Imagine you work for the postwar/contemporary department at one of the world’s top three auction houses—Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips—and your major annual November New York evening sale happens to fall on Bring Your Daughter to Work Day. Not a good scene. You may have a bit of explaining to do for how few women artists are on the block.
With the November New York sales right around the corner, we took a look at the past six fall sessions of New York postwar/contemporary evening sales at all three houses—the sales with the highest value works—in terms of what percentage of those sales was made up of work by women. As you can see from the illustration above, it averages out around eight percent. The numbers, we should note, are a bit better at Phillips, but those sales tend to have fewer lots, and lower estimates than Christie’s and Sotheby’s. (If you look at percentages by value, the situation is equally grim. Take Christie’s, where the combined value of work by women in the New York fall and spring postwar/contemporary evening sales has hovered around three percent of the total sale result over the past five years. At Sotheby’s the average is better, at 6.7 percent.)
This is not to say that women’s work hasn’t made major gains at auction over the past half-decade. Look at Joan Mitchell. Or Yayoi Kusama. Or Sturtevant. Or Cindy Sherman. Or Julie Mehretu. Or Louise Bourgeois. A major spider sculpture by Bourgeois, who died in 2010, is coming up for sale at Christie’s in a couple weeks, and it carries an estimate of $25 to $35 million. As ARTnews reported earlier this week, that piece stands a solid chance of setting a new auction record for a woman artist in the postwar/contemporary category, and it may even demolish the record for work by a woman at auction, currently held by a 1927 Georgia O’Keeffe painting that sold last year for $44 million.
It seems something of a shame, though, that Christie’s couldn’t have put the Bourgeois spider in its special “curated” auction the same week, a sale called “The Artist’s Muse.” One hundred percent of the artworks in that sale, including a Modigliani nude estimated to sell for $100 million, are by men; 67 percent of the subjects are women. Granted, the muse, as a concept dating back to ancient Greece, is historically female, but it’s 2015, and this sale includes contemporary artists like Chuck Close; couldn’t Christie’s have thrown in an Elizabeth Peyton? An Alice Neel? A Slyvia Sleigh? All had muses, after all—and we could name many more. If you brought your daughter to work on that particular day, she might come away with the understanding that an artist is a man, and a muse is a woman. But maybe afterward you could take her out to dinner with Gloria Steinem, and tell her that the spectacle she just witnessed had little to do with the value of art, or who can be an artist, and that, in fact, it was Bring Your Dada to Work Day, and it was all nothing more than a Dadaist prank.