Women joining the boys’ club

Female artists are at last getting their fair share of exhibitions, but the market is failing to catch up

Michael Prodger

When Frances Morris became the first female director of Tate Modern in 2016, she stated that she saw a vital part of her brief as bringing more women artists to public attention. The art world, she said, was “a boys’ club” with a “bias”—unconscious but institutional—against female artists. She had already championed the likes of Louise Bourgeois, Agnes Martin and Yayoi Kusama and she set about broadening the canon with alacrity. Morris’s task was made easier with the appointment of another woman, Maria Balshaw, as Nicholas Serota’s replacement as Tate supremo.

Morris was not the sole originator of this trend, but she was its most explicit voice. Her campaign has been effective and in the last few years single shows of female artists have become the norm. In 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe received top billing at Tate Modern. Last year it was Joan Jonas and Anni Albers, while elsewhere, Jenny Saville, Frida Kahlo and Tacita Dean were among other women honoured. This year, beside the Tate shows of Dorothea Tanning, Natalia Goncharova and Dora Maar, there are major exhibitions featuring Lee Krasner—the Abstract Expressionist who is better known as Mrs Jackson Pollock (Barbican); the role-playing photographer Cindy Sherman (National Portrait Gallery); the Op Art doyenne Bridget Riley (Hayward Gallery); and the sinister tableaux of Paula Rego (Milton Keynes). Next year, one of the highlight London exhibitions will be the National Gallery’s Artemesia Gentileschi show.

A readjustment was overdue. For obvious reasons, the numbers of significant pre-19th-century female painters is vanishingly small: there were early practitioners such as Plautina Nelli (1524-1588), who had a major show at the Ufizzi in 2017, Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625), and Clara Peeters (1594-c1657), subject of the first solo exhibition of a female artist at the Prado in 2016, but they hardly represent the Renaissance’s finest flowering. Despite the 20th-century upswing in both numbers and quality, female artists are still far from achieving parity in the national collections. Even with Morris’s advocacy, only 37 per cent of the works on show at Tate Modern are by women. The National Gallery owns  2,300 pictures, of which only 24 are by women, while at the National Gallery of Scotland, women represent a little over 4 per cent of the total number shown. Across Europe and the United States as a whole, women artists account for just 3-5 per cent of important permanent collections. This comes some 50 years after the pioneering feminist art historian Linda Nochlin stirred up the whole debate about gender representation with her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

What ultimately stands in the way of wider acceptance of women artists is not the art institutions that have long been aware of the problem, but the market. Morris wishes the link between art and the market undone: “We really have to stop celebrating creativity depending on how it’s monetised.” A laudable aim, but an entirely unrealistic one. And it just so happens that the market values female artists at only a fraction of the men. A 2017 report by the University of Luxembourg found that works by women fetched an average of 47.6 per cent of those by men. Using the data compiled from 1.5 million auction transactions between 1970 and 2013 for 62,442 artists in 45 countries, it discovered the average transaction price for men was $48,212 while for women it was only $25,262.

There are 22 artists whose work has sold for more than $100 million and all are male. The most expensive work by a female artist doesn’t even get within touching distance—Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1 by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) which sold for $44.4 million in 2014. This price in turn is way ahead of the next most expensive work by a female artist, $32 million for one of Louise Bourgeois’s Spider sculptures. Indeed, the combined total for the 10 most expensive female works is $165.7 million: in 2013 one of Picasso’s 1932 pictures of his young mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter sleeping, Le Rêve, sold for $166.7 million and 14 other individual works by men have sold for more.

To put this gap in a museum context, last year’s Tate Modern exhibition Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy, which featured Le Rêve, attracted 521,080 visitors while a concurrent exhibition of the American artist Joan Jonas brought in just 47,876. This discrepancy was obviously only partly to do with gender, but women barely registed in the 2018’s most popular exhibitions worldwide. Frida Kahlo’s clothes and knick-knacks at the V&A was London’s most popular female (and sole ranking) show, coming in fourth among ticketed exhibitions with 284,000 visitors, but no women appeared among the top 10 exhibitions in either New York or Paris. Indeed, the only major category of show that featured more than one woman was photography, where Lizzie Sadin at the Saatchi Gallery was the seventh most visited photography show (250,000 visitors) and Susan Meiselas at San Francisco MoMA was fifth-ranked (283,000 visitors).

It is often posited that because male buyers drive the art market and because they instinctively prefer male artists, women artists therefore underperform in sales terms. It is a supposition given weight by a recent survey which presented 2,000 respondents with computer-generated artworks that had been assigned a male or female creator: those “made” by women were ranked lower than those by men. The same gender bias does not apply, however, to gallery-goers.

Frances Morris has stated: “We’re interested in art whose value lies in excellence and provocation and fascination for the public. And, more often than not, that art is made by women.” That “more often than” should be changed to “as often as” since, as things stand, the public’s fascination remains heavily on the side of the men.

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