Sexism in the Workplace: Museum Edition
Name your favorite female artists. Maybe Frida Kahlo or Georgia O’Keeffe are on the list. Anyone else? Now, name your favorite male artists. Van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir, Manet, Matisse, Monet, — the list goes on. There is a reason that male artists are more well-known and more prominent than female artists.
Sexism in the workplace touches the lives of artists, as well as professionals in the art industry, such as gallery owners, curators, and museum directors. Sexism is a large part of why more male artists will immediately come to mind when asked who your favorite artist is. It is the reason that more museums and galleries showcase male artists rather than female artists. It is the reason that there is such a disparity in the prices that male versus female art pieces will sell for, and it is the reason that there is a gender pay gap in the art industry on the professional side.
Proof that female artists are vastly overlooked as compared to their male counterparts is something that is visible to the eye when examining the numbers in museums and galleries across the country. And while there has been some improvement in the numbers of female artists represented in galleries and museums in the last 10–15 years, the improvement is minimal, at best, especially given the day and age we live in today in which many consider society to be more progressive. Well, progress is slow, and it is apparent in the art world, as well.
According to Art News, in 2000, the Guggenheim Museum in New York held no solo shows by women artists. By 2014, still, only 14% of solo shows held were by female artists. Even more unimpressive are the numbers at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Out of the 410 works on display in galleries on the 4th and 5th floors that feature artwork from 1880–1970, only 16 of the 410 pieces were by women. That’s 4% of nearly a century’s worth of artwork by female artists on display in one of the most famous and prestigious museums in the world. Those numbers haven’t increased very much since then. As of April 2015, the number of pieces by female artists in those same galleries on the 4th and 5th floors of the Museum of Modern Art had only increased to 7%. The below infographic demonstrates these numbers.
This sort of disproportion is not just found in museums. Art galleries display the same kind of inequality between displays of male and female artists’ work. As reported in Micol Hebron’s project, Gallery Tally, by her estimation only 30% of artists represented by commercial galleries in Los Angeles and New York are women. These numbers are staggering, especially when considering the fact that, according to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 51% of visual artists are women.
Not only are female artists not able to get even close to the amount of exposure that male artists do in museums and galleries, but they are also not as highly compensated when it comes to the sale of their art. Art News reports that the highest paid price for work by a living woman artist, Yayoi Kusama, is $7.1 million. In contrast, the highest price paid for a piece of work by a male artist, Jeff Koons, is $58.4 million. That’s more than a few cents on the dollar, not that that’s excusable either. That’s a difference of more than $51 million.
The amount that people are willing to pay for art directly affects the artist’s viability, their credit as an artist. Taking a wild guess, the large gap, or chasm, rather, between the price that a female artist is able to sell her artwork for and what a male artist is able to sell his artwork for could be related to the fact that female artists are so wildly unrepresented in the art world as compared to their male counterparts.
It is quite possible that the lack of representation female artist have is related to the lack of female art directors in museums as compared the amount of male art directors. According to a survey published in 2013 by the Association of Art Museum Directors, out of 211 directors who responded, 90 directors were female — that’s 42.6%, and on average, they earned 79 cents to the dollar compared to male art directors. Equality, or lack thereof, trickles down, from the dollar, to the directors, to the artists themselves and what their work is monetarily worth.
There are however, organizations and groups that have been working diligently to even the playing field for females in the art industry and help them get the recognition they deserve. Revisiting Micol Hebron’s Gallery Tally, she has collaborated with other artists to turn her findings into art — visuals so that one can see the disparities between male and female representation in the art world plain as day. The gender tally artwork by Hebron and other artists inspired by her project have been on display at galleries in LA and the project continues to spread the word about female artists’ underrepresentation in major U.S. galleries. It is also on display for free to everyone via the project’s Tumblr page.
Another well-known group of activists is Guerilla Girls. Guerilla girls is a group of women artists, all of whom go by the names of famous deceased female artists and wear gorilla masks, who came together in 1985 after a 1984 exhibition took place at the Museum of Modern Art in which of 165 artists on display, less than 10% were women or minorities. They created a famous “report card” that graded museums and galleries on the number of female artists on display. Since then, Guerilla Girls has used art and activism to fight sexism and racism in the art world. They have done so via protests and demonstrations, billboards, posters, stickers, publications.
Guerilla Girls today also work to fight sexism and racism in the film and entertainment industry, pop culture, and more through their art. Their artwork has even been displayed in major museums such as The Walker Art Center and the Whitney Museum of Art. The Tate Modern has some of their artwork in its permanent collection, as well. One of the group’s most famous posters which was created to protest the fact that in 1989, only 5% of the artwork on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was by female artists, yet 85% of nudes were of women. In May 2015, Guerilla Girls celebrated their 30th birthday, and while things are slowly improving in the art world, their work is far from over.
Following in their footsteps is the female art collective, Pussy Galore, who created their own report card in 2015. Their report card shows the percentage of women artists’ work displayed in 34 major galleries in the U.S.
Comparing the report cards, side-by-side, although Guerilla Girls’ reports numbers and Pussy Galore’s reports percentages, it is clear that there has been some improvement in the number of female artists’ work displayed in major U.S. galleries. For instance, on the GG report card, the Mary Boone Gallery showed no pieces by female artists between 1985–1987, and according to PG’s 2015 report card, the gallery is now showing 17% of its artwork is by female artists. Yet, in the year 2015, the majority of these galleries’ artwork is by male artists. The Tony Shafrazi Gallery showed only 1 piece of art by a female artist between 1985–1987 according to the Guerilla Girls, and in 2015, only 5% of its artwork was by female artists, according to Pussy Galore. Similarly, the Leo Castelli Gallery showed between 3–4 pieces by female artists from 1985–1987, yet only 14% of the artwork shown there was by female artists as of 2015. Of 34 galleries surveyed by Pussy Galore in 2015, less than 50% of the artwork in 29 of them is by female artists. Again, in the year 2015!
Going back to museums, there are groups and projects within the industry aimed at highlighting women artists and their contributions to the art world. The Modern Women’s Fund is a project founded by artist Sarah Peter and it aims to fund exhibitions by female artists, as well as bring awareness to the history of women in the art world. The Museum of Modern Art, while historically one of the largest offenders of sexism in the art world when it comes to displaying female artists’ work alongside that of male artists equally, was actually founded by three women in 1929. The Modern Women’s Fund created a book in 2009 that is a compilation of essays and artwork by and about the female artists that have played a role in the history of the MoMa. The Modern Women’s Fund Committee currently consists of fourteen members who provide direction and input on the programs and exhibitions. Most recently, Grazyna Kulczyk, one of Poland’s largest contemporary art collectors and contemporary art promoter, joined the committee.
Between groups and organizations like Guerilla Girls, Pussy Galore, and the Modern Women’s Fund, the hope and goal is to draw more awareness to the disparity between female and male recognition and pay in the art world. It is unfortunate that improvement is coming at such a slow rate, but continuing on in the right direction is of the utmost importance in order to ensure that through art, all voices are heard and all perspectives are able to be seen, not just some.