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A leading art museum and gallery in the United States has announced that it will seek to address the gender imbalance that many art institutions around the world suffer from by not purchasing any art that is made by men in 2020. According to numerous examples of anecdotal evidence and a recentin-depth survey, only a small proportion of artworks bought by America’s leading museums for their permanent collections is made by female artists. In fact, the 2019 report pointed out that over the course of the last ten years, only 11 per cent of such acquisitions were created by women. In the forthcoming year, the Baltimore Museum of Art will seek to do something quite dramatic about the situation. It announced in November that it will only buy works of art for its permanent collection that are by females and no male made art will be added to its collection until 2021 at the earliest.
The chief curator of the institution, which was founded in 1914, said that the Baltimore Museum of Art needed to be “truly radical” to redress gender imbalances. Asma Naeem went on to say that the decision to only invest in works of art by women for a full calendar year would emphasise to the various arts communities in the United States that her gallery, at least, was taking the issue of under-representation among women artists seriously. She said that the move would “correct the canon” of works in the gallery’s possession. Indeed, the museum’s chief curator – who went on the record earlier in 2019 to say that she thought art can be used to tell a broader and more inclusive story about the shared history of people in North America – also noted that the move would coincide with several other events devoted to female artists slated for 2020.
According to the gallery, the decision to only buy artworks by women in 2020 made sense because the art museum has already committed to a year-long series of exhibitions and other events that would throw a greater spotlight on female artists. This programme had been put together because 2020 coincides with the centenary of when the 19th Amendment of the United States’ constitution passed into law. This is the famous amendment that, when ratified, meant that women in the United States finally had the right to vote in elections. In 2020, the Baltimore-based gallery will put forward is “2020 Vision”, an initiative that will highlight the role women are playing in art creation today and in the past. It will comprise well over a dozen solo exhibitions devoted to female made art and there will be seven themed shows throughout 2020, as well. In fact, the gallery made a start late in 2019 with an exhibition on American modernists. This included works of art by Elizabeth Catlett and Maria Martinez, among others. Pieces by Georgia O’Keeffe were also included so that art by women from nearly every period on the 20th century would be covered.
The Baltimore Museum of Art, which has been free for the public to visit since 2016 as a result of grants awarded by the city’s authorities and several philanthropic foundations, believes it is making a bold statement that it hopes will lead the way for other institutions to follow. In fact, the move comes at a time when several other museums in Maryland and nearby Washington DC are preparing to exhibit artefacts and works of art to commemorate the 100th anniversary of votes for women in the country. However, it is not yet known whether other art galleries in the US will follow the Baltimore Museum of Art’s lead. Nevertheless, several commentators on the museum sector in America have already noted that the forward-thinking decision is part of a growing trend to redress established gender imbalances. The move to expand the number of works by women in the gallery’s permanent collection comes amid a growing level of awareness surrounding gender inequalities in the museum and gallery sector globally.
In her announcement, Naeem said that she did not know of any other gallery in the US that was pursuing a similar art acquisition strategy. She referred to the Baltimore Museum of Art’s decision as one that was “comprehensive” and “sweeping”. Whether or not this “bold statement” will lead to a sea change in the number of artworks by women in the museum’s collection is yet to be established, however. That will come down to the number and the quality of the acquisitions it chooses to make in the course of 2020, after all.
Nevertheless, Naeem was keen to stress the progressive nature of the decision. “If you think about the word artist,” she said, “Then there is a tacit assumption [in many people’s minds]… that it must be a male genius who is behind the art.” While not every art lover would agree with such a sentiment, the fact is that the number of artworks in the possession of the big galleries in the US gives weight to her position. As a result, Naeem argued in her historic statement, the fact that the term ‘women artists’ is used to refer to artists who happen to be female is very telling. “They are not women artists,” Naeem said, “They are simply artists.”
The gallery’s leadership director, Christopher Bedford, echoed Naeem’s position. He welcomed the announcement saying that to rectify centuries of imbalance, something radical must be done. In 2018, Bedford decided to sell works in the gallery’s possession by a number of white male artists – including Andy Warhol – to buy those by women and minority groups. He pointed out that it was not enough to merely purchase one painting by a female artist hang it on the wall. Given that the recently published Artnet study showed that of the 260,470 pieces that have been bought by the country’s leading art institutions since 2008, only a little over 29,000 were by women, Bedford’s point will resound with many in the museum sector as well as artists themselves.
Interested in highlighting art by women? Why not plan an event for International Women’s Day in your museum.
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.
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