Articles in This Issue
Just 11% of all acquisitions and 14% of exhibitions at 26 prominent American museums over the past decade were of work by female artists. According to a joint investigation by In Other Words and artnet News, a total of 260,470 works have entered the museums’ permanent collections since 2008. Only 29,247 were by women.
More troubling, there have been few advances made—even as museums signal publicly that they are embracing alternative histories and working to expand the canon. The number of works by women acquired did not increase over time. In fact, it peaked a decade ago.
These findings challenge one of the most compelling narratives to have emerged within the art world in recent years: that of progressive change, with once-marginalized artists being granted more equitable representation within art institutions. Our research shows that, at least when it comes to gender parity, this story is a myth.
“These numbers are a little heart-wrenching,” artist Mickalene Thomas says. “But they are also awakening. This is not about who you are as an artist—there is a system that you aren’t a part of. It’s still a boys’ game.”
Considering that women comprise more than half of Americans, these numbers are disturbingly low. Interestingly, the proportional representation of women in this data study correlates with last year’s research into African American artists: based on this country’s demographics, the findings were each a fifth of what they should be.
The minimal overlap between our two studies reveals the extent to which African American women are badly served by museums: they made up just 3.3% (190 of 5,832) of the total number of female artists whose work was collected by US institutions.
Unlike last year’s study, which showed museums had made clear (though limited) progress over time, there appears to have been an overwhelming lack of concentration on work by women. Only a handful of institutions we surveyed demonstrated the kind of consistency in their acquisitions and programs that suggest they are paying more than lip service to the issue.
“There is a perception that change has been so substantial when the reality is not that case,” says Jessica Morgan, the director of the Dia Art Foundation, one of only two institutions to have acquired more than 50% work by women over the past decade. “There is such a huge imbalance that some kind of radical gesture is required.”
The business case for change
Striving for equity is not just a matter of doing the right thing. Nor is it only about telling a more accurate history. It is also an important way for museums to ensure their own enduring relevance, and safeguard their financial viability.
“The public that you are selling to is not monolithic—it is not all white males,” says Susan McPherson, founder of McPherson Strategies consultancy and an expert on corporate social responsibility. “So if your viewpoint is narrow, you won’t be able to grow membership and your customer base.”
Indeed, fortune often favors the bold. An exhibition last year of work by a relatively unknown female painter—who had been largely ignored for decades by historians and the art market—ended up being the most-attended museum show in the Guggenheim’s history. The show of work by Swedish mystic artist Hilma af Klint also drew the youngest audience of any exhibition since the museum started to measure visitor demographics and drove a 34% increase in membership. (Click for more)
The public is often out ahead of the art world. “If you do a Gerhard Richter show, people think it will be a blockbuster,” says Helen Molesworth, the former chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. “It won’t be. Whereas Hilma will. Museums at the level of program and board are suffering from being behind the times.”
There are a number of reasons why museums have failed to increase their representation of female artists. For one thing, their work is often seen as a specialist pursuit running parallel to the canonical story of art history. And many institutions share an unspoken belief that “they will only be recognized as an important institution if they acknowledge the greatest hits”, notes Maxwell Anderson, the president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.
This bias may be built into the very structure of museums, whose identities are shaped by the objects they have collected in the past, suggests David Getsy, an art historian at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “Institutions have all these narratives about what makes them special, so for many of them this is about a reformist movement—which is slow and incremental—rather than revolutionary movement,” he says.
Another limiting factor is a lack of research about female artists, whose work was often not collected by major institutions during their lifetimes, tracked by historians, or conserved by art dealers. A recent study of Yale School of Art students found that even after graduation rates reached parity in the early 1980s, female alumni were written about in books and scholarly publications two to three times less frequently than their male peers.
This problem is more extreme for encyclopedic museums, which confront a dwindling amount of information the further back in time they look. Indeed, our data shows that, on average, these larger historical museums are collecting fewer works by women than their Modern and contemporary counterparts.
Yet our research also reveals that, when it comes to creating change, the type of institution is less important than its level of commitment to the cause. For example, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—which collects art from antiquity to the present—has been increasingly focused on bringing more gender parity to its permanent collection. Works by women represent 16% of its acquisitions over the past 10 years—4% more than the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and 7% less than the Museum of Modern Art in New York, two prominent Modern and contemporary museums on either coast with similar or larger operating budgets, during the same period. (LACMA also comes out ahead compared with many other historical museums; the MFA Boston, for example, collected just 4% work by women over the past decade.) (Click for more)
Real change requires checkbooks
What museums bring into their permanent collections matters because their acquisitions ultimately form the canon. Their collections are how history gets recorded for posterity—and also the place where bias is most deeply entrenched. “The great testament to the commitment an institution makes to an artist is through acquisitions, not exhibitions, which are sweeping and frankly cheaper,” says Christopher Bedford, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Curators say they struggle to convince their acquisition committees to pay up for work, particularly by older, overlooked female artists, who frequently lack an auction history that might be used to validate the asking price. “It can be difficult to defend the value of the work,” says Connie Butler, the chief curator at the Hammer Museum. “There is this weird disconnect that even while people are happy to support a show, the lack of auction records for female artists is a problem when you’re trying to support acquisitions.”
One curator described a meeting in which she pitched the work of an elderly female artist whose exhibition the museum had recently staged to great success. The committee decided against it, feeling that there were not enough market comparables. Instead, they bought a work by a “hot” young male artist.
Part of the reason that the balance of acquisitions is so difficult to shift is because they not only reflect purchases directed by curators, but also gifts from donors. In fact, gifts comprise more than twice the number of purchases we recorded. “A lot of institutions like ours don’t have significant acquisition budgets,” says Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum. “Most of what you receive are gifts, and the trend is that people bought male artists.”
This trend is particularly evident in larger museums, which may be more likely to attract wealthy donors with the means and inclination to buy art that reflects the established canon, reinforcing the status quo. “A museum is a reflection of its collecting community,” says Nonie Gadsden, the MFA Boston’s senior curator of American decorative arts and sculpture, who organized “Women Take the Floor,” an ongoing exhibition dedicated to art by women (until 3 May 2021). “Artists with ‘known names’ are a lot easier for collectors, which means we have to try harder to acquire an artist who may not be as familiar.”
Smaller museums, meanwhile, are punching above their weight with regard to the representation of women: 14 of the 15 museums that had acquired fewer than 5,000 objects over the past decade collected more works by female artists than the 11% average.
Playing the waiting game
Those with the most power to create change seem to be the least interested in doing so. Several influential figures we spoke to, including museum leaders, were reluctant to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. They pointed to a growth in representation that is not evident in our data. They said change takes time. They wondered whether the numbers simply reflect that there are a disproportionate number of male artists, suggesting that women are more likely to put their careers on hold to raise families or quit in the face of a lack of opportunity.
“The excuses people give really tells us a lot about the power of art and the difficulty people have with change,” says Susan Fisher Sterling, director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. “We are lulled into a sense that parity is being achieved faster than we think, but those myths reflect the status quo.”
Least surprised by the data were the artists themselves, who expressed frustration with a system that often asks them to meet a higher bar than their male peers to garner recognition or earn a museum show. “I have never had a museum come to me after a studio visit and say they like what I am doing and we should make a show of new work,” says photographer Catherine Opie. “I know Thomas Demand can make a new body of work and be shown at museums all over. Same with [Thomas] Struth and [Andreas] Gursky. But how many women get solo museum shows because they are making an interesting body of work versus a survey or retrospective?”
Artist Andrea Fraser says the statistics reflect a broader shift away from the civic mission of museums, some of which have become more interested in “mass-marketing of the taste of the wealthiest and most influential collectors” than “the idea that we need to educate the public and not cater to established tastes and the spectacle of fame or of genius”.
Who is calling the shots?
Part of the reason that the perception of progress is so much greater than the reality has to do with who is leading the charge: of the chief curators at the institutions we surveyed, the majority were female (23 women compared to 13 men). Overall, US museums employ more women than men—but, on the whole, those women earn less than their male colleagues. According to the 2017 National Museum Salary Survey, male chief curators make $71,050 on average, while women make $55,550.
And the corner offices remain male-dominated. Sixteen of the museums in our data set have male directors, compared to ten that employ female directors. The largest institutions are almost always run by men: of the country’s top 10 institutions by budget, only one has a female director (Kaywin Feldman of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC).
Notably, the museums with the highest proportion of exhibitions by women over the past decade—the Dia Art Foundation in New York (39%), the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (32%), and the Brooklyn Museum in New York (29%)—all have female directors. (Click for more)
However, our findings suggest that having women in leadership positions is not a cure-all. Surprisingly, perhaps, an analysis of the boards of trustees at the 26 museums we surveyed revealed that almost half of their members—47%—are female.
“The art world is simply not the liberal, progressive bastion that it imagines itself to be,” Molesworth says, “and you can’t solve a problem you can’t own.” There is much well-meaning conversation taking place, but “really wanting change means doing it. It means righting the ship. It means you don’t get to do some other things—and it turns out that the not-doing-other-things is not really on the table for a lot of places.”
Making way for something new
Some museums have recognized the scope of the problem—and started to take decisive action. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts took a radical step in 2013 when it sold Edward Hopper’s East Wind Over Weehawken (1934) for $40.5 million. The museum did not it make public at the time, but it planned to use the proceeds to strategically diversify its collection. Since then, it has acquired works by women at a rate of five times the national average. (Click for more)
Within the past two years, other museums, including the Baltimore Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, have followed suit. “The only way to catch up with decades of negligence is to be overly aggressive in the present,” Bedford says. In addition to selling work by canonized white men to diversify the museum’s collection, the institution recently announced that it will dedicate its entire 2020 program to female artists, from exhibitions of work by Joan Mitchell, Candice Breitz and Katharina Grosse to acquisitions and public programs.
There is a similar recognition of the need for change at SFMOMA, where 12% of acquisitions and 10% of exhibitions have been of work by women artists. “We know that we have real work to do to achieve a more balanced collection and program,” says Janet Bishop, chief curator and curator of painting and sculpture. “That work is an explicit goal within our new strategic plan.”
The recent $50.1m sale of a 1960 painting by Mark Rothko has allowed the museum to “make some real strides within the acquisitions arena”, specifically addressing historic gaps by buying work by artists including Leonora Carrington, Lygia Clark, Alma Thomas, Mickalene Thomas and Rebecca Belmore, Bishop says.
These purchases are already reshaping the way the museum tells the stories of major art movements. “Up until a few years ago, our Surrealist gallery included most of the major male figures associated with the movement but no paintings by women—we didn’t have any,” Bishop says. Today, the gallery features one work by Dorothea Tanning and one by Kay Sage.
The quota question
Such moves have been controversial among those who believe that privileging one group over another might lower the quality of the program or hamstring curators. “I’m worried the focus is skewing things to the point where we end up looking at artists in a gendered way rather than in terms of quality,” says the gallerist Dominique Lévy.
But others say that part of the reason the art world lags behind other sectors in dealing with issues of gender representation is because there is little external pressure and “no formal commitment, or metric by which to measure success”, says Mia Locks, senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
By contrast, public scrutiny and the #MeToo movement have helped drive change more quickly in film and other creative industries. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has committed to reaching gender parity by next year; just seven years ago, its membership was 77% male.
“I think we are going to have conversations that are uncomfortable for a lot of people about quotas,” says artist Micol Hebron. “There has been a quota of more men than women for centuries.”
Some museum leaders are on board. “I do believe in quotas,” says Morgan. “If change is not happening, then set yourself some goals.”
Real change vs illusions
A younger generation is not only more open to, but is also actively pushing for this kind of radical change. The #MeToo movement “was a real wake-up call for a younger generation who want to see equity in very specific ways”, says Butler—who was at the forefront of an earlier push for recognition of women artists when she curated the landmark exhibition “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at MoCA, Los Angeles, in 2007. “They will demand something even more strongly than we did.”
But given the current perception gap between people’s sense of progress and the reality about the discernable lack of it, perhaps one of the key takeaways is that the stories we tell ourselves—about our museums and our societies—are not to be trusted. Institutions that are creating change say it is important to dig deeper and question more. “Don’t accept the first story. Or even the second or the third,” Morgan says. “It is only through repeated research that you get to understand what it is that you are looking at.”
The first step towards “addressing the problem is acknowledging where we actually are rather than where we perceive ourselves to be”, Locks says. “Then we can begin the real work of change.”
When a female artist made auction history last October, a man nonetheless managed to steal the limelight. Five bidders had vigorously pursued British artist Jenny Saville’s 1992 painting of a fleshy female nude, at Sotheby’s, pushing the price to £9.5m with fees ($12.5m) and setting a world record for a living female artist. Yet attention was swiftly diverted when onlookers noticed that the final lot of the evening, Banksy’s Girl With Balloon (2006), had suddenly begun to shred itself. By the following morning, the self-destructing Banksy was international news, while Saville was a historical footnote .
With or without fanfare, the sum paid for Propped was still less than 14% of the record for a living male artist at auction: $91.1m for Jeff Koons’s Rabbit (1986), set last May at Christie’s.
Such disparity is the rule, not the exception. According to a joint investigation by In Other Words and artnet News—which together gathered and analyzed data from international auctions, leading galleries and the Art Basel fair—it is clear that the art market overwhelmingly finds greater value in work produced by men than that made by women.
More than $196.6bn has been spent on art at auction between 2008 and the first five months of 2019. Of this, work made by women accounts for just $4bn—around 2%. For context, works by Pablo Picasso generated $4.8bn at auction during the same period, more than the total spent on every single female artist in our dataset combined—almost 6,000 women.
Artists themselves are painfully aware of these discrepancies. “I know the world is the way it’s shown to be in your numbers,” says photographer Catherine Opie, who is in the top 25 female artists collected by US museums, according to our data. “I have done well in my career but, at the same time, there is no comparison with my male counterparts. The men do so much better than I do because they rule the roost in relationship to capitalism. They are still the default go-to for collecting by museums and the market.”
The winner-takes-all dynamic
The market for art by women is not only smaller, it is also disproportionately concentrated on a few artists. Just five account for $1.6bn of the $4bn total spent on work by women over the past 11.5 years. That 40.7% market share was split between, in descending order, Yayoi Kusama, Joan Mitchell, Louise Bourgeois, Georgia O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin.
By contrast, sales are distributed far more equitably among male artists. The top five (Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Zhang Daqian, Qi Baishi and Claude Monet) account for just under a tenth (8.7%) of the total $192.6bn spent on work by men at auction since 2008.
“The numbers are devastating,” says Hauser & Wirth vice-president and partner Marc Payot. “We think we are going in the right direction, but the perception has changed more than the reality. If you take away the top five female artists, in essence, nothing has changed.”
Buyers are still reluctant to pay high prices for work by female artists, says Marina Gertsberg, a visiting research scholar at Yale University’s School of Management. Furthermore, she says, what is known as the “superstar effect”—whereby a small number of elite artists generate a disproportionate amount of the profits—is “even stronger for minorities like female artists or African American artists. Within those groups, competition is even greater because those minorities are competing even more for the few spots on top.”
The disparity is particularly flagrant when one considers the impact female artists have had on male artists—and, indeed, the entire history of art. Allan Schwartzman, co-founder of Art Agency, Partners and chairman of Sotheby’s Fine Art Division, notes that the work of female artists, particularly those active during the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s, changed the language of art. “Before the women’s movement,” he says, postwar American art “couldn’t be psychologically vulnerable, personal, diaristic, fragile, tender, self-revealing, small, colorful, eccentric, handmade. Since then, much of the most valued contemporary art is many of these things.”
Schwartzman adds that “even the most muscular of male artists of these decades, like Richard Serra, openly acknowledge the vast impact of women artists on their own work. This is one of the great unspoken hypocrisies of the art market. And one of its silliest oversights.”
Gallery representation and revenue
Galleries also bear responsibility for correcting these biases. “There is a structural issue in that galleries don’t represent enough women in their programs. You need to educate collectors,” Payot says. “You need to confront them with quality.”
We surveyed some of the leading galleries about the number of female artists they represent and the proportion of sales those artists bring in. The figures were significantly ahead of auction results—though not anywhere near parity.
“These are important artists of the 20th century, and collectors are realizing that if they don’t have the right painting in their collection they’re not telling the story properly,” says Bellatrix Hubert, senior partner at David Zwirner. The gallery’s 66-artist roster is 29% female (19 out of 66), but those women (including market heavyweights Yayoi Kusama and Joan Mitchell—both in the auction top five—as well as Marlene Dumas, whose market ranks 13th among the best-selling female artists at auction) account for 39% of the gallery’s total sales.
At the international galleries Pace and Lisson, female artists and estates bring in a disproportionate amount of revenue: almost a quarter of the artists at Pace are female (21% or 19 out of 92, including Agnes Martin—the fifth best performing female artist at auction), but they account for more than a third (39%) of overall sales. A fifth of Lisson’s artists are female (20% or 13 of 65 artists, including Marina Abramović and Carmen Herrera), and they account for around a third of all sales, the gallery estimates.
Of the 88 artists and estates represented by Hauser & Wirth, 30 are female (34%) and they account for 33% of the gallery’s sales, Payot says. Representing female artists is in the gallery’s DNA, partly a function of the interests of its co-founder, Ursula Hauser, and partly borne of necessity. Now one of the world’s leading dealers, with locations around the globe, Hauser & Wirth began “operating out of an off-place, marketwise, in Zürich, so to get access to fantastic art wasn’t that easy”, he says. “But women were under-represented and undervalued in the market, so for us it was an opportunity.”
Artist Micol Hebron, who has tracked the representation of women on gallery rosters since 2013, points out that many galleries that profess to promote equality still fall short: “A 65/35 ratio is repeated over and over—that’s still almost twice as many men as women,” she says.
At the Art Basel fairs, the leading industry events that take place annually in Basel, Miami and Hong Kong, the numbers are even lower. Women made up less than a quarter of the artists on view at these fairs over the past four years, according to an analysis of the lists that galleries submitted of the artists they planned to bring.
The under-representation in galleries and art fairs has an impact on the long-term prospects of women’s markets: if they sell fewer works on the primary market, then their secondary markets will necessarily be inhibited.
Limiting markets from the get-go
Bias is built into the way works are priced. The value of a work of art is usually decided by drawing a comparison with artists from similar eras or schools. But in market transactions, women artists are siloed. While men are compared with other artists with similar profiles and trajectories, some market players say it is common practice to compare women only with each other. “We always go to female artists as opposed to an artist who has a similar trajectory,” Hubert says. “We tend to create the comparisons but limit the possibilities from the get-go. Everyone does this. We really need to stop.”
These kinds of prejudices are built into the system, and often go unnoticed. “I don’t think people are even conscious of the bias, they just accept it,” says Mary Sabbatino, partner at Galerie Lelong. She says her career has been shaped by the fact that she has chosen to champion artists on the margins. “I knew it was going to be a lot more difficult than if I had developed an expertise in mid-century heroes, but I’ve worked so long in this area that it seems quite normal to me to encounter resistance. It doesn’t discourage me to hear some unconscious misogyny or disrespect,” she says. On the contrary, “there is a deep satisfaction when an artist who has been under-recognized takes center stage. There is no revenge like success.”
Such outright sexism has not been limited to artists. Lisa Dennison, the chairman of Sotheby’s Americas and a former director of the Guggenheim, points to generations of female curators who “didn’t fight for female artists because they were just happy to be curators in major museums—usually under male bosses”. She notes that the great female gallerists who emerged during the 1980s and 1990s did not fight to build stables of women artists either. “They had to prove they could hold their own against the male dealers,” she says.
The 2000s were not much better. LA gallerist Susanne Vielmetter founded her business at the start of the new millennium and says that, for the first decade, “You couldn’t tell a collector that you counted the number of female artists in museum shows or in your gallery program. People would think you either had some kind of early childhood trauma—that there was something psychologically damaged about you—or that you were so hopelessly stuck in the 1990s identity-politics era that you simply couldn’t be helped,” she says. “At least we are having the conversation now.”
Hello, bias? It’s me, the art market
Dealers, collectors, and others cite many reasons why the market for work by women remains disproportionately small: there were fewer female than male artists working until the 20th century; women have made art that is less easily commodified than that made by men; there is less research published on the work of women, which makes it more difficult to create value around them.
But there is also ample evidence of an even simpler explanation: bias. Academic studies have found larger price gaps between male and female artists in countries in which there is more gender inequality. The correlation “suggests that it’s not the quality of the art that matters”, says Renée Adams, a professor of finance at Oxford University. “It’s discrimination.” Our cultural understanding of what artistic genius looks like is still overwhelmingly male.
This belief system was evident in a study Adams conducted in 2017, which found that wealthy men in particular tend to have a lower regard for art by women. She asked 2,000 participants to rate computer-generated paintings that were randomly assigned fictitious male and female names. Wealthy men—especially those who said they visit an art gallery at least a few times a year, and therefore were more likely to collect art—consistently rated works with female names lower than the rest.
These prejudices absolutely “become self-reinforcing”, according to New York gallerist Alexander Gray, who says the situation is exacerbated at high-stakes art fairs. Dealers are more likely to place lower-priced work by female artists further back in their booths or inside closets rather than on the most visible “money walls”. The calculation is: “That wall cost $100,000, so I need to make $300,000 back,” Gray says.
All hope is not lost. Although it remains a tiny slice of the whole, the market for work by women is experiencing an upward trend, more than doubling from $230m to $595m in the decade since 2008. That’s a rate of growth faster than the art market as a whole, which increased by 72% over the same period.
Data suggests this shift is taking hold in some parts of the world more quickly than others. Notably, the only Art Basel fair to have consistently grown the proportion of female artists on view over the past four years is the Hong Kong event, which went from 21.1% women artists in 2015 to 26.5% last year. Both the Swiss and US fairs peaked in 2017 before dropping last year to around a quarter each, falling behind the Asian city.
Perhaps not coincidentally, China is home to more than half the world’s female self-made billionaires. The fact that women now have their own independent sources of money is a historical anomaly—one that could go on to shape the market. “The notion that a female collector can walk into a gallery and spend $200,000 on a work for her collection is radically new,” Vielmetter says. “Thirty or 40 years ago, female collectors were either married to wealthy men or inherited money from their dads. The notion that you could be a wealthy CEO and have enough dough to spend on art was unimaginable.”
This is beginning to create subtle shifts in the dynamic. “I have had more collectors telling me they are only collecting women artists than ever before,” says Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels, a director at Jack Shainman Gallery. “It’s only three or four instances, so not exactly a wave, but five or eight years ago I would never had heard of people actively trying to build collections just with women artists—and in some instances women of color.”
There are also signs that the market value for work by women will continue to grow significantly in the near future. Recent data commissioned by In Other Words from Sotheby’s Mei Moses index, which tracks the art market through repeat sales of objects at auction, reveals that work by women is outperforming that by men when it returns to the auction block. According to the findings, prices for female artists’ work that sold at auction more than once over the past six years increased by 72.9%, compared to a much more modest 8.3% for repeat sales by male artists.
This marks a change from the previous 50 years, when resale markets for both performed roughly in parallel (albeit at different volumes). The findings show deepening auction traction for work by women, especially those who have received some commercial validation in the past. But, as Amy Cappellazzo, AAP co-founder and chairman of Sotheby’s Fine Arts Division, says, “It would be much better for female artists to trend at 9% and have many more artists in that trending pool.”
Like any overlooked area of the market, art by women represents an opportunity. “Our research suggests that you can get high-quality art at a bargain price,” says William Goetzmann, a finance professor at the Yale School of Management. “Now is a great time to be rebalancing your collection.”
In recent years, the art world has witnessed an “incredible herding around a few female artists because collectors and museums have been very conservative, playing follow-the-leader as if it is a big popularity contest”, Goetzmann says. But he believes that some enterprising players are bound to break the mold soon: “And then there is going to be a gold rush because some wonderful art and phenomenal artists have been neglected.”
None of this is likely to happen, however, until more equity is given to women (or taken by them). Asked whether she feels women have more seats at the table today than they did a decade ago, Dennison laughs: “Not the tables I’m sitting at.” The fundamental balance of power has yet to radically shift. As Vielmetter points out: “You can have moral conversations about the market but first of all we need to be able to sit at the big table with the big guys and eat that cake too. Then we can talk about what we want to do next.”
Only 11% of the art acquired by America’s top museums over the past decade was work made by women. And acquisitions have actually declined since 2009, according to a major new study “Women’s Place in the Art World: Why Recent Advancements for Female Artists Are Largely an Illusion ” produced by In Other Words and artnet News.
The report found that there has been no progress in museum acquisitions, and that just 14% of exhibitions were of work by female artists.
The auction market for work by women doubled, but still only represents 2% of the global total—with just five female artists (Yayoi Kusama, Joan Mitchell, Louise Bourgeois, Georgia O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin) accounting for 40.7% of that total.
Discussing the report with host Charlotte Burns are guests Julia Halperin (executive editor, artnet News), Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels (director, Jack Shainman Gallery) and William N. Goetzmann (professor and faculty director of the International Center for Finance, Yale School of Management).
To hear more, tune in today.
Our new research reveals just how little art by women is being collected and exhibited by museums. But some institutions are beginning to address the problem—and starting to find solutions. Here are four case studies.
The pioneer: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
In recent years, institutions including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Baltimore Museum have made headlines by selling off the work of canonized white men to raise money to diversify their collections. But few are aware that another museum quietly undertook a similar project way back in 2013.
Now, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts serves as a case study for how such moves can create permanent and profound change within an institution.
PAFA’s decision to auction Edward Hopper’s East Wind Over Weehawken (1934) at Christie’s for $40.5m was deemed controversial at the time. But the museum and art school has gone on to use the proceeds from that sale to consistently acquire significantly more works by female artists each year than institutions with far larger budgets, such as the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Dallas Museum of Art. (Recent additions to PAFA’s collection include works by Mary Cassatt, Rina Banerjee and Pat Steir.) The museum has also acquired more works by artists of color than almost any other institution we examined in our 2018 study about the representation of African American artists.
“We are telling a very comprehensive story about American art here, and women and artists of color play right into it—there are no outliers here,” the museum’s director Brooke Davis Anderson says.
The institution’s previous director, Harry Philbrick, who initiated the diversification project before Anderson took over in 2017, strongly believed that inclusion was a core part of the museum’s mission and machinery—an emphasis Anderson has sustained. She notes that PAFA was employing female faculty and showing the work of women before 1920, the year white women earned the right to vote. “We are just doing something that needs to be happening more,” Anderson says. “It is long overdue and should just be the course of museums in general.”
Currently, the museum’s exhibition schedule is not as equitable as its acquisitions record: just 9% of its shows over the past decade have been of work by women. But Anderson has a five-year plan to tip the scales: its program will present women artists (including the first major retrospective of Joan Semmel in 2021) in 75% of its exhibitions through 2024, while artists of color will be the focus of 50% percent of the exhibitions in that same period.
The institutional commitment to broadening the collection signaled by the board in selling the Hopper was “one reason I was interested in this job”, she says. “The resources from the Hopper sale enabled us to up our game—which we have really done.”
The risk-taker: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
When the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York set out to present an exhibition of work by a little-known Swedish mystic painter named Hilma af Klint last year, its leadership feared it would be a flop.
“I thought people would be unhappy that they weren’t coming to a Klimt show, they wouldn’t be able to pronounce Hilma, they wouldn’t care,” says the Guggenheim’s director Richard Armstrong. Instead, the show attracted more than 600,000 people, becoming the museum’s best-ever attended show. It also drew the youngest audience of any exhibition since the museum started to measure visitor demographics.
The show was a moneymaker in more ways than one. During its run, the Guggenheim saw a 34% increase in membership; af Klint-themed products accounted for more than 40% of sales at the museum store; and the catalogue sold more than 30,000 copies, a new record.
The success of the show defied traditional wisdom about what people want to see. This was, after all, a show of an unknown, foreign, female artist whose work is unsupported by the market. In her will, (she died in 1944), af Klint insisted that her huge body of abstract works should be kept secret for 20 years, and that none of the works should ever be sold separately.
But what the show did offer was a sense of genuine discovery. Contrary to what the history books have told us, af Klint could be considered the first great abstract painter, pre-dating Kandinsky—which calls into question the centrality of long-repeated myths surrounding male artistic genius.
The exhibition is an instance of institutional bravery—and the decision to take a risk on an unlikely artist paid off. “We would have done that exhibition if 45 people came,” Armstrong says. He notes that the museum’s board supported the show, despite him telling them to brace for failure, because the exhibition “needed to be done and we could do it deeper and more thoroughly than anyone else”.
Ultimately, “the indices of progress are in the hands of the curators”, Armstrong says. “They are the drivers towards the future and they have to be powerful people who are conscious of these kinds of inequities.”
The Guggenheim’s artistic director and chief curator Nancy Spector says the museum has been doing “a lot of reflection” about the fact that its program and collection have “not always been as diverse as it they should have been”. The institution looked back on its collection and realized there were “enormous gaps”, she says. “We set benchmarks for ourselves in terms of where we want to go—and our program looks very different right now. We are proud of it and want to continue on that trajectory.”
The Guggenheim museum’s data shows a consistent focus over the past ten years, during which 40% of its acquisitions have been of works by women. “It just feels natural at this point,” Spector says. “And it is about excellence more than anything else.”
The museum’s exhibition schedule for the next two years is almost entirely focused on female artists, including Gego, Sarah Sze, Joan Mitchell, Gillian Wearing and Taryn Simon. “We didn’t set out to do two years of shows by women,” Spector says. “But these were the best projects rising to the top.”
The historian: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Encyclopedic museums that cover thousands of years of history tend to lag behind their Modern and contemporary counterparts when it comes to gender parity—which, considering how few female artists most of us were taught about in art history classes, is not necessarily surprising.
But one museum is bucking the trend and outpacing some of the largest Modern and contemporary museums in America. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art—which collects art from antiquity to the present—has been increasingly focused on bringing more gender parity to its permanent collection. Works by women represent 16% of its acquisitions between 2008 and 2018—4% more than the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and 7% less than the Museum of Modern Art in New York over the same period.
The findings suggest that the most important factor in creating change is sheer commitment to the cause. While Lacma’s numbers still fall woefully short of parity, they put the museum ahead of other major encyclopedic museums, such as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, whose acquisitions over the past decade included just 4% of works by women.
The findings also suggest the importance of local context. The Northeast—which includes New York and Boston—was the worst performing region we examined, acquiring just 8% work by women artists over the past decade. Meanwhile, the four institutions we surveyed in Southern California—the Getty (12%), Lacma (16%), LA MoCA (23%), and the Hammer (26%)—performed well above the national average and demonstrated a degree of consistency in their commitment year-over-year.
Some suggest the region—and Los Angeles in particular—might be better positioned to present narratives that challenge the status quo because they were established later, have patrons who started collecting later, and for a long time operated outside the glare of the art market.
Michael Govan, Lacma’s director, says change is most evident when “you look at what the curators are presenting for acquisition versus the gifts we get”. He notes that 70% of the contemporary works curators have proposed for acquisition over the past five years were by female artists. “That’s pretty dramatic if you think about what younger curators are interested in right now,” he says.
Meanwhile, around 35% of the historical works presented by curators for acquisition over the past five years were made by women, including The Education of the Virgin by Luisa Roldán, the most significant female sculptor of 17th-century Spain; Lavinia Fontana’s The Holy Family with Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1581); Julia Jackson by Julia Margaret Cameron (1868) and Butterflies and Poem by Ōtagaki Rengetsu (1869)—all of which are now in the museum’s collection.
One of the challenges for encyclopedic institutions is identifying the gender of the often-unknown creators of historical objects, which means Lacma’s figures may actually be higher in some departments than the recorded numbers, says a spokeswoman. She notes that this issue is particularly likely in textiles and costumes, art of the ancient Americas, South and Southeast Asian art, and Middle Eastern art.
“We have a long way to go to parity—and, yes, it is shocking we are not there in almost the year 2020, and we need to understand why that is,” Govan says. “But I have hope. The curators are pitching huge numbers of women artists. From where I sit, I can see a huge change.”
The transformer: Dia Art Foundation
Since its founding in 1974 the Dia Art Foundation has played a central role in shaping our understanding of what the boundary-breaking art of the 1960s and 1970s looks like: mostly big, male and macho.
More recently, it has emerged as a powerful force in reshaping that history by focusing on work by artists active during that period whose contributions have largely been overlooked.
Most of these artists were women. Over the past four years Dia has added work by Michelle Stuart, Mary Corse, Dorothea Rockburne and Anne Truitt to the collection, as well as a massive trove of 156 works by little-known German Minimalist sculptor Charlotte Posenenske. In 2018, Dia also acquired Sun Tunnels (1973-76) by Nancy Holt, a sculpture comprising four 18ft-long concrete cylinders in Utah’s Great Basin Desert. It is the first work of land art by a woman to enter its collection.
Dia’s push to expand the canon is largely due to the determination of director Jessica Morgan, who joined the institution in 2015 from Tate Modern in London. Dia had acquired just 11 works by women in the seven years before she arrived. That number shot up to 177 in the four years since, putting Dia’s overall rate of acquisitions over the past decade at 57% work by women, the second highest of all the museums we examined (after the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts).
For Morgan, the mission to expand the canon is not only about creating a richer understanding of history—it’s also a way to keep audiences engaged with a period they might otherwise dismiss as a known quantity. “This doesn’t in any way undermine the institution’s collection,” she says. “It is reinvigorating a moment in time, rather than saying, ‘The 1960s: done, we know it’.”
Defying the pervasive logic that it is harder to find financial support for less mainstream projects, Morgan has raised $78m towards an infrastructural overhaul and growth of the foundation’s endowment by focusing on the distinctiveness of her program.
“There is a sense that if you program certain artists then the money will come, and that may be true,” she recently told In Other Words. “But it’s also true that if you run a different kind of organization, the money will also come.”
While some of Morgan’s peers bristle at the idea of instituting quotas for acquisitions, fearing that it will unnecessarily constrain curators’ freedom, she is an advocate for such an approach. “Personally, I do believe in quotas,” she says. “If change is not happening, then set yourself some goals.”
In Other Insights
In Other Insights
Curator Nikki Columbus made headlines last year when she sued MoMA PS1 for discrimination after the museum’s leadership allegedly rescinded a job offer upon learning that she had recently had a baby. Although the case was ultimately settled out of court this March, it brought attention to an often overlooked bias in the art industry—against pregnant women and new mothers.
Some say the discrimination they experience is outright; others say it is more insidious, woven into the fabric of workplaces built under patriarchal conditions that often fail to value men as fathers and mothers as workers.
Despite study after study showing that substantial maternity leave is good for both businesses and women alike, many companies—both within and outside the art world—continue to operate as if less is more. In America today, only 18% of working mothers receive paid maternity leave, according to a National Compensation Survey last year. And while mothers lose 4% of their hourly wages for every child they have, fathers of the same age and job status see their wages rise by 6%, according to a 2014 study from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Quietly, many parents are starting
to ask themselves the true cost
These problems are amplified in the art industry, which is largely composed of nonprofits and small, private businesses which lack human resources departments, and of artists and freelancers (curators, writers, studio assistants) who may receive no benefits at all. While the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 gave all employees the right to take up to 12 weeks unpaid, it is not enforceable for employers with fewer than 50 staff members—which accounts for most art businesses and organizations.
And yet, despite its lack of security, the art industry remains competitive, with no shortage of workers who are highly educated, willing to travel and to keep up with a demanding calendar of evening events. Quietly, though, many parents are starting to ask themselves the true cost.
Researchers note that there are business incentives to offer paid leave and other accommodations to new parents. Studies show that women who receive maternity leave are 93% more likely to return to work within a year than those who do not. Turnover rates also plummet when companies offer more generous leave packages.
When Google increased its parental leave allowance from 12 weeks to 18 weeks, for example, it cut by half the rate at which new mothers quit. “When we eventually did the math, it turned out this program cost nothing,” says Laszlo Bock, Google’s former senior vice president of people operations in his 2015 book Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live. “The cost of having a mom out of the office for an extra couple of months was more than offset by the value of retaining her expertise and avoiding the cost of finding and training a new hire.”
But there are few Googles in the art world. Many larger organizations, such as museums, do have clear parental leave guidelines in place, but the policies vary widely. Benefits also depend on where the business is located, since the rules in London are very different from those in New York or Los Angeles.
The onus is on women to
figure it out for themselves
The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, for example, has the most robust policy of the museums we surveyed, with up to 28 weeks of unpaid leave for mothers and up to 12 weeks for fathers, who can both apply for reimbursement of their full wages from the state.
New Yorkers now have added benefits provided by the New York State Paid Family Leave Act, which took effect on January 1 and applies to private employers of any size. The law requires employers to give new parents 10 weeks of paid family leave at 55% of their average weekly wage.
At the Whitney, new parents receive four weeks of paid parental leave at 100% of their salaries, plus an additional six weeks of paid medical leave. “The Whitney is dedicated to providing opportunities for staff to spend time with their families and loved ones, particularly during critical periods such as the arrival of a new child,” the museum says in a statement. Nonetheless, these policies are meagre compared to those mandated in almost every other developed nation: the time off tallies less than the first three months of a child’s life.
The situation is even worse for the many art workers employed by small and mid-size galleries that often make up policies as they go, usually not considering the policy until there is a need. “Maternity leave policy in galleries seems to be uncharted territory for the most part—it’s almost like you have to cross your fingers and hope the gallery is sympathetic,” says Elisabeth Sann, a director at Jack Shainman Gallery. Her employer, Jack Shainman, did not need to create a maternity policy until she got pregnant, she says. In the end, the gallery gave her 12 weeks of paid leave and she used an additional three weeks of sick days and vacation time.
For gallery owners, the situation is tricky. New York gallery owner Rachel Uffner resumed working almost immediately after her child’s birth: “I make all the decisions and content for the gallery so something like taking a strict maternity leave would never be possible,” she says. Nonetheless, as business owner, she has more freedom now: “My working hours are flexible.”
Sean Kelly, too, gave one employee who recently gave birth—his daughter, Lauren—three months fully paid leave, which she considered generous. “Sean is British so he strongly believes in a more European approach to maternity leave (as well a healthcare coverage and retirement plans),” she says. Still, the time off lags far behind European counterparts (in the UK, new mothers are entitled by law to return to their job after a full year off work if they choose; not all of this time is paid).
We are an industry of vampires
In other countries, new parents do not have to negotiate with their employers, which is a considerably less problematic and stressful arrangement. Many in the US art world feel at the behest of their bosses. Holly Shen, who is now the deputy director of the San Jose Museum of Art, received 12 weeks of unpaid leave from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where she served as director of visual arts from 2013 to 2018. She recalls feeling “more or less pressured into being on-call by phone during my maternity leave—a request that in some roles or positions is appropriate but that in hindsight felt a bit exploitative”.
By the time she had her second child, in 2017, she had more seniority, and BAM, which had undergone a change in leadership, gave her fully paid leave. Nevertheless, she said, “the onus is still on women to figure it out for themselves”. Shen notes that her current employer offers no paid leave for new parents. “It’s painful to be in a leadership position and not see any clear path to achieving this,” she says.
The art world simply feels inhospitable to people with families, many say. “We are an industry of vampires because so much of the ‘real’ business happens at night or when you are out of the city on business trips,” says art publicist Tiana Webb Evans, a mother of three.
This can put all parents at a professional disadvantage, with women often disproportionately bearing the burden. “I get incredibly jealous of my male counterpart artists who seem like they can roam forever out into the world because they have a wife at home to take care of the child,” says artist Catherine Opie. She has a son and step-daughter with her wife, the artist Julie Burleigh, and says they share parenting responsibilities 50/50. “It’s not about money, it’s about parenting, and what it is to be a parent is to be present.”
Women who do strive to maintain a public presence often find that the system doesn’t support them. Elisabeth Sann attended last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach the week after she returned from maternity leave. “Looking back on it, it sounds nuts that I went down there, but I think it forced me to get back into the right frame of mind,” she says. “I may miss out on opportunities because I’m not out there as much as I used to be.”
It was during that fair that Sann realized she would have to stop breast-feeding—the process was too difficult on the road. “I had tried to call the convention center to see if they had dedicated pumping rooms and couldn’t get an answer, so I would have had to lug the pump and a cooler with ice packs to the fair, probably leave it at the coat check because we don’t build our booths with closets, hope that the bathrooms had an electrical outlet, and then somehow carve out three 20-minute breaks during a fair at which I normally don’t even have the time to eat or go to the bathroom,” she recalls. “Plus, the day extends far beyond fair opening hours. You have breakfast meetings, dinners, parties—you’re out of your hotel room for 18-hour stretches.”
There’s not as much flexibility as people might think
Pumping—when to do it and where—was among the most common grievances women interviewed for this story expressed. Those who have not personally breast-fed may have no idea, for example, that it can take hours each day, that it must be done at set intervals, that it can be noisy and messy, and that bathrooms are never acceptable places for a woman to pump or breastfeed.
“I wish I had more information or resources about nursing or support for pumping while working,” says Shen, who felt “resentment and annoyance” from colleagues when she needed to take time to pump.
“I don’t think everybody realizes that when people come back from maternity leave, yes they’re back, but they’re also pumping,” says Whitney Museum curator Rujeko Hockley, who gave birth to her son in February in the midst of curating the 2019 Whitney Biennial. “That has to be part of the way companies look at family policies. The times you pump are set. It’s your internal body schedule, based on when you fed your baby last. There’s actually not as much flexibility as people might think. I actually can’t go any time.”
That’s why Hockley and other new mothers working at the Whitney have created an Outlook calendar to coordinate meetings around their pumping schedules. The museum also has a dedicated lactation room with a sink and a refrigerator. “I know people in the art world who’ve said, ‘I pumped in the broom closet, or the bathroom’, which is not hygienic,” Hockley says.
That would be illegal nowadays in New York City, which passed a law in 2018 requiring all businesses with four or more employees to provide a room devoted solely to breastfeeding and pumping, and to allow employees the time needed to do so. But most states and cities do not mandate a lactation-only room in workplaces. Federal US law only requires employers to provide a private space that is not a bathroom, which could mean a manager’s office, an area behind a screen, a supply room or even a tent.
Artists, who often receive few or no parenting or healthcare benefits, are among the most vulnerable workers in the industry. In the wake of having children, many report grueling schedules, taking on side jobs that provide a more stable income, and losing time to make art.
“I found it isolating, and the conflict between my son’s needs and my need to work was intense, especially in the early years,” says artist Moyra Davey, who edited the 2001 collection of essays, Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood. Davey started reading the essays that would later appear in the book after giving birth to her first baby in an effort “to break the isolation, for inspiration to keep going and to do better, for the gratification of seeing my own experience so vividly mirrored”, she says in the book’s introduction.
Because artists often do not work a traditional nine-to-five they also tend to compromise when parenting needs arise. “When my children were very young, I would stay home and watch them in the day, working late into the evenings,” says artist Nicholas Galanin, who has six children. “It was a challenge and I ended up often working through dinner until 2am, waking at 7am to watch them.”
Even the most successful artists describe making career sacrifices to mitigate fears of financial insecurity. “I didn’t want to rely on the art market to make sure I could provide for my family,” Opie says. For that reason she has been teaching for three decades, first as an adjunct and now as a tenured professor at UCLA. “Teaching was always my way to being a parent because if it didn’t work out through the art world, then I always had a job with health insurance,” she says.
Now, to help ease the burden on other working mothers, Opie has instituted a kind of bring-your-baby-to-studio policy for her own assistants who have young children. “I knew from being a mom how hard it is just to completely go back to work and turn your baby over to daycare,” she says. That’s why she built a diaper-changing area and a baby-friendly zone in her studio for assistants to bring babies that are up to six months old. “It’s worked out great,” she says.
I stopped telling anyone I was a mother
No matter how workers in the art world might creatively balance their families and careers, sometimes the barriers are beyond their control, and pregnancy discrimination remains a serious problem.
Sann recounts seeing first-hand at previous gallery jobs “how pregnant women or mothers were pushed aside or looked over for opportunities. I once heard a gallery owner make a remark to a pregnant woman about how much she was eating, implying she was starting to look a little fat.”
Both federal and state laws in the United States forbid discrimination against pregnant people, and the New York City Human Rights Law singles out caregivers as a protected group as well. (This is not the norm for caregivers in most states, however, including California.) Job-seekers in the US are also not obligated to disclose their pregnancy to would-be employers, which could lead to discriminatory hiring decisions.
That’s a lesson Shen earned the hard way. “I was interviewing for a gallery job and when I disclosed I had a small infant at home I could instantly see that the gallerist did not want to hire someone who had to worry about childcare,” she says. “I think the statement was something to the effect of ‘Well, this job requires a lot of flexibility in the evenings, which could be difficult for you’. After that, for a long time I stopped telling anyone in the profession that I was a mother.”
Shen’s account is strikingly similar to Columbus’s allegations against MoMA PS1 last year. In her lawsuit, Columbus said the museum offered her a job as associate curator of performance and that, during the final negotiations over pay and start date, she revealed that she had recently had a baby. The museum’s chief curator Peter Eleey told her, according to her complaint, “Why didn’t you tell me this two months ago?”
A few days later, the museum’s chief operating officer, Jose Ortiz, wrote to her: “We are sorry that we are unable to tailor the position on the terms you have proposed.”
Columbus says she is still experiencing fallout from the incident. “When MoMA PS1 discriminated against me, I wasn’t just left without a job, but an entire career path,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of performance curator positions in New York, and they’re generally either too entry-level or require more experience.”
I wasn’t just left without a job,
but an entire career path
As part of the terms of her settlement earlier this year, she says that the museum “had to commit to critical anti-discrimination guidelines and training as well as other policy changes”.
In a statement, a spokesperson for MoMA PS1 says the museum always complies with the law and has not made any changes as a result of the settlement: “MoMA PS1 is committed to a work environment in which all applicants and employees are treated with respect and dignity. We have not, and will not, discriminate in hiring or promotion based on pregnancy, caregiver status, or gender—or any other characteristic protected under the law. Our practices and policies have been at all times compliant with the law. No changes were made to our practices as a result of the settlement.”
The spokesperson did not respond when asked to clarify the discrepancy between the museum’s and Columbus’s versions of the settlement terms. Columbus maintains that she settled “precisely because MoMA PS1 agreed to finally put in place policies that would protect its employees. Whatever MoMA PS1 might claim its practices were, it did not, in fact, have anything written down that would inform employees of their legal rights.”
Today, Columbus is still looking for a job. “I’m not exactly an unknown quantity—I’ve worked as an editor for 20 years, and I think the news has spread that I need a job,” she says. “But only one person in the New York art world has approached me about a position.”
UPDATE, 24 September 2019: After this article was published Nikki Columbus sent an excerpt from her settlement with PS1 indicating that the museum did, in fact, agree to make changes to its anti-discrimination policies as a result of her lawsuit. We have contacted the museum for additional comment. The document reads:
“MoMA PS1 agrees that it will revise certain of its policies. These revisions shall include (i) MoMA PS1’s antidiscrimination policies to which it will add the term “applicant” (if it is not already included) and (ii) changes and revision to MoMA PS1’s Policies and Procedures Manual in electronic and hard copy form consistent with the policy revisions that the Parties agreed to during the mediation on February 5-6, 2019. The following policies, which were memorialized in writing during the pendency of this action, will be included in MoMA PS1’s Policies and Procedures Manual: Disability Accommodation Policy, Equal Employment Opportunity Policy (including the Caregiver Discrimination Policy), New York Paid Family Leave Law Policy, Nursing Mothers Policy, Pregnancy Accommodation Policy, Safe and Sick Leave Act Policy, and Family Medical Leave Act Policy. MoMA PS1 agrees to distribute to its employees updated electronic and hard copies of its Policies and Procedures Manual for which MoMA PS1 will solicit employee receipt acknowledgements. MoMA PS1 will also make a copy of its Policies and Procedures Manual available in its break room. Further, MoMA PS1 shall conduct annual training on discrimination and harassment using a qualified trainer of its choice in compliance with New York State and New York City Human Rights Laws.
In Allan's Intro
In Other Words, in collaboration with artnet News, recently published an extensive, landmark study about how the attention of museums and the art market on the work of women artists has changed in recent years—or, as became resoundingly clear from the studies conducted by Charlotte Burns, Julia Halperin and Julia Vennitti—has not changed, despite the extensive lip service paid recently to museums redressing this imbalance in their programming and collecting.
Equal rights have become a false truism in the art world, despite reverse claims that the white male artist has become an endangered species recently.
What was most enlightening for me about the study was how stunned the field was that nothing much has changed in decades. The articles caught on like wildfire. The New York Times published an extensive story based on Charlotte’s and Julia’s analyses, as did numerous other publications across the spectrum, from art to business to general news.
The only people not surprised were women artists
The study sparked lots of conversations on social media while museum directors and curators of different generations (as well as other art journalists) reached out to Charlotte and Julia to express their shock and dismay, many of them leaders in the field and at the forefront of re-examining the history of the art of the past 50 years, with a strong gaze on the art of women.
They thought that progress had been made, that work by female artists has been seen, heard and embraced. Instead, they were shocked by even their own museums’ statistics. The only people not surprised by dismal and flat results were women artists, which makes sense. The most silent population, sadly, was men—few male directors, curators or dealers responded (and most of the few who did sought to slam the data).
When I mentioned to Charlotte that I wanted to write an intro about their study for this issue, she suggested I focus on what I found surprising in it. After thinking about it for a week, I have to say: nothing. Even though I was shocked, the grim facts are not surprising. Sad for me, especially, since my mentors—Linda Nochlin and Marcia Tucker chief amongst them—were all women, art historians whose focus on the work of women changed the course of art history (which says a lot about the value of art-critical thinking to the market today, as we have addressed in another recent issue).
I could look at this from a political perspective and say that the first wave of feminist artists were too radical in their work to gain mainstream acceptance at the time—even though Louise Bourgeois or Nancy Spero’s markets didn’t take longer to kick in than Lawrence Weiner’s or Gordon Matta-Clark’s.
Or I could talk about how the next generation of women artists, such as Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, and Jenny Holzer, intentionally, politically, and morally chose to not work in the medium of male mastery (and market sanctification)—painting.
(It is worth adding that the market for male artists who worked in the realms of photography and appropriation, such as Richard Prince, were at the back of the bus until they made paintings.)
But the argument falls apart thereafter. Or maybe it becomes more textured, more driven by strong primary-market activity, and by the increasingly speculative nature of the market for artists of the last decade or two, which is resulting in increasingly wobbly moments lately. And maybe even more for male artists than female artists, though that is a study for another day.
As I said in one of the study’s articles, the work of women artists whose identities burst into maturity in the late 1960s and early 1970s changed the course of art history; indeed, the whole language of contemporary art. Before the women’s movement contemporary art couldn’t be psychologically vulnerable, personal, diaristic, tender, self-revealing, small, fragile, colorful, eccentric, handmade. But ever since, most valued contemporary art is many of these things. So women’s work changed everything in the work of nearly everyone, but it didn’t change the market.
Am I surprised? No. I don’t think that’s what so many of the most significant women artists of the past half a century regarded as their highest value.
But history does have ways of correcting itself. And at a certain point, historical value and financial value more closely align. And when they don’t, markets suffer and collapse.
We gathered and examined data from 26 museums across the United States for the ten-year period between 1 January 2008 and 31 December 2018. We looked at the total number of works that entered the museums’ permanent collections and, within that, the total number of works by female artists (we included both purchases and donations of art but excluded promised gifts). We also counted solo exhibitions dedicated to the work of female artists and thematic group exhibitions featuring mostly work by female artists (51% or more).
We have more than ten years’ worth of acquisition and exhibition data for 25 museums, and eight years’ worth for one (the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, which opened in 2011).
We defined female as any artist who identifies herself as a woman. Artists who are nonbinary and do not self-identify as female were not included. We counted collectives or companies whose founding members were majority female as well as work designed by women but not necessarily manufactured by them. Unnamed or unknown artists who the museums believe are very likely to have been women were included in our study.
The vast majority of the information was provided by the institutions themselves and verified by our research team. This means the data reflects each museum’s distinct record-keeping practices. Some, for example, record print or photography portfolios as one object, while others count each individual page in the portfolio as a separate acquisition. In select cases where museums were unable to provide a full data set, we gathered the data manually (as was the case for the Museum of Modern Art).
We deliberately sought a mix of institutions in terms of their budget, focus, attendance, and location. The museums we examined are, in alphabetical order: the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Brooklyn Museum; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas; the Dallas Museum of Art; the Dia Art Foundation, New York; the Getty Center, Los Angeles; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Seattle Art Museum; the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC; the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
To better understand how these works entered into museums’ collections, we also gathered data from 17 of the participating museums about what proportion were gifts (53%) or purchases (21%). (The remainder was unknown, either because the museums were unclear or did not provide the data.)
To provide insight into the private market, we calculated the proportion of female artists represented at the Art Basel fairs in Basel, Hong Kong and Miami, checking lists of artists on the fair’s website (2015-2018) against our master list of more than 21,000 female artists’ names.
The museum data collection was overseen by Charlotte Burns. The process was executed by Julia Vennitti, and analysis performed by Maggie Jordan and Michael Klein, with data entry assistance from Madeline Barnabee. Resales were tracked and analyzed by Sotheby’s Mei Moses. Gallery data and art fair statistics were gathered by Charlotte Burns and Julia Vennitti.
The auction market data collection was overseen by Julia Halperin and Michaela Ben Yehuda and was provided by the artnet Price Database. It reflects auction results from more than 400 auction houses worldwide between 1 January 2008 and 1 June 2019. All sales prices are adjusted to include the buyer’s premium. Price data from previous years has not been adjusted for inflation. All results are logged in the currency native to the auction house where the sale took place, then converted to US dollars based on the exchange rate on the day of the sale.
Data visualizations were created by Beatriz Lozano.
We gathered data across a three-month period beginning in February 2019, and then spent four months interviewing more than 40 people—a mix of museum directors and curators, collectors, dealers, advisors, and academics—to document their reactions, insights, and context.
Art Agency, Partners is a bespoke art advisory firm founded in 2014, and built upon decades of combined experience, to provide counsel to many of the world's leading art collectors and institutions on collection assessment and development, estate planning, and innovative approaches to museum giving and growth.