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Are Museums Doing Enough to Increase the Number of Women Artists Represented in their Collections?

Few museums and galleries across the west have failed to recognise how women have been historically under represented in the art world. Of course, there have always been plenty of women producing art over the centuries but it has not always held the same level of interest among curators as art produced by males. There are well-established arguments as to why male art has been seen as more significant in the past. What has changed is that now nearly every gallery you could care to name understands the need to highlight women’s art, both contemporary and historical, in its collection. Few curators would argue that artistic gender imbalance should continue, after all. And yet, the latest data suggests that galleries may not be making the level of progress with gender equality that may have been reasonably assumed. What is going on?

Artnet Analysis

Despite the fact that many galleries have made a big deal of championing emerging female artists, some of whom have been given high-profile solo exhibitions, current data suggests that male art still predominates. Yes, some museums have held women-themed or even women-only art shows, but this has still not led to anything like equality. According to a decade’s worth of statistics that have been put together by Artnet, an established art market information firm, the perception that women are better represented by galleries these days is something of an illusion.

Artnet recently published its findings based on data that had been collected between 2008 and 2018. Remarkably, it found that just 11 per cent of art bought by the leading museums destined for their permanent collections in the US was created by females. In fact, their statistics showed that the acquisitions of art by women were not improving at all. According to their research, the proportion of new art purchases that came from female artists was stuck at around a tenth of all acquisitions, not getting any worse but not getting any better either.

Artnet published its findings along with ‘In Other Words’, a podcast and newsletter that goes out on a weekly basis. According to Artnet News’ executive editor, Julia Halperin, the perception of change with regard to female representation in America’s leading galleries was more pronounced than the reality of the situation. She said that the shows that were being put on for female artists in the country were getting more attention from the public, but the overall numbers of them were not shifting at all. In short, under-representation of female artists continues despite the so-called progress.

During the ten years that Artnet collected data for, just under 30,000 pieces by women artists were bought by the leading American museums. Among these galleries, well over 260,000 different works of art were purchased, a figure that clearly leads to the conclusion that individual female artists are not being represented in the same way that their male colleagues are. According to an article in the New York Times, the measure of achievement for female artists should not be the number of solo or female-only exhibitions that women are awarded. Instead, they argue that it is the number of direct purchases museums make of female art that really counts. This is because such exhibitions are frequently easier to mount whereas direct purchases are much more supportive of an artist’s ability to go on creating art.

According to Mickalene Thomas – a contemporary African-American visual artist who is well-known for her complex paintings that use rhinestones, acrylic and enamel – the study Artnet has conducted is a little heart-wrenching for female artists. She said that they demonstrate that big institutional purchases are not about who you are as an artist and that there is a system that many creative women simply are not a part of. “It’s still a boys’ game,” she said.

Tellingly, the research team also asked that the galleries they were interested in gather information on gender parity within their exhibitions. According to the data that was collected on temporary shows, only 14 per cent featured female artists in solo exhibitions or were made up of group exhibitions which had a majority of women artists. It is fair to say, however, that the number of exhibitions showcasing women artists did go up over the ten years of the study. In fact, it rose twofold between 2008 and 2018 to a total of 104 shows in the final year. That said, solo male exhibitions and those which featured a majority of pieces by men remained, by far, the norm. Furthermore, the research does not offer any indication of the comparative size of female exhibitions compared with those devoted to male artists. This obviously begs the question of whether or not female exhibitions are on a smaller scale than those that feature men on average.

The Museums Buying Art

According to Artnet, just 26 institutions comprise the top museums and galleries in the country. Among the institutions that offered information for the Artnet’s survey of the female art scene were the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, both leading establishments in the country. Others that were included in the 26 were the Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, so the survey may have only focussed at the top but it did take in the country as a whole.

With so many well-known art establishments being included in the survey – many of which have made a great deal of the amount of art they have championed by women – the data Artnet has produced is, if anything, even more shocking. That said, the team of researchers decided to not put the complete survey data into the public domain, so it is not possible to tell whether one gallery is bucking the trend, perhaps outperforming others with regard to its record on adding art by women to its collection.

Guggenheim Museum

What is possible to glean from the team’s data is that the number of artworks by women being purchased reached a peak in 2009. In that year, 3,462 works of art by females were bought by the leading museums in the US. Why the figures dropped off after that is an interesting question that the data poses. However, it fails to offer any satisfactory answers. According to Naima Keith, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the report represents something of an alarm call for the museums and galleries sector. “Given the widely held view that the art of women is amazing, [we had assumed]… that there had been much more growth,” she said. “Maybe we haven’t done enough.”

Overall, the study into female representation in the sector included interviews with dozens of museum curators, collectors and dealers. In addition, the research team sought the views of many female artists. Taking into account all of the various viewpoints, there were many different reasons for the imbalance between men and women that came to the fore. Among them was one recurring theme, however. Time and again, individuals noted that museums’ purchasing committees were frequently engaged with how much name recognition the artist they were considering buying enjoyed. As such, it was repeatedly claimed, they tended to be cautious of spending money on female artists, especially when they had not yet established themselves at open auction. Of course, this creates something of a glass ceiling for many new female artists who don’t have their artworks purchased because they haven’t been bought before.

The report also suggested that there was a bias among private collectors. Some collectors who donate their artworks to galleries and museums still tend to favour male artists despite the historic under-representation of women. This may well be a result of a long-standing issue across society where art history has tended to favour male artists unfairly. If donated works tend to be in the form of male art, so the data seems to bear out, then more purchases will be made from the same group of male artists, thereby leaving less in an institution’s coffers to ‘risk’ on a relatively unknown up-and-coming female artist.

The executive editor of the podcast ‘In Other Words’ agreed with this point of view. “It is the idea of female artists constituting more of a gamble which speaks of institutional timidity,” Charlotte Burns said. She also pointed out that the issue was even more acute for African-American female artists. In fact, of the approximately 5,800 female artists who had their works bought by the leading institutions over the course of the study, as few as 190 were African-American women.

Reaction to the Study

The museums and galleries sector has responded to Artnet’s report throughout the US. For example, Helen Molesworth, a former chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, said that the art world needed to look in the mirror. “It is not the liberal and progressive bastion that it imagines itself to be,” she said. Molesworth went on to add that really wanting change in gender representation in the sector means enacting it more fully. “It means righting the ship,” she said. Mia Locks, who is a current senior curator at the same gallery, said that the report allowed the sector to acknowledge where it actually is rather than where professionals in it perceive themselves to be.

Nonie Gadsden, who works at one of Boston’s biggest establishments, the Museum of Fine Arts, echoed the sentiments of Locks and Molesworth. She asked why – as a woman and a senior curator with two decades’ worth of experience in the museum sector – the findings had shocked her so much. Gadsden had been on the record to say that she had previously doubted the true value of women-only exhibitions because she thought they came across as a mere theme which potentially made strong female artists the subject of tokenism. However, she also said that she later came to appreciate the power of these sorts of shows because they were often able to draw attention to overlooked female artists who have been under-appreciated in the past.

Gadsden commented that institutions can only bring more attention to female artists by putting them out there. Crucially, she said that female-only exhibitions were able to do so without some of the big male artists’ names drawing attention away. Despite this, only a small proportion of the pieces purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts over the course of the study was made by women. In the decade of the research, the institution bought a total of 3,788 artworks by women out of a total of 90,215 works of art.

A Radical Step?

According to Burns, the aforementioned podcast producer, some smaller institutions in the US have been working hard to deal with the issue of female under-representation in museums. She pointed out that the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts added a mere 21 works of art by women in 2008 when the study began. However, in its final year, the museum had acquired no fewer than 288 pieces by female artists. In fact, she made it clear that this relative success had come about because the museum’s professionals had made an explicit commitment to alter the nature of its galleries within the course of the study.

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Back in 2013, the museum sold a painting from its permanent collection to fund a buying strategy that would be focussed on acquiring contemporary works of art by under-represented artists, notably women and people of colour. The sale of ‘East Wind Over Weehawken’, a well-known image by Edward Hopper, raised $36 million which meant that the museum’s acquisition committee was able to redress some of the imbalances in its collection. Since then, the museum has purchased works by a diverse group of artists which includes Wangechi Mutu, Joan Brown, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Rina Banerjee and Elizabeth Okie Paxton, among others.

The director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Brooke Davis Anderson, said that she acknowledged selling art from a permanent collection is sometimes a controversial thing to do. However, she also conceded that it has made room for some important new acquisitions, in particular, those by women artists. “This step makes it evident that we are a museum committed to supporting artists working today,” she said.

If other institutions follow her example, then perhaps similar studies in a decade from now will show less imbalance. For now, however, the sector continues to grapple with the issues the report has raised.

About the author – Manuel Charr

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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