design posters showing the disparity between male and female representation in art galleries, some examples of which can be found here. At the latest edition of Art Basel Miami Beach Hebron went along to survey galleries about the artists they had brought along to the fair and found that once again, female artists were simply not on a level playing field with their male counterparts. Out of the 31 galleries surveyed only 2 had 50% male and 50% female artists. Perhaps requiring 50% might sound a little demanding in the antiquated arena of the art market, but it can only really be fair considering women make up 49.6% of the world population.

More worrying however than the statistics themselves were some of the responses from gallery owners that Hebron witnessed. In an interview for Hyperallergic Hebron explained that three gallery workers reportedly either pretended to be engaged in a phone call or just walked away when Hebron attempted to ask them about the gender balance of their stands. Another gallery owner explained that the reason 90% of his artists were male was because he was presenting a program of conceptual and text-based art. Most troubling of all was a gallery owner who simply stated “I just curate what I like, and I like art by men better.”

©Cecilia Gavia, Gallery Tally

©Cecilia Gavia, Gallery Tally

Women are of course not the only people to be affected by discrimination in the art world (conducting a survey on race representation would almost certainly produce even worse results) and during the course of Hebron’s research this year she made a point of asking whether any of the galleries represented any trans artists. The answer was a resounding no, but Hebron also describes this unsettling experience: “One gallerist actually said, ‘Oh, no … but that’s not the kind of art that I show, anyway.’ When I asked what he meant, he went on to infer that trans artists all made work about identity, and then, he went on to conflate trans artists with gay artists. I told him that I considered gender and sexuality to be distinct and that I was not tallying sexuality. He seemed confused.”

And it’s not just female artists who are suffering from the gender imbalance. Last year the Association of Art Museum Directors and the National Centre for Arts Research released a study of ‘The Gender Gap in Art Museum Directorships’ which revealed that women run just a quarter of US art museums with budgets over $15 million. Furthermore, the study found that these female leaders make just 71 cents for every $1 earned by the male leaders. Naomi Beckwith, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago explains “I’ve been lucky enough to work only under women directors but all the institutions they inherited had an annual budget of $15 million or less, which is the glass ceiling of female women directorships.” The situation is particularly confusing considering how many women work in the art world. Wander around a gallery or an art fair and you will find that women often seem to outnumber men, yet it would appear that it is these men that for the most part are in charge. As Pearl Lam of Pearl Lam Galleries says “How many biennale directors are male? How many museums, institutions, and foundations are run by men? Who runs the auction houses? Men.”

In September 2014 Artnet asked 20 female curators, collectors, dealers, advisors and artists about whether gender bias still existed in the art world. All of them answered yes, with responses ranging from the articulate Michelle Grabner (Artist, 2014 Whitney Biennial curator): “Simply, capital flow in the art world cannot and will not afford to slow itself for any ethical deliberations on gender equality” to the concise response of Roxanna Zarnegar (Senior Vice President, artnet Auctions and Private Sales): “Two words: Jeff Koons.”

Whether we like it or not creativity has become male dominated. It even seems that we have gone backwards rather than forwards in our acknowledgement of female artistry: there is now substantial evidence to suggest that the first-known artists were predominantly female with archaeologist Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University finding that three-quarters of the handprints analysed in cave paintings are female.

So what is the solution? Some are calling for quotas such as blogger John Powers who cites Title IX, the affirmative action law of 1972, which forbids gender discrimination in any federally-funded education programme or activity in the US. Powers believes this could be applied to museum practice and argues that we should sue MoMA in reference to the law, as museums share the same definitions of organisation and 501c3 non-profit status that permit universities to be Title IX-eligible. Sarah McCrory, Director, Glasgow International believes that “Gender equality in the arts should be easy: Make shows/galleries/biennials/institutions at least 50 percent women.”

Whether or not quotas are the answer is unclear, but it is evident that a lot more needs to be said and done to address the problem. What we are seeing now is a vicious cycle, young girls are growing up worshipping male genius and going to galleries where they see barely any examples of female creativity. If women don’t see other women lauded for their talent, they will never be able to realise their own. Young girls should look to the words of Georgia O’Keeffe: “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.”


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