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.