Fresh Canvas

Is The Art World Truly Sexist?

Women artists are exhibited less than men, and their works sell for far less money. Can this cultural prejudice finally be tackled head-on?

Eric Thayer/Reuters

In 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin wrote a provocative and now-infamous essay for ArtNews magazine: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

Richard Feigen, the famous gallery owner, had asked her that very question a year earlier, saying he wanted to show more women artists but “couldn’t find any good ones.”

Nochlin grappled with his remarks in an essay that became a seminal piece of feminist writing. It was published in ArtNews alongside response essays from eight influential women artists, including Elaine de Kooning and Louise Nevelson.

Of course there were many “great women artists” in 1971. And there are even more today.

But Nochlin’s question still nags, so much so that ArtNews has constructed its entire June issue around the inequalities facing women artists today.

The centerpiece is a call-to-arms citing grim statistics collated by art curator Maura Reilly on how women are under-represented in the art world: since 2007, 25 percent of solo exhibitions at London’s Tate Modern were of women artists; in 2012 at the Metropolitan Museum, only 4 percent of artists on display were women (fewer than in 1989); and in April 2015, 7 percent of works on view at MoMA were by women.

The numbers are discouraging, but are they also misleading?

Should we hold the Met to the same standards as MoMA, given that the Met’s collection goes back centuries, when cultural mores forbid women from becoming Michelangelos and da Vincis?

There may not be as many Mary Cassats and Berthe Morisots as there are Monets in the Met’s Impressionist wing, but isn’t this partially because Monet contributed more to the movement?

Perhaps history has made us think so, Reilly argues, and it’s time we right the wrongs of history.

“[The Met] doesn’t have all the women Russian avant-garde artists on display who were equally important to their male comrades,” she tells me, adding that “those historical elisions that they perpetuate are part of the problem.”

Reilly is even more critical of MoMA (“they have a Frida Kahlo room as if it’s meant to represent all women artists!”) because the museum has become a paradigm of modernism, she says, mimicked in textbooks and by art history professors. “If women aren’t part of that narrative, how can we insure their future inclusion?”

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It’s not just museums that are shunning women artists—it’s the entire market, from gallerists to collectors and critics.

In her story, Reilly cites a dearth of women artists in blue-chip galleries from a 2015 “report card” by Pussy Galore, the feminist art collective, which mirrors the Guerilla Girls’ 1986 version.

Tony Shafrazi scored lowest on the report with only 5 percent women artists, and Sperone Westwater came in close second at 7 percent, a figure that’s doubly jarring because Westwater is a woman.

Indeed, the last ten years have seen more women take on positions of power in the art world, whether at museums or in galleries.

Reilly reports: “The good news is that, while in 2005 women ran 32 percent of the museums in the United States, they now run 42.6 percent—albeit mainly the ones with the smallest budgets.” (New York’s Met, MoMA and Whitney museums are overseen by men, for example—Thomas P. Campbell, Glenn D. Lowry, and Adam Weinberg respectively.)

Vanity Fair celebrated 14 of the most influential female art dealers in a 2014 feature, “Prima Galleristas.” So why aren’t these ‘galleristas’ taking on more women artists?

“All of them have abysmal records for supporting women,” says Reilly. “They should be called out!”

When contacted by the Daily Beast, Sperone Westwater defended itself in a lawyerly statement, listing the women artists it has “proudly exhibited over the last forty years, including Susan Rothenberg, Kim Dingle, Carla Accardi, Dadamaino, Hanne Darboven, Ahn Duong, Laurie Simmons, Brenda Miller, Hope Atherton, and Eteri Chkadua.”

Mary Boone offered a proper rebuttal to Pussy Galore’s damning 13 percent figure: she emailed a roster of ten shows exhibited at the gallery this past year, five of which featured women artists.

She also noted that the gallery represents feminist artist Judith Bernstein, one of the founding members of the Guerilla Girls.

But it was the gallery’s longtime director, Ron Warren, who gave a refreshingly honest response: “We like to think we don’t choose artists based on gender. And the women artists we do represent are fantastic.”

It’s an entirely fair explanation, even if it implies that contemporary women artists aren’t as “good” or “valuable” as their male counterparts.

It’s true that their works are worth less. As Reilly notes in her piece, the highest price paid at auction for a living woman artist was $7.1 million for a Yayoi Kusama painting; the highest for a man was $58.4 million for a Jeff Koons sculpture.

And in today’s elitist art market, the monetary value of a piece frequently determines its artistic value.

The Cuban-American performance artist Coco Fusco makes this argument in her response to Reilly’s essay, highlighting an important distinction between the art economy and “that of film or literature, where popular demand is extremely important to determining one’s success.”

Not so with the art market. “Works are deemed valuable not by popular choice but by virtue of the decisions of a tiny elite,” she writes, adding grimly but pragmatically that she doesn’t foresee much change in the near future.

How can change happen when the biggest spenders are Russian oligarchs and Wall Street hedge fund managers? It may be a stereotype, but we can assume supporting women artists doesn’t factor high on their list of qualifications for contemporary art collections.

Jamian Juliano-Villani, the 29-year-old painter, writes that the more we call attention to sexism in the art world, “the longer it continues to be an issue.” Her strategy is to keep her head down, “to ignore that shit and keep going forward and make it work in my favor.”

Among older artists, Betty Tompkins feels “appreciated for what I do and what I’ve done, but when I look at the big picture I still see a lot of tokenism.”

Tokenism is a problem for women across industries, whether it’s a token female role in Hollywood or the token woman hired at a male-dominated tech company.

Because feminism is an increasingly popular—and increasingly fraught—issue today, women are often perceived as either undervalued (and underpaid) or overvalued in a token female-filling role. The media is flooded with women’s issues, and some are more deserving of attention than others.

ArtNews editor-in-chief Sarah Douglas was wary that their women’s issue would be perceived as a form of tokenism.

“It gave me pause, but in the end I think it’s important to do these things just to keep the conversation going,” she says. “But that conversation should be substantive and interesting and entertaining.”

Reilly is less wary.

“My theory is that we need women-only exhibitions, museums and galleries because there is no parity, and there’s no excuse for people to say ‘I don’t know any good women artists’ or ‘I can’t include them in shows,’” she says. “Until there’s at least a modicum of equality in representation—galleries, museums, etc.— we still need to have these ‘tokenist’ events.”