podcastsponsored by artcritical
Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Girls Just Want To Have FUNDS: What is the problem with gender and the art market?

In January 2013 the Rema Hort Mann Foundation staged its second panel discussion on the enduring disenfranchisement of women in the art market.  The speakers. at an event staged at La Mama Galleria in the East Village,  were Janine Antoni, Jennifer Dalton, Jackie Gendel, Alexandra Grant and Linda Sormin.  Works on display that evening had been donated to the Rema Hort Mann Foundation for its annual fundraiser by invited artists.  artcritical.com – which accepted the honor to serve as media sponsor and podcaster of the event – has in turn invited the foundation’s director, Quang Bao, who moderated the panel, to offer personal and critical background to his decision to convene this discussion in the essay that follows.

Women & the (In)equality of the Art Market: Panelists at La Mama Gallaria, January 15, 2013.  Courtesy of the Rema Hort Mann Foundation
Women & the (In)equality of the Art Market: Panelists at La Mama Gallaria, January 15, 2013. Courtesy of the Rema Hort Mann Foundation


Four years ago, I met a group of five women artists in Brooklyn who held regular gatherings to talk about art exhibitions they had visited in Chelsea.  After many months of such meetings, they realized that they had seen and discussed only works by male artists. They decided to seek out solo exhibitions by women artists, and also count the rosters of various galleries. Their findings showed an astonishing lopsidedness that favored male artists, but it was their individual reactions to dimmer career prospects and difficult future lives as artists that prompted the Foundation to organize a public project about the challenges facing women artists today.

The challenges in 2013 offer no surprises.  There are more women in MFA programs than men, and women occupy key positions in museums, galleries and art institutions worldwide–curator, director, owner. And yet, the ratio of success favors men by 3:1 as defined by awards, exhibition opportunities, critical reviews, museum shows and price points. This also happens to be the ratio in theater and literature. Why people can still talk about sexism in our society and exempt the art world speaks more to art’s escapist capacity and tendency to favor radical thought.

The traditional problem of access isn’t necessarily the root cause, though maybe a look at the very top of art media mastheads, auction houses, silent partnerships in galleries, nonprofit directorships might result in a more sophisticated and real sense of how institutions contribute to this issue. And let’s face it—major institutions hold on to power by slowly adopting change, not by initiating it. They possess deep pockets that allow them at any time to take on sweeping large-scale projects, creating massive trends and future consequences for all of us in the field. And that’s one argument as to why the Foundation should keep talking about this issue –these major institutions still need movements at the grassroots level to prove change, and to feel comfortable initiating it in front of their corporate Board members.

No one seems to question or even care that Mihai Nicodim Gallery, in Los Angeles, has a roster of twelve men and zero women. Similarly, when I asked four women gallerists to talk about gender and their rosters , they all turned me down, not wanting to be known as a gallery that counts boys versus girls. If anyone wants to make a $10,000 donation to the Foundation that would be designated for one grant per year to a woman artist, I will call these four gallerists and ask them if it’s okay to tell a generous, sympathetic donor their names. And let’s see if it’s at all prestigious to win an award dedicated solely based on gender. Mihai is allowed to do what he wants especially since he is supporting some truly talented painters. It is the privilege of anyone who is brave enough, to hang a shingle in the name of art, especially a person who is a painter himself. The art world will not be tolerable if we enforce gender as the criterion for respect, and it doesn’t need any more insincerity or insecurity than it already fosters.

And yet the shingle perpetuates the problem. The art world is now a business. It’s not completely unregulated anymore, even if certain ideals are not (yet) legally enforceable, like gender representation. If the rent on Chelsea’s West 25th Street, in one of the world’s most expensive real estate art districts, is $10,000 a month for 700 square-feet on the ground floor, some decisions make themselves. Selling the art done by a man pays the rent. It’s not bad business, even if it results in fewer women.

When I asked collectors about gender parity, their responses ran along two lines: I have a limited art budget and I don’t care who makes the art as long as I love it; or, if you gave me a choice to sit through a panel about gender and feel bad versus buying art, I think you want me buying art. Fair enough. But the art market is made up of interdependent component parts; a gallery with a roster of 14 artists, 11 of whom are men, is simply going to have fewer available artworks by women for collectors to buy, critics to review and curators to consider.

The times have changed and there’s evident progress, but that does not mean that we should stop questioning the issue. After listening to women artists everywhere, I am beginning to think that if there is an ongoing bias against them, it’s functioning a bit like the weather—everywhere but not specifically anywhere. If a gallerist called us to say she signed a woman artist on to her roster, that’s progress. But no one calls when they sign a guy, so it must still be raining men. And if it’s a drag to talk about this issue at an art event, it’s only because we have lost our compassion, and are now accustomed to the global distance between maker and the object made. If a collector tells yet again a story of how little he paid for the artwork, and how much at which it is valued now, it might be refreshing to hear the story if it was an artwork by a woman –and to hear how the gain in value isn’t likely to qualify the anecdote for cocktail banter at The Standard.

It is important to acknowledge that men support our project goals as well; equity is hard to argue against rationally, even if some women just don’t share our concern. And while it’s irresistible to include male artists in the benefit auction (I am giving these girls your funds, dude), we have committed to printing a catalog of all the donated artworks; including artworks by men would not provide the right snapshot for this project. I am pretty sure that the bottom line result of our auction would merely reinforce the lopsided economics discussed here; why would we enact a micro-version of what is already taking place when what we need is a re-evaluation of what we value in an artwork as well as how that artwork’s value is determined, and by whom?

The five women artists in Brooklyn who started me on this march no longer meet as their lives have expanded. They are all still making art, and only one of them (as of this writing) has gallery representation. Personally, I hate that gallery, but I attended the opening of this one artist because I feel a compelling need to remain a witness. I asked another woman in the group if she might consider designing the catalog for this project. A third had a mini-retrospective of her works at a regional museum recently. I am sure that I will never know if gender is what holds back these artists’ careers.  Maybe painting is dead again, and since all five are basically painters, the times are not favoring them (yawn).  I also recently talked to young women artists who altered their names to make them appear gender-neutral because they felt their gender screened them out of exhibitions and career opportunities. It might seem like folly but the Jane Doe, John Doe experiment that seems to be proving itself continuously (exact same résumés sent for a job with only an evident difference in the name) proves that both women and men seemed programmed to favor men.

We are all handed choices that help to determine the future.  A small nonprofit like ours can only realistically raise the level of awareness in the hopes that, in a moment of your own decision making, you will remember those five women artists in Brooklyn – and do what you can to avoid contributing to their erasure.