New study finds art world still marginalises female artists

Despite perceived signs of progress, a new study has found that only 2% of global art auction spending is on work by female artists.

The art world is simply not the liberal, progressive bastion that it imagines itself to be,” criticised Helen Molesworth, a former chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Artnet News and In Other Words conducted the report over the course of three months. To measure the growth of female representation in art, they looked at 26 art museums and institutions in the US and conducted an analysis of the global art market between 2008 and 2018.

When we set out to do this project, we were excited to track just how much things had changed for female artists,” said Julia Halperin, artnet News executive editor. “So, it was quite disheartening for us to find that the numbers remained so low, and there had been so little measurable change.”

According to the data released on Thursday, gender equity in the art world has stagnated over the past decade with only 11% of art purchased by institutions being female-made.

It’s like Hollywood: when you are in your middle age and female, nobody is interested,” lamented contemporary artist Martha Rosler.

Most of the data was provided by the institutions themselves, which vastly varied in their budget, focus, attendance, and location. Artnet News also documented the reactions of more than 40 people to the disappointing outcome that has sharply challenged any recent assumptions of gender progression.

Renée Adams, Professor of Finance at the University of Oxford, offered an economic commentary on the results: “price gaps between male and female art is higher in countries where there is more gender inequality—which suggests it’s not the quality of the art that matters, it’s discrimination.”

While other interviewees shared their frustration with the lack of change. “I call bullshit on the idea that it takes a while [to see change]. How much more time does it take? If a new generation of art historians and curators have to be resensitized to this then my god, we have amnesia at this point,” said Michelle Millar Fisher, Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

The distribution of focus on female artists is incredibly uneven as well, despite seeing more high-profile solo exhibitions, higher prices at auction and long-overdue recognition for female artists. Within the 2% of global auction spending on female artwork, only five artists make up 40.7% of this figure and Yayoi Kusama accounts for 25% alone.

Reflecting on their surprising findings, Halperin hopes it will initiate greater change by recognising the art world’s current failures. “We can’t solve a problem until we acknowledge it exists, and this project serves as an important reminder that we have a long way to go before we reach parity.”

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