Shifting Perspectives: A Brighter Future for Women Artists

Updated: Nov 20, 2019

This article first appeared on Medium.com To view the article on the Medium site, click on "Shifting Perspectives" by Patrizia Salles


Some of us have difficulty interpreting and understanding why disparities still exist in this day and age — be they economic, ethnic, religion or gender based . . . I certainly do. Growing up in North America, Africa and Europe my siblings and I were exposed at an early age to amazing diversity. A convergence of ideas, customs and backgrounds for acceptance and true “knowing.”


Silent mower by Matt Seymour unsplash

We moved into our first home with a yard in 1970. Power mowers had become affordable. But father, true to his conservationist leanings, wouldn’t have one. Too noisy, and in his words, “What is the problem with manpower anyway?” Cued up with the neighbourhood kids on Saturday mornings I took my turn at the silent push mower, a tubular base set on a stick with horizontal spinning blades. As I walked it across the lawn it cleanly sliced the grass with a swish. My brother tasked with keeping up the lawn for his allowance, managed to charge his buddies for the novelty.


We girls were assigned house duties helping mother. Yet thinking back, our family jobs were one of the few gender biases experienced within our family. Beyond that, we had the good fortune of freedoms (within limits) to entertain our own ideas, to follow our own path and choose friends regardless of gender, race, religion or socioeconomic background. A tolerant and inspirational environment.


It took 25 years of working hard to achieve my financial independence in the commercial art world, only to realise mother was wrong, the world was right!


There still exist today, huge disparities in gender, race and so on, especially in compensation — across multiple professions to include art.

Much has been written lately about the value and pricing imbalance of women produced art as compared to their male counterparts and the shortfall in opportunities for women creatives in promoting their art.


As Laure Adler and Camille Viéville explain in their book The Trouble with Women Artists, “The belief that women’s art is somehow less impressive than men’s persists, leading their works to be undervalued. The chain reaction continues as gallerists and curators populate their walls with the moneymakers, who happen to be men.”


According to ArtnetNews, only 13.7% of living artists represented by galleries in Europe and North America are women. In an analysis by economist Claire McAndrew, The Art Newspaper reported that of the 3,050 galleries in the Artsy database as much as 10% of galleries have no women on their books at all, while only 8% represent more women than men. Almost half (48%) represent 25% or fewer women. Artsy.net is a web-based platform for collecting and discovering art. Interesting enough, Artsy’s mission is “. . . to expand the art market to support more artists and art in the world.”


Why the Gap?

One has only to consider how unlikely a female Leonardo Da Vinci would have been in the position to create weapons of war for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Or how “one of the more delicate sex” could have had access to grave robbers for sourcing cadavers for her study of human anatomy.


Crossbow, one of the many weapons of war designed by Leonardo da Vinci.

Whitney Chadwick in her book Women, Art, and Society, wrote “Throughout the nineteenth century, women artists had to overcome great odds to pursue their livelihoods. Besides the prejudice expressed by male critics that women weren’t meant to create serious art, entrance into premier art schools for women ranged from extremely difficult to impossible. In fact, ‘from the 16–19th centuries, women were barred from studying the nude model, which formed the basis for academic training and representation.’”


And Elizabeth Lee, in her 1997 paper for Brown University entitled Women artists — Art Education for Women, shares the following about the lack of opportunities for women artists throughout history. “England’s Royal Academy did not allow women into its Antique Schools until 1862, while École des Beaux-Arts in France completely shut out women. Notably in the United States, the Pennsylvania Academy allowed women and even set up a Ladies Life Class with a nude female model by 1868. Once inside any institution, women found their educations woefully inadequate in comparison to the men’s classes, which were sometimes just upstairs.”


On the Pricing Front:

Sociologist Taylor Whitten Brown, from her essay Why Is Work by Female Artists Still Valued Less Than Work by Male Artists? states “At the entry tier or local gallery level women’s list prices are 16% lower than men’s.” Not bad. However, in regional, national and international (or blue-chip) galleries where the real money is, Brown found that “List prices for women on average are almost 30% (27.5%) below men’s.” Brown’s study utilised art market internal data gleaned from Artsy and compiled by Clare McAndrew for The Art Market 2019 Report produced by Art Basel and UBS.


Sotheby’s Mei Moses found that “Between 2012 and 2018 the price for women’s art work on the auction market (or re-sale market) rose by an astonishing 73 percent, while sales results rose just eight percent for men. By comparison, the study found that resale markets for men and women had been about the same over the 50 previous years. Contemporary women artists active after 1945 saw the biggest boost, reselling for 87.7 percent more than their male peers. Other female artists outperformed the men by 30.7 percent.”


“There could be many different reasons for our findings — maybe different cultural factors playing in the way that people are looking at art,” Michael Klein, the head of the Sotheby’s Mei Moses, told The Art Newspaper. “The bottom line is that the demand for female artists is growing.”


In her article A New Study Has Simple Advice for Collectors Looking for Big Returns on Art: Invest In Women (ArtnetNews), Sarah Cascone cites “And because women’s work has been overlooked for so long, there is nowhere for their market to go but up.”


French painter Marguerite Gérard (1761–1837) by François Dumont — Art Renewal Center

Peter Gerdman, the head of research at ArtTactic, offers a similar glimmer of hope. Speaking on a panel on the African art market at Talking Galleries on 22 January, 2019, his data showed that three out of the top five selling African artists at auction are women–and they are all alive.


A Rosy Outlook?

“The changed climate can be attributed to a host of causes: the increased focus on women’s rights across society, decades of activism by feminist artists and a simple matter of economics. But a much more gratifying reason is the belated recognition that work by women deserves support and attention because it is worthy.” writes Mary Gabriel in her recent book Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler, Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art. She goes on to say Indeed, women have made great art since artists first put charcoal to stone or oil to canvas, and there is plenty of important work, old and new, by women. Curators and collectors just need to adjust their lenses and give that work its full due.”


The improvements are presenting themselves, in my opinion far more slowly than they should. But we have to believe, that given a top notch education, international exposure and a sense of self-worth, our children and their children will experience a more level playing field and boundless prospects.

For further Reading:


Want to Get Rich Buying Art? Invest in Women, by Mary Gabriel


Get the Facts: National Museum of Women in the Arts


Women’s Place in the Art World. Female Artists Represent Just 2 Percent of the Market. Here’s Why — and How That Can Change, by Julia Halperin & Charlotte Burns


Baltimore Museum of Art will only acquire works by women in 2020




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