There has never been a time when auction results for art made by women have equaled those of art made by men. This year has seen a reawakening of the discussion of this disparity—of why, and by how much art made by men overshadows that of women at auction. The catalyst was the record-breaking sale of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed, White Flower No. 1, from the collection of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. The painting sold for $44.4 million at Sotheby’s in November, making it the highest price for a painting by a woman ever to sell at auction. In second place, Joan Mitchell’s Untitled (from 1990) trails a long way behind, having sold for $11.9 million in May.
Asked why the O’Keeffe went for so much (its estimate was between $10 million and $15 million) Elizabeth Goldberg, head of American art at Sotheby’s said, “It was the right time for this painting.” The picture had an impressive provenance, and had traveled extensively before going up on the block. Then there were the two other noted pre-war American painters, Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper, contemporaries of O’Keeffe, both of whose work broke personal auction records in 2013, Rockwell with $46 million for Saying Grace (1951) and Hopper with $40.5 million for East Wind Over Weehawken (1934)–-but, as Goldberg pointed out, the O’Keeffe sale was exceptional in that the artist matched the results of her male peers, rather than being dwarfed by them.
In the list of the hundred most expensive art works sold at auction, there is not a single work by a female artist. (In April, Artnet released an ungendered list of most expensive living American artists, topped by Jeff Koons, which featured a single woman, Cady Noland). Between 2008 and 2012, the hundred highest-fetching lots did not include a single female artist. New records for the largest sums for works at auction are reset periodically, sometimes more than once in a year for hotly traded artists. Female artists almost never break these records.
In the 1980s, the Guerilla Girls, and their famous odalisque in a gorilla mask, made this gender disparity into a central conversation in the art world for the first time, at the same moment that the contemporary art boom was laying the groundwork for the today’s inflated art market. The Guerilla Girl’s main method, though, was “weenie counts”—surveys, mostly of public institutions, and how males outranked females, the statistics of which were linked to the undervaluing of work by women on the market. The question today is the same as it was then. What is stopping female artists from being as valuable as men?
Benjamin Godsill, a specialist at Phillips auction house, believes that the market is not necessarily efficient in its pricing—because historically the average collector is male. But that fact, reflective as it is of the general distribution of wealth and power in the larger world, doesn’t go the whole way to explaining the imbalance. Markets, Godsill said, take their cues from curatorial interests, which is why “weenie counts” are relevant to auction results.
“That’s where values are placed,” he said. “In museums, female artists are not nearly as prominent as they ought be.”
Fewer women in the Met means fewer women on the block. Collectors seek importance, eminence, and a dialogue with art history (a narrative which is not necessarily determined by either the artist or the consumer), and auction houses do their marketing based on historical and cultural value, not artistic value. Godsill, however, is “fully expecting that female prices will rise.” Why? Because “people are looking for value, for things that are undervalued and that have been overlooked,” he said.
In 2013, Gemma Rolls-Bentley, an independent London curator and arts director of the feminist group East London Fawcett, decided to audit the U.K. art market, not so much to close the gap, but to keep the conversation in the air. “I find I can’t even have this conversation about equality in the art world,” Rolls-Bentley told The Guardian at the time, “because so many people think it’s already been achieved. Because figures like Tracey Emin have defied the statistics,” Emin’s most famous work, My Bed (1998), sold for nearly twice its high estimate for £2.5 million ($3.9 million), with the buyer’s premium, at Christie’s this year. “[T]heir rare success misleads people into thinking women get an equal shot,” Rolls-Bentley said. Proving how misguided that perception is, she found that only five percent of commercial galleries in London represent roughly equal numbers of male and female artists, and in the non-commercial galleries, nearly a third presented zero female solo shows at all.
Elizabeth Sackler, the founder of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, has been tracking the gender inequality in the art world for years. She believes that the art market is only one problem of many facing female artists.
“Art sale statistics are a symptom, fighting for more money is but a Band-Aid,” she said in an e-mail. “The disease we face is fundamental disrespect for women and unacceptable attitudes that women’s thinking, observations, and creative output hold little value. I point you to the November 12, 2014 Christie’s Post War Contemporary Art auction that featured 82 lots: 79 men and three women.”
There is, of course, a small group of voices claiming that these differences are easily explained by the inherent inferiority of art that is made by women. In an op-ed for The New York Times earlier this month, the novelist Siri Hustvedt quoted the critic Brian Sewell, who claimed in 2008: “The art market is not sexist…There has never been a first-rank woman artist. Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness.” And the painter George Baselitz, speaking in 2013: “Women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact…As always, the market is right.” Among the heap of devastating statistics one can reach for on this topic, Hustvedt cited some innuendo that will be familiar to those who keep a close watch on the art media. “In April 2014 a rumor circulated on the Internet that in 2015, MoMA would show only women, complete with a quote from Glenn Lowry, the museum’s director, admitting that the gesture could not make up for years of underrepresentation. Alas, it was an April Fools’ Day hoax perpetuated by Art Slant, a fine arts portal.”
Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article mistakenly listed Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed, White Flower No. 1 as part of the collection of Bunny Mellon, prior to the sale. The work was part of the collection of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. This version has been updated.