2015: The Year in Review

Inequality Endures: The Price of Being a Female Artist in 2015

Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 1999. COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

A copy of Louise Bourgeois’s Maman (1999).


An annual overview of how female artists and their work fared over the past year in the marketplace and the broader art world. Here is the 2014 edition.

“Is the Pope Catholic?” Marilyn Minter said in response to a 2014 survey querying the existence of gender bias in the art world, and from a data standpoint, there has been scant evidence of leveling over the past year. This past November, for example, ARTnews ran an infographic comparing the gender disparity of postwar and contemporary lots up for sale at the New York evening auctions, and the results for 2015 and 2014 were the same: 92 percent of lots were by male artists, while women comprised a mere 8 percent. (For comparison, this was the same percentage of women artists represented at MoMA in 2012 by Jerry Saltz’s count in his piece “Where are all the women?” for New York magazine.)

O'Keeffe's White Calla Lily (1927). COURTESY SOTHEBY'S

O’Keeffe’s White Calla Lily (1927).


In fact, looking at auction prices, 2015 was a bit weaker for women artist than 2014, at least at the high end. In 2014, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed, White Flower No. 1 (1936) broke the record for the most expensive work by a woman sold at auction, netting $44.4 million at Sotheby’s. This year, O’Keeffe’s White Calla Lily (1927) ranked as the second-highest-priced work by a woman artist at auction, selling for a mere $7.8 million. The title for most expensive work by a female artist sold at auction this year went to a $25 million Louise Bourgeois Spider (1996) sculpture—a sale that amounts to only a little more than half of last year’s record high.

The $25 million Bourgeois was the only work by a woman to make the list of the top 100 lots sold at auction this year, which was headed by Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) (1955)—it sold for $160 million, an all-time record for an artwork at auction. While women artists are very slowly beginning to gain a fairer share of the art market, their male counterparts continue to outperform them dramatically at the highest end.

Speaking of men, earlier this year Georg Baselitz expounded on his infamous “Women don’t paint very well” quote, telling The Guardian:

“The market doesn’t lie. Even though the painting classes in art academies are more than 90% made up by women, it’s a fact that very few of them succeed. It’s nothing to do with education, or chances, or male gallery owners. It’s to do with something else and it’s not my job to answer why it’s so.

If women are ambitious enough to succeed, they can do so, thank you very much. But up until now, they have failed to prove that they want to. Normally, women sell themselves well, but not as painters.”

In defending this opinion, Baselitz is, of course, only providing evidence of the misogyny of his argument. He also fails to account for the art market’s self-fulfilling tendencies when he says, “the market doesn’t lie.” Facts and figures are only one way to tell a story, and some in the art world don’t believe these conversations are as valuable as a more holistic look at progress. In June, when introducing a wonderful talk on painting and feminism at Maccarone Gallery, curator and writer Alison Gingeras notably added, “We also wanted to say collectively that we’re really not interested in turning this into a complaint session, which can descend very quickly into discussions of figures and quotas.”

In a phone conversation, Sara Friedlander, head of Christie’s evening postwar and contemporary art auction, put it bluntly:

“I don’t find it particularly interesting to count, like, which artists have a penis and which have a vagina. The conversation about artists that are men and artists that are women is not a dialogue that even needs to still happen. Unfortunately, there are more men who have historically been promoted as artists, especially in the postwar period. What we should do is go back through art history and yell at all the art historians and the curators and the people in graduate schools and wherever who weren’t promoting that art. There were more painters that were promoted during the Ab-Ex period that were male than there were female. That’s just the reality of it. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have the opportunity to celebrate Lee Krasner when she comes up at auction. We can’t paint art history. We can just work with what we’ve got. Do I wish that we could discover [more historical women artists], and reinvigorate their careers and have major exhibitions for them? Yes, I hope that we do. And more and more institutions and collectors are trying to do that.”

An example of such progress appeared at this year’s edition of Art Basel Miami Beach, where the Rubell Family Collection unveiled an exhibition featuring works by women artists from their personal collection. Titled “No Man’s Land,” the show reportedly “provides a survey of what recent art history might look like if you filter out the men,” according to a piece in New York magazine. (That’s not to say that featured artists such as Lisa Yuskavage, Marlene Dumas, or Cindy Sherman are in need of rediscovery in the context of Friedlander’s entreaty.) In related news, while 2014 saw philanthropist, political activist, and collector Barbara Lee donate a monumental gift of 43 works by female artists to ICA Boston, Lee recently topped up her gift to the museum with an additional donation comprising 20 works by 12 female artists valued at $42 million.

In discussing the rediscovery of women artists, Friedlander mentioned Agnes Martin, whose 1967 painting, Happy Valley, sold at Christie’s for $5.5 million this year. “I thought it was interesting that that painting came from 1967, which was a year of her work that hasn’t appeared at auction for a really long time, and I thought it was interesting that that was timed with her Tate retrospective,” she said. “Ruth Asawa is [another example]. Asawa had been making art since the 1940s, when she was interned in the Japanese camps in the West Coast. She passed away just a few years ago, and since then we’ve done exhibitions of her work here at Christie’s, and we’ve placed works with a variety of institutions—the Whitney just featured one of her works in their recent [“America Is Hard to See”] show. And we’ve sold her work at auction and privately for over a million and a half dollars.”

Abstract minimalist painter Carmen Herrera is arguably another instance of a recently rediscovered artist. The Whitney plans to show a retrospective of her work in the fall of 2016, Herrera’s first solo museum show in New York since a 1998 exhibition at El Museo del Barrio. She has waited a long time for her star turn. At the time of the opening, Herrera will be 101.

Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 2013. COURTESY LISSON GALLERY

Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 2013.


I spoke with Connie Butler, chief curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, an institution which has shown an almost equal ratio of women to men artists over the past year, including exhibitions for Mary Reid Kelley, Njideka Akunyili, Avery Singer, and Frances Stark. “When I got the e-mail about the piece you were doing, I sort of did a double take because it made me realize that [our programming] wasn’t intentional,” Butler told me over the phone. “I mean, I think that for sure at any museum, the kind of mercurial nature of scheduling, is that sometimes you have years when there are a ton of women and sometimes you’ll have a season when you’re sort of having difficulty in finding balance in terms of gender, cultural diversity, whatever. But I do think we’re [fundamentally] a feminist institution.”

Butler also disagreed with Friedlander on the historical cause of the art market’s gender gap. “I’m not quite sure I agree with my colleagues in the auction houses,” she said. “I mean, [museum staff] do our part in terms of educating and buying the work and therefore adding value to it, I suppose. But a huge block to that is the commercial side of the art world. The commercial side is the side that is always slower to come to the material of overlooked artists. [Museums] don’t really even have much of a connection to those collectors. There’s so much money in the art world that is anonymous at the moment.”

When asked about her predictions for the future, Butler said:

“I’m really of two minds about it. Because I feel like, if you look at now versus ten years ago, there’s a vast difference in the amount of women artists that you see in the programs of most museum institutions. But then, you look at all of the artists who are in that top echelon of the highest-earning artists, whether it’s in the auction world or the commercial world, and there aren’t any women. There actually aren’t any women. It’s very hard to find comparable value, and you could say the same thing about our government. Look at the percentage of women senators, or look at how long it’s taken us to elect a woman president. These things are all connected. A cultural shift still has to take place.”

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