Here’s a question for you, can you name 5 female artists? Are they alive and currently working? It’s pretty challenging, isn’t it? This is the sad reality of underrepresentation of women in the arts and begs another question, why are there so few female artists?
It seems almost absurd that in the time of #MeToo and #TimesUp that we’re still talking about poor representation of women in a field that is, in some ways, so well-respected and loved. Unfortunately, the figures surrounding women in the arts are pretty dire. According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, work by female artists currently only make up about 3 – 5% of works in major museums in the U.S and Australia. In the U.K, things look marginally better, where women account for roughly 20% of major galleries. This is still maddening, however, when you consider that 51% of visual artists currently producing work are women. So, where in some industries there is a need to get more women into the field, there is very clearly a good number of female artists. Women are here and producing art, they’re just simply not being recognised for it.
The pay gap is a worldwide issue, but it’s just confusing when it’s applied to women in the arts. On average, male artists earn $20 000 more per year than their female counterparts across all art jobs. But where it gets weird is that according to ArtFinder (a high-end online marketplace based in the U.K that works in a similar way to Etsy) female artists sell their work 16% quicker than male artists and for every £1m made by a man for his art, female works will make £1,16m. And yet, of the top 10 richest artists alive, there is not a single woman in that list.
Basically, the point here is that there are very clearly a good number of productive and current female artists. And the fact that their works sell for so much tells us that they are clearly talented. And yet the numbers of women in galleries, and auctions are so ridiculously low. Recent figures show that in 2017, 96% of pieces sold at auction were by men.
So, how do the numbers drop so dramatically when it comes to getting women into galleries and auctions?
Well, it could be something related to society’s obsession with the ‘Masters’. Though the Masters were a recognized group of prolific painters (mostly) in the 1800s, the word has become synonymous with the Renaissance style works they became known for. Now, I mean no disrespect to these artists. Their influence on the art world is important, and of course, they were talents. But this terms is problematic to use now because it almost immediately excludes women and has set a precedent for a gallery’s worth being measured by its number of masters. Think of why you love The Tate, The Louvre, The Met and The Uffizi, for example. It’s because of the Rothko, Warhol, Da Vinci, Michaelangelo and Botticelli, to name a few. The mere fact that there isn’t an immediate female counterpart that comes to mind so easily says it all.
It could also be that galleries, traditionally, are managed and curated by men and that ‘bros before hoes’ mentality lives on – even if subconsciously. Where we encourage women to smash through the glass ceiling, that also applies to women in leadership roles at art galleries and auctions. There’s no shortage of women with this expertise either, it’s a known fact that women make up the majority of the numbers at art schools and art-related degrees.
All-female rebel group Guerrilla Girls also asked a question in 1989 that makes this gender imbalance even more sickening. “Do women have to be naked to get into The Met?”. This was in direct response to the state of the gallery at the time, where less than 5% of the works in the gallery were by women and yet 85% of the nudes are female. Though this campaign was nearly 30 years ago, the point still rings true today. A walk through any gallery will show how society fetishes the female form all the while excluding women. It’s almost laughable.
So, how do we change this?
Women have been excluded from most important moments in history, in every industry. But now, when we’re talking about getting more women in more roles generally held by men, it’s time to look at making the most of an industry that has a large pool of female talent. And while it can feel overwhelming to make a difference, acknowledging the inequality is a good start. And then support female artists where you can. The next time you visit any gallery, count the number of works by women and if the number is disappointing, bring it up with the curator. The time is over for us to skim over the injustice of the past simply because that’s how it’s done now.
In honour of International Women’s Day, let’s band together to give female artists the recognition they deserve.