The annual Intelligence Squared debate, which takes place in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre concurrent with Art Basel Hong Kong, had a hot topic this year: Is or isn’t the art world a boys’ club? At the end of the well-attended Sunday afternoon debate, the audience ruled, by a very thin margin, that it is not.
The format of these debates, founded by the collector and philanthropist Yana Peel, is that a motion, in this case “The art world is a boys’ club,” is debated by two teams, one of which is for the motion, and one of which is against it. For the motion at this year’s debate—arguing that the art world is indeed a boys’ club—were Gregor Muir, executive director of London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts, and Frances Morris, head of collections for international art at Tate Modern. Against the motion—arguing that today’s art world is not a boys’ club—were Charles Guarino, one of the three publishers of Artforum magazine, and Christie’s director of education, Elaine Kwok. The moderator was the Guggenheim Museum’s curator of Asian art, Alexandra Munroe.
Polled as they entered the theater, the majority of the audience thought the art world was a boys’ club. Fifty-six percent said it was, 23 percent said it wasn’t, and a rather large 21 percent were undecided. In the end, the motion was defeated by a thin margin: after the debate, the audience was polled again and 49 percent was for, 50 percent against, and 1 percent undecided.
What convinced them that the art world is not a boys’ club?
Gregor Muir was first up at the podium, and he argued his position—that the art world is in fact “a bastion of male privilege and prejudice”—with a flurry of statistics. The top price for a male artist at auction in 2014 was Jeff Koons, at $58.4 million. Compare that to the top-selling living woman artist, Yayoi Kusama, at $7.1 million. The top 100 auction sales in 2012 ranked by price include no works at all by women. The top three dealers on Art Review magazine’s 2014 Power 100, a ranking of art world professionals, are all men (David Zwirner, Iwan Wirth, and Larry Gagosian). Only two Venice Biennales have had women as artistic director. The UK museums at the national level, like Tate Britain, are run by men. Going back in time, he talked about unscrupulous dealers altering the signatures of women artists like Judith Leyster to those of men, like Franz Hals, to increase the likelihood of sales. And he got in some zinger quotes, like one from the artist Sarah Lucas, whom he’d asked to weigh in on the day’s debate. “It’s not the art world that’s a boys’ club,” Lucas told him. “It’s the world that’s a boys’ club.” He said that the collector Ursula Hauser (Muir is a former director at the gallery Hauser & Wirth) summed it up: “No matter how hard men try to become successful artists, the women always have to try that much harder.”
Next up was Kwok, who argued for the “against” side with a personal angle: she’d started out in finance, which, she explained, was very much a boys’ club. The art world, in her experience, is, by comparison, not. She went from finance to the development and fundraising office at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a woman-dominated department from which Emily Rafferty rose to become head of the museum. She ran through a list of “strong women in positions of power” in the art world, including Art Basel’s recently appointed Asia Director, Adeline Ooi.
Kwok didn’t want to argue with Muir’s stats, she said, but instead wanted to question their relevance to the motion. “A boys club,” she said, “is an environment where the industry is dominated by men, where women have trouble breaking in due to entrenched biases and closed networks.” Kwok believes women who choose to remain working in the art world (as opposed to those who opt out when they have kids) have strong role models and are empowered to get to where they want to be. At Christie’s, she observed, women account for roughly 60 percent of total employees. Christie’s current CEO is a woman. Women make up half its leadership. She ended by citing auctioneers, like herself. When you think of an auctioneer, she said, “you probably think of an old white man,” but of the auctioneers who joined Christie’s in the past five years, nine are men, and twelve are women.
Frances Morris, on the other hand, used her own three-decade career in the art world to make a case for the motion. For her the art world as a boys’ club is quite literal: she has always worked for male bosses. Morris brought up the gap between art school and a career as a professional artist: In London, 65 percent of all art students are women, but women comprise only 35 percent of London galleries’ artist rosters. In New York, 50 percent of art school students are men, but men comprise a whopping 78 percent of New York galleries’ artist stables. “So what happens here? Maybe women artists simply aren’t as good as men?” she said provocatively, then cited a now-infamous article by art critic Brian Sewell in which he wrote that there are no single female artist of the first or even second rank.
“The boys’ club,” Morris went on, “has a long history.” Women historically painted for leisure, men professionally. Men painted, women modeled. In the contemporary and modern collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 3 percent of the works are by women. And yet, 83 percent of the paintings on the Met’s walls are of naked women. Women are getting into the museum, she said, but they are taking their clothes off. The history of modern art was written by men (Alfred Barr) for men. The women artists, like Yayoi Kusama and Louise Bourgeois, whose careers coincided with women’s lib, experimented with non-traditional mediums, rather than the mediums like painting that were dominated by men, and that was part of what made their work not market-friendly.
“Where do we make change?” she asked. “Is it the galleries? Gagosian? Hauser & Wirth? Zwirner? Dare I say Marian Goodman, Barbara Gladstone, Pearl Lam? Who is responsible?” (This last bit was perhaps a reference to an article that came out on last week in the New York Times called “Where Art is a Women’s World,” about the important roles several women, including Lam, play in the Asian art world.) She said she was ashamed to admit that despite her own advocacy of women artists, Tate Modern’s collection of art since 1900 has only 19 percent women artists. “The boys’ club is still there, it is still entrenched,” she concluded. “A prerequisite of moving forward in any battle is to know your enemy, and the enemy for us women, for women artists, is the boys’ club.”
Last up was Guarino, whose speech against the motion, which began with his waving the current issue of Artforum with its cover artwork by a woman artist, Anicka Yi, is worth quoting in full:
The first inclination I had about this debate, when Yana asked would you consider it, I said, ‘Who are you considering [to participate]?’ and she sent me an email: 23 women, 2 men. Of the 2 men, one was Jerry Saltz, and he doesn’t count, the other one was Hans Ulrich Obrist, who actually counts too much. I was then sent an email that had the signature image of the event, and it was a photograph taken 62 years ago of the Abstract Expressionists…: 14 men, and one woman. And it said, “The art world is a boys’ club: come to Hong Kong and decide for yourself.”
Decide what? What 14 and 1 add up to? This proposal is written in the present tense, let’s keep that in mind. We have to ask, what is “is?” “Is” is now, and the art world—what’s the art world? I don’t know what it is for you. I think for a lot of people it’s a notional place. It’s an afternoon at a fair, it’s lunch at a museum, followed by an opinion. It’s something that comes and goes, and the definition comes and goes. I’m not here to debate statistics. Debating numbers, that’s like debating climate change. That would be a fool’s errand. What I’m going to talk about is what the art world means to me. For me, the art world has an address, it has a postal code, it has a phone number, and a receptionist: it’s my office. And that’s not hubris, that’s perspective. Anyone who actually makes a profession out of working in the art world looks at it through that lens. My passport is issued by Artforum. Frances’s by the Tate, Gregor’s by ICA, Elaine’s by Christie’s. And that’s the way we are obliged to look at it. So if I may talk about Artforum for just a minute.
In my 30-plus years at Artforum, I have worked with 5 editors in chief, 3 women and 2 men. And for the LGBT people, one of the men was straight, one of the men was gay; one of the women was straight and one of the women was gay, and one of the women was bisexual. Our current full-time editorial staff is composed of 11 women and 4 men. Our production department, 4 women and 1 man. Our advertising department around the world, 10 women, and 1 man. In addition to our editor in chief, our business manager, our ad director, our circulation director, and our production manager are all women. Artforum.com employs 6 women and 1 man. Artforum’s office in Beijing: 6 women and 1 man. Overall the ratio is 5 to 1; 56 women—yes it’s a big payroll—to 12 men. 500 press cards around the world, and 370 of them are to women.
During my tenure, I have been privileged to add the title publisher to three people. Yes, the three current publishers are men. We were all hired by a woman. And the three people I have assigned that title to, who will steward Artforum when I’m gone, are all women. So, by the time I check out, it’s complete.
Everyone here mentions the ‘elephant in the room.’ I’ll tell you what the elephant is, and what the room is. The room is the convention center, which is arguably the biggest room in Hong Kong, and the elephant is the art dealers. Anyone who thinks that the art dealers are not the heart and soul of the art world just isn’t thinking. They are the true visionaries. Art dealers are the only class in this entire art world who put their money where their eyes are. They take the most risks. Most of them start as artists. All of them are visionaries. Without the art dealers, artists wouldn’t know how to aspire, collectors to collect, curators to curate, or museums to acquire. In New York, which is the birthplace of this art world—and I’m sorry, but it’s true—the art world was mothered, it was not fathered. The most seminal gallerists in the world were women. Peggy Guggenheim, Gertrude Stein, Eleanor Ward, Virginia Dwan, Marian Willard, Eleanor Poindexter, Betty Parsons, Ileana Sonnabend, Joan Washburn, who gave way to the generation of Paula Cooper, Marian Goodman, Mary Boone, Barbara Gladstone, Holly Solomon, Angela Westwater, Monika Sprüth, Luisa Strina, Helene Weiner, Janelle Reiring, Rhona Hoffman, Betsy Miller, Victoria Miro, who paved the way for women like Marianne Boesky, Tanya Bonakdar, Carol Greene, Michelle Maccarone, Philomene Magers… Getting tired? I could go on. Because there are 231 private galleries [in Art Basel Hong Kong]. You are all welcome to go out there and tell me who the women are. Now. David Zwirner—he’s sporting a pair of pants. Well, the last time I counted, he had 5 gallery directors, and all 5 were women. And if you go to Larry Gagosian’s flagship gallery on Madison Avenue, and you ask to see the boss, if you think that’s Larry, you don’t know dick. You will be shown to the office of one Melissa Lazarov, who is the boss.
If I asked you to name 5 celebrity male curators, while you were thinking of Okwui’s last name, you would probably say Germano Celant, and Max Gioni, and Hans Ulrich and Hou Hanru, and then you would stop and think and while you were thinking I would point out to you that all four of those dudes answer to a woman. That’s the boss. And you might say, what about Klaus Biesenbach? His boss is a man. Yeah, but his boss’s boss? That’s Aggie Gund. That’s a woman. And then you might think, Kathy Halbreich, Ann Temkin, Donna de Salvo, Barbara Haskell, Nancy Spector, Naomi Beckwith, Bice Curiger, Christine Macell…Lynne Cooke, Beatrix Ruf, Carolyn Christof-Bakargiev, Alexandra Munroe. And, as Alexandra knows, 16 of the Guggenheim’s 22 curators in New York are women. And no discussion of museum directors can commence without speaking of Lisa Phillips, Thelma Golden, Iwona Blazwick, Julia Peyton-Jones, Melissa Chiu, Sabina Breitweiser, Chus Martinez…and many more because these women have redefined the role of the museum in modern society. They have made them essential places not only for exhibiting art but for serving the community, bringing a character and a quality that was unknown when the art world was a boys’ club.
In September, Jerry Saltz wrote a column. It was a blog, actually. Jerry doesn’t really have a column, he has, like, a Facebook page. And when it comes to paying the rent, his wife is chief critic for The New York Times. He pointed out the number of male artists having September shows. And, yes, it’s true. But what he failed to mention was that most of the [Artforum] ads he was talking about were bought and paid for by women. In a lifetime working around artists, I’ve come to the conclusion that to be an artist is more an affliction than a vocation. And a lot of women aren’t going to like this, but from experience I can tell you that anyone capable of doing another kind of work usually does; to be an artist you need a really serious case of attention deficit disorder, a little bit of Asperger’s, and you need what I can only describe as a man-sized ego.
At this point Guarino, like the other debaters, ran up against his time limit, but he managed to slip in a last observation about that photograph, the one taken six decades ago of the 14 male artists and one female artist. Every artist in the photo, he pointed out, was represented by a woman dealer.
During a question-and-answer session, an audience member pointed out, in response to Guarino’s Artforum stats, that the number of women may be high in publishing, but publishing is, in general, a low-earning field. Another audience member suggested that the title of the debate should instead be “The Art World Boys’ Club Under Siege,” a proposal that Muir heartily supported. And there was some grumbling in the audience about subjects not raised, such as possible salary discrepancies between men and women.
Nevertheless, the audience was convinced by the “against” team, albeit narrowly. As the votes were being collected, Alexandra Munroe recalled that in 1989, when she organized a retrospective of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, the total market value for all 40 years of Kusama’s career was $20,000. Last year, Kusama was ranked second among women artists in terms of her market, which was valued at $190.4 million.
Munroe’s story presents a rosy picture of the difference 25 years can make in the career of a woman artist who is now 85 years old, but consider that $190.4 million is less than the total of Koons’ top six results at auction, and he’s only 60. If the art world is not a boys’ club today, that can only be good news for women, but it seems like a pretty safe bet that the work of feminism is not quite done.