Left: Yayoi Kusama, The Castle, 1954; Right: Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 1994. Images courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Recent institutional interest in female artists may be having a knock-on effect on the broader art market. All-female commercial exhibitions are on the rise, designed to raise the visibility—and profitability—of women artists who until now have accounted for a relatively minuscule part of the art market.
Industry insiders say the growing institutional recognition of women artists coincides with a slew of recent auction records and a genuine desire to redress a long-standing gender imbalance in all corners of the art world—all factors that point to the potential for further market momentum.
In one high-profile example, next month, Sotheby’s will open a joint show of works by two of the best-known (and most expensive) female artists of the 20th century, Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama. Titled “Traumata: Bourgeois / Kusama,” the exhibition takes place at the auction house’s London private-selling gallery, S|2, from late February through mid-April. It has a feminist bent, examining how both artists built careers in New York’s male-dominated art scene in the 1950s and ’60s.
Isabelle Paagman, the European head of private sales at Sotheby’s, says a series of successful results at auction has led Sotheby’s to be more proactive when it comes to sourcing and selling works by women. In last June’s contemporary evening sale, women accounted for 21 percent of the overall value. That spike in value can, in part, be attributed to the record £6.8m achieved for Jenny Saville’s monumental “body pile” painting, Shift (1996-7), which had been estimated to sell for £1.5m to £2m. However, at Sotheby’s July 2015 sale, women accounted for just 2% of the total value, the auction house said.
Only around 50 percent of the works in “Traumata: Bourgeois / Kusama” are reportedly for sale (Sotheby’s declined to give prices). But both Kusama and Bourgeois also have works coming up in the house’s March 8th contemporary evening sale, which falls on International Women’s Day—a coincidence Sotheby’s is happy to capitalize on. A 2003 vitrine by Bourgeois is estimated to sell for between £800,000 and £1.2 million and an Infinity Net canvas painted by Kusama in 2007 is expected to go for between £500,000 and £700,000.
Sotheby’s is hardly testing the water here: Bourgeois holds the record for the most expensive sculpture by a woman to be sold at auction (a within-estimate $28.2 million in November 2015 for her nine-foot bronze Spider, 1997) and Kusama once held the auction price record for any living female artist ($7.1 million for her painting White No. 28 (1960) in 2014) before being dethroned by Cady Noland. Works by Sturtevant and Carol Rama, whose auction record was broken three times in 2016, are also due to go under the hammer, with consignments still being made prior to publication.
Paagman says that growing institutional support generates a positive feedback loop for sales to individual collectors. Prominent shows, such as the 2016 Abstract Expressionist exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, which included Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, created “the opportunity to sell a number of female artists privately,” she says. “It prompted a buying spree by European collectors.” She also cites Tate Modern’s choice to devote half of all the rooms in the opening show of its Switch House extension last June to women artists including Bourgeois, and Marina Abramović.
Throughout the last year, dealers from Hauser & Wirth to Sprüth Magers to Maccarone had mounted all-women shows. Recent examples include Sadie Coles in London, whose exhibition “Room” brings together installations and photographic works by female artists (until 18 February), and the Fine Art Society (FAS), whose program will pay particular attention to women throughout 2017. In February, a series of exhibitions opens pairing works by female contemporary artists (priced between £2,000 and £35,000) and Modern British women (priced up to £90,000) with the work of Gluck, a British painter born in 1895 who famously eschewed any gender-defining prefix. (The FAS organized five exhibitions of the artist in the 1920s and ’30s.) Further shows on Emma Alcock and Eileen Cooper are planned for later in the year.
Sara Terzi, an associate director at the FAS, said the gender gap in the art world is gradually closing, from museum shows to representation at art fairs. The aim, Terzi says, “is to get to the point where a show like mine, using the term ‘women artists’, will become unnecessary if not anachronistic.” The gallery has recently signed two new female artists with the aim of representing an equal number of female and male artists. Currently, their stable of nearly 100 artists is less than 20% female.
How will the art market treat these up-and-comers? Eleanor Heartney, the author of The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium, notes the ratio of graduates from MFA programs in the U.S., Sweden, England and Israel was either equal or favoured women, meaning the pipeline is chock full of female talent. But in a survey of prominent New York galleries, Heartney found that women artists represented a maximum of 25 percent of solo shows around the time of her book’s publication, raising the question of what structural factors winnow out so many female artists in the transition from school to gallery system.
Without addressing those choke points, it will be a long time before female artists approach parity across the art world. They are still underrepresented in museums around the globe. For example, a recent survey conducted by the U.S. collective Guerrilla Girls found that only two European museums out of 101 respondents have 40 percent or more women artists in their collections, while 21 have fewer than 20 percent.
And the value gap at auction is often wide. Compare, for example, the auction records for a work by a deceased woman artist versus that of a deceased man. Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1 (1932) by Georgia O’Keeffe notched $44.4 million, roughly 25 percent of Pablo Picasso’s record $179 million for Les femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) (1955). By contrast, working women on average in the U.S. and the U.K. earn about 80 percent of what their male counterparts make, according to the U.S. Labor Department and the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics.
But a handful of recent auction records for younger and emerging women artists suggest there may be hope yet. The Nigerian-born, California-based artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby broke her auction record twice last year—it now stands at $1.1 million for Drown (2012), a work on paper, up from $93,750 two months earlier. London-based figurative painter and Turner Prize nominee Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who is of Ghanaian descent, is another young artist whose star has risen at auction recently. Her record stands at £446,500 for Knave (2011), achieved at Christie’s in October 2015.
Paagman acknowledged the long road ahead, but affirmed the commitment at Sotheby’s to changing the ratio, calling the interest in women artists “not just a passing fad.”
“We are aware of the massive imbalance there is between the two genders,” Paagman says. “And we are also aware that this is not going to change overnight.”