A Lisa Yuskavage work on display for auction at Christie’s. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
Is the art world, like the rest of the known universe, generally stacked in favor of men? The answer, according to people who’ve studied it, is yes. There’s extensive documentation of gender discrimination in the art world, from imbalances in gallery representation to museum shows to leadership positions.
But new research highlights an interesting quirk: Although female BFA and MFA graduates from Yale University School of Art are significantly less likely than male graduates to see their work sold at auction, those who do sell work at auction command higher average sale prices, according to a recent paper by William N. Goetzmann, a finance professor at the Yale School of Management.
That suggests that while women artists face barriers in the art market, those who manage to break through to the upper echelons of the art market are met with enthusiasm, said Goetzmann, who authored the paper alongside Laurie Cameron and Milad Nozari.
“You have to be able to get it to the market,” Goetzmann said, referring to work by women artists. “But once it gets there, it looks like it is appreciated by bidders in the market.”
Their paper, “Art and Gender: Market Bias or Selection Bias?,” was published this week on the Social Science Research Network and has not yet been peer-reviewed. It supports the notion of a “higher bar” for women, meaning they had to be more talented than their male counterparts to be accepted into the institutional art market, and eventually make their way to auction. Once those institutional barriers were out of the way, the market rewarded their talents.
The researchers began by constructing a dataset of over 4,000 Yale School of Art graduates, an illustrious cohort that stretches back to the 1890s and includes John Currin, Richard Serra, Frederic Remington, Lisa Yuskavage, Chuck Close, Do Ho Suh, and Eva Hesse. They also divided the set into graduates from the period before 1983, when Yale School of Art’s student body reached gender parity, and after.
Of those 4,434 total graduates, 525 artists had records in the Blouin ArtInfo database, although not all of them had works that sold. Overall, 10.5% of graduates had sold at least one work at auction between 1922 and 2016. But men were significantly more likely to have penetrated the secondary market: 12.2% of male graduates had work sell at auction, compared with just 7.4% of female graduates. By comparison, ARTNews analyzed works sold between 2010 and 2015 in Postwar and Contemporary evening sales held in November at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips and found 92% were by male artists.
But here’s where things get interesting: When artists were ranked by average auction prices, women came out on top. “Female artists have significantly higher ranks compared to male artists,” the researchers wrote. They ranked all the artists again using another methodology which controlled for the artist’s primary medium, average artwork size, and other variables that contribute to a work’s price, and again found women artists ranked significantly higher, and the premium is largely driven by pre-1983 female graduates.
Mary Sabbatino, vice president at Galerie Lelong, said she was surprised by the results, given the observable gender asymmetry at all levels of the art world, except for among students, where women are in the majority. Important gatekeepers, such as collectors and museum board members, are still mostly men.
“It’s still men who are making the decisions,” she said. She also cautioned against reading too much into auction results, noting that prices at auction can be more of a statement about the whims of two potential bidders than a generalizable statement about an artist’s market worth.
To measure artists’ footprint another way, the researchers also tested for institutional recognition, measured by citations in the Google Books corpus of over a million volumes (in this case they searched only for artists who graduated in 1920 or after). In the pre-1983 cohort, “men were cited three to fourteen times more frequently than women in the same class,” they found, even when controlling for the ratio of men to women in the class. After 1983, that imbalance was less severe, but still noticeable: Male graduates were cited two to three times as often.
What exactly is causing these disparities? Goetzmann observed that just as women are less likely than men to negotiate their salary, a factor behind the broader gender pay gap, they may be less likely to engage in the kind of networking necessary to succeed in such a relationship- and personality-driven industry. Women, of course, may also face subtle (or unsubtle) obstacles when dealing with men in power that their male peers don’t experience.
“It could be that men are more apt to be self-promoting and get themselves recognized by critics,” said Goetzmann.
The recognition gap in publications mirrors a broader gender pay gap in the art industry and in the broader economy. The gender pay gap for “artists and related workers” was 25% in the period between 2010 and 2014, according to an analysis last year in the Wall Street Journal, with women making an average of $39,583 to men’s $52,652. That’s roughly on par with the overall gender pay gap for full-time workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher in the U.S., which was 24% in the same period.
Interestingly, Goetzmann’s findings that elite women artists out-perform their male peers in the auction market has an analogy in the corporate world. A separate analysis by the Wall Street Journal found that while only 21 Fortune 500 CEOs who had held the job for a full year were women, they out-earned, on average, the 382 men, with median pay of $13.8 million versus men’s $11.6 million. In fact, they had out-earned men in six of the last seven years. One explanation for this reverse pay gap in the corporate sphere, besides, of course, performance, is that women were put in charge of turning around the companies they helmed, a challenge that is typically rewarded well by boards.
Goetzmann said he and his colleagues had not yet circulated the paper or its findings among art world professionals, but he expected some “very strong views” about its findings. He had not expected the results they got, and thought women artists would be less expensive than their male counterparts, adding that when he and his wife first began collecting art, they acquired prints by Anni Albers for relatively little compared with works by her husband Josef.
There’s evidence that the art market is belatedly catching up with women artists, with prices for older women such as Carmen Herrera and Carol Rama climbing swiftly in recent years. And Sabbatino, who has observed gender disparities in the art world closely, said she thinks the environment for women has improved vastly, especially in recent years.
“There’s a lot of attention about inclusion, about gender, about diversity,” she said. “I think young women artists are in a better position than even five years ago.”