Art Market

Museums have made little progress collecting works by women in the last decade, a study found.

Wallace Ludel
Sep 20, 2019 4:30PM, via artnet News

A work by Jenny Saville set a new auction record for a work by a living female artist at Sotheby’s in October 2018. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

New data released on Thursday by artnet News and the In Other Words podcast show that, despite the narrative of awareness regarding gender inequality in the arts, only 11 percent of all museum acquisitions in the past decade were works by women, and throughout that time women made up only 2 percent of the art market. And of the 5,832 women whose work was collected by museums over the 10-year span, only 190 of them, or 3.3 percent, were African American.

For the study, artnet News and In Other Words (the podcast produced by Sotheby’s subsidiary Art Agency, Partners), conducted more than 40 interviews and, while few excuses were made, many theories were posited. One is that the narrative of female artists is somehow separate from the larger story of art history, falsely turning studying and collecting female artists into some kind of specialist pursuit. Maxwell Anderson of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation noted the unspoken belief that “[museums] will only be recognized as an important institution if they acknowledge the greatest hits,” and, with art history’s propensity toward men, male figures make up the largest portion of this pool. Nonie Gadsden, a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, said: “A museum is a reflection of its collecting community. [. . .] Artists with ‘known names’ are a lot easier for collectors, which means we have to try harder to acquire an artist who may not be as familiar.”

The mark of achievement measured here is not the number of solo or group shows featuring female artists, but rather acquisitions by major museums, whether through direct purchases or donations. In the past decade, 26 major museums in the United States acquired 260,470 works of art for their collections, and of that number only 29,247, or 11 percent, were works of art by women.

As Christopher Bedford, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, put it: “The great testament to the commitment an institution makes to an artist is through acquisitions, not exhibitions, which are sweeping and frankly cheaper.” Julia Halperin, editor at artnet News and co-author of the report, told the New York Times: “The perception of change was more than the reality. [. . .] The shows for women were getting more attention, but the numbers actually weren’t changing.”

This may partly come from the misconception that shows of historically noteworthy male artists will be more popular with museumgoers, leading to the idea that staging a show by a woman artist is somehow a greater risk. This has been refuted in the past, including recently when the Guggenheim Museum’s show of the relatively unknown Swedish painter Hilma af Klint not only broke the museum’s attendance records, but was the cause of a massive 34% spike in museum memberships.

Helen Molesworth, former chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), noted the art world’s inability to accurately look in the mirror. She said:

The art world is simply not the liberal, progressive bastion that it imagines itself to be. [. . .] Really wanting change means doing it. It means righting the ship. It means you don’t get to do some other things—and it turns out that the not-doing-other-things is not really on the table for a lot of places.

The top-level takeaway from the studies is that, while the dialogue may be shifting faster than ever, the numbers simply aren’t. Mia Locks, senior curator at MOCA, noted that there is “no formal commitment, or metric by which to measure success.” She added: “addressing the problem is acknowledging where we actually are rather than where we perceive ourselves to be.”

Wallace Ludel