At Art Basel this year, the Paris gallery MFC-Michèle Didier is showing a number of posters by the Guerrilla Girls that starkly address gender inequality in the art world. One reads, “Dearest art collector, It has come to our attention that your collection, like most, does not contain enough art by women. We know that you will feel terrible about this and will rectify the situation immediately. All our love, Guerrilla Girls.”
Appearing at the world’s most important contemporary art fair, that works begs a question: Could a collector address such an imbalance in his or her collection while buying in Switzerland this week? Or, to follow that line of thought further, how are Art Basel’s galleries doing on gender breakdowns in their presentations this year?
On opening day, the lower-floor of the fair—where historical artwork, as well as many of the world’s most powerful galleries are located—many art-stuffed booths featured work by only one or two women, and a few had 100 percent male artists. That is disheartening but not exactly unexpected—there have long been far more works by men at the top end of the market, and Basel is a time to offer the priciest wares.
Since dealers in the Galleries section often rehang their booths as artworks sell, it is tricky to take an accurate measurement of the gender gap there, but it is possible to look at other sectors of Basel, and there the results are intriguingly different.
The Statements sector is a paragon of gender equality. Here, 18 galleries are doing solo presentations of artists who are early in their careers, and women actually have a slight edge, representing 53 percent of the artists. (Note that all percentages have been rounded to the nearest whole number, and in the case of duos and collectives, each artist has been counted separately.)
Unsurprisingly, though, the gender divide in the Feature sector, where 32 dealers are offering focused presentations of established figures, like Arman, Max Beckmann, and Barbara Kasten, is more skewed: 67 percent of the artists on display there are male.
In the Unlimited section, which fills one hall on the Messeplatz with 76 gargantuan artworks, the imbalance is more dramatic: only 24 percent of the works there were made by women. (For what it’s worth, the Guerilla Girls make an appearance in Rob Pruitt’s “Art World Look-Alikes” project.) In this context, it’s interesting to consider New York Times co-chief art critic Roberta Smith’s observation, in a review of an exhibition of work by Lucy Dodd four years ago: “Male artists don’t own the XL artwork format, but they make a majority of the large-scale efforts. So it is inspiring to see a woman handle the format so successfully.”
With the heartening Statements number in mind, one might say that the future really is with the youth. If the artists featured in Statements move up the pecking order in coming years, the gap at the top end will gradually begin to close. But that will only happen if collectors buy art by women.