For decades, powerful male gatekeepers kept women at the margins of the art market, a dynamic that is slowly shifting. The African-American artist
, also featured in “Social Work,” told an interviewer earlier this year that the visual arts industry is “more sexist than racist
.” A 2017 Artsy analysis
of the 199 dealers showing at Art Basel in Miami Beach found that female dealers represent, on average, 28% more female artists. Richard Saltoun
, who represents the estate of
, another “Social Work” participant, guessed that art by women sells for one-tenth of the prices for work by their male counterparts. (Also consider that across the broader labor market, women in the U.K. earn on average 81.6%
of what men do; the figures for the U.S. are similar, with female full-time workers earning around 80%
of men’s wages.)
But exclusion and discrimination are not the only reasons women have historically been less visible in the art market, said Jo Stella-Sawicka, the artistic director of Frieze.
“It might have to do with family life, with caring for parents, with the fact that artist is an uncertain role,” she said, adding that “many women find teaching is a great refuge.” Some artists in the show, such as Tina Keane and Kelly herself, had careers that unfolded in institutional and academic arenas, at a remove from commercial galleries.
Taken together, the women celebrated in “Social Work” illustrate a range of career trajectories—some forged through battles with the status quo, others carved through alternative grooves. Very often, these women created opportunities for, and found support from, other women. But despite being shown together at Frieze, the contours of these women’s career paths have led to a wide range of market outcomes.