Women in Art

Although the title of this post is Women in Art a more appropriate title might be Where are the Women in Art? Even now, there is a dearth of women in the art world which is, unsurprisingly,  dominated by white men. Last year Laura Reilly, writing for Art News magazine collated the available research on women in the arts and what she found was shocking. Most people are of course aware of the gender inequalities that are part of contemporary society. A recent news story for example, revealed that female GPs in a particular practice were paid £5000 per annum less than the male GPs even though they had exactly the same qualifications and experience. A fact that only came to light when they checked their pay slips for an error. That this (and there are many many other cases, of women being systematically discriminated against, North Cumbria NHS trust being one) can happen now, even though the equal pay act was in 1970, means we shouldn’t be surprised that women’s place in the art world is somewhat less assured than men’s.

I have to say though, that even I was surprised at the lack of recognition of female artists both in history and in more recent times. Amanda Vickery , who looked at this issue in 2014 whilst she was researching a TV programme was shocked too. Vickery notes that in 1989 the feminist Guerrilla Girls discovered that of the modern works of at on show at the Met in New York, less than 5% were by women. They also found that, of the nudes on display, 85% were female. Prompting the question “do women have to be naked to get into the Met?” Vickery wondered if the statistics had improved since then and looked at the Uffizi. She found that of 1,700 self portraits on display, only 7% were by women. Even Artemisia Gentileschi’s masterpiece ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’ has only been on show since 2000. This trend was repeated through out the many institutions she looked at.

As Linda Nochlin claimed nearly 50 years ago, institutional power structures have made it “impossible for women to achieve artistic excellence, or success, on the same footing as men”. Unfortunately Reilly’s article does little to show that things have changed much. She reports that “the common refrain that women are treated equally in the art world now” needs to be challenged. Reilly found that of the solo exhibitions since 2007 at the Whitney Museum only 29% went to women artists. In 2000 the Guggenheim had no solo shows by women, in 2014 the figure was still only 14%. at the Centre Pompidou the figure is 16%. Tate modern has had 25%. In the permanent collections it’s even worse. At the Pompidou only 10% of works on show are by women. At the Met it’s 4%, that’s worse than in 1989. At MoMA it’s 7%. Press coverage is also unevenly distributed. In 2014 Artforum had only one woman on its cover. In Art News only one third of articles are about women. Of course market prices reflect the gender inequality with the highest prices paid for works by living artists being $58 million for a Jeff Koons and $7 million for a Yayoi Kusama. Even female art museum directors earn substantially less than their male counterparts.

Tate Modern has recently introduced some ‘special rooms’ for women artists. It’s a step in the right direction, but, until the permanent collections in all museums and galleries show the same number of works by women and men then we are a very, very long way from equality. It is easy to see an anomaly like Tate Modern’s recent action as a sign that things have improved generally, but it is important not to be too complacent. A male artist on instagram recently posted a photo of himself and his wife with the comment that “behind every artist there is a lovely supportive woman” The assumption being that artists are men with women acting only in supportive roles to the (male) artist. The elderly, rich, white, male artist, George Baselitz states repeatedly that ‘women can’t paint’ and remains not only unchallenged but feted within the art world. It’s interesting to imagine how an established male in another area, a top doctor, lawyer, politician or sports presenter perhaps, would be challenged, if they claimed, in 2016, that women can’t do medicine, law, politics or sport. It would perhaps be even more interesting to replace the word ‘women’ in Baselitz’s statement with any other group of people and to imagine what the response might be.

There may have been a few steps forward towards equality. Iwona Blazwick of the Whitechapel, for instance, has dedicated 40% of solo exhibitions to women in the past few years, but there remains, serious, significant, systematic, institutional bias against women in the art world. It has been suggested that quotas and positive discrimination should be used to balance the inequalities. Quotas can make people feel uncomfortable, however. It would be a horrible feeling to think you were in an exhibition not on merit but because of a quota. But to be honest, unless you agree with George Baselitz then it’s possibly the people who have dominated the exhibitions so far who should feel uncomfortable. This is because, if we agree that Baselitz is wrong and that women can paint as well as men, then the men who have been included up to now are not necessarily there on merit either, but because of gender bias towards them. To conclude it may be a good thing that Tate Modern has kindly reserved some ‘special rooms’ for 50% of the population (the 50% that has until now been seriously under-represented all the other rooms) but I don’t think we should open the (pink) champagne just yet.

For a full report on the issues discussed here see Reilly, M. ‘Taking the measure of sexism: facts, figures and fixes’ Art News, June 2015.


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