Women at MoMA: The First 60 Years

Anna Jacobson
Published in
12 min readOct 30, 2018


In New York in the late 1920s, three progressive and influential patrons of the arts were inspired to challenge the conservative policies of traditional museums. Lillie P. Bliss, Mary Quinn Sullivan, and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller wanted to create an institution devoted exclusively to modern art, which they loosely defined as works created after 1880. Their mission was to help people understand and enjoy the visual arts of their time and to establish “the greatest museum of modern art in the world.”

MoMA founders Lillie P. Bliss, Mary Quinn Sullivan, and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.

In 1929, this group of “daring ladies”, as they were known socially, along with additional original trustees A. Conger Goodyear, Paul Sachs, Frank Crowninshield, and Josephine Boardman Crane, opened the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on the 12th floor of the Heckscher Building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in Manhattan. Its first exhibition, Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Van Gogh was extremely well-received; the exhibition attracted over 47,000 visitors during its one-month run. Since its opening, MoMA has presented more than 3,500 exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, architecture and design, photography, film, performance, and new media.

Many of MoMA’s achievements have been due to the efforts of women; the Museum was the idea and creation of women, and from its founders in 1929 to its many female senior staff, officers, and trustees today, women have been instrumental in the institution’s success. Nonetheless, its history is checkered with evidence of under-representation of women.

Consistent with other social upheavals of the 1960s in America, by the end of that decade the gender disparities at MoMA were clearly recognized and, to many, found unacceptable. In 1969 the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), a New York-based group of creatives, made a number of demands of MoMA, including that “the Museum should encourage female artists to overcome the centuries of damage done to the image of the female as an artist by establishing equal representation of the sexes in exhibitions, museum purchases and on selection committees”. As a result of these demands, AWC’s Women Artists in Revolution (WAR) committee negotiated the following commitment from the Museum: that it should designate a curator to research women artists not represented by major galleries and report his or her findings to the department; investigate the feasibility of a historical survey of women artists; and consider a temporary exhibition of work by lesser-known women artists. According to MoMA’s own documentation, there is no evidence that the Museum took substantive action on these matters.

During the exhibition Drawing Now in 1976, a group of women artists picketed MoMA on the grounds that the show included too few women artists; of the 46 artists in the show, five were women. The group accused the Museum of “blatant sexism in overlooking both black and white women artists” and demanded, unsuccessfully, that MoMA organize another Drawing Now exhibition with equal representation of female artists.

MoMA was picketed again in 1984, on the opening of the exhibition International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture. The show, intended to be an up-to-the-minute survey of the most significant contemporary art in the world, included only 14 women among its 169 artists. Out of this protest and subsequent revelations of the under-representation of women artists at other museums and galleries, the activist artist group Guerrilla Girls was born. In one of its earliest posters, from 1985, they asked, “How many women had one-person exhibitions at NYC museums last year?” MoMA had only one.

Guerilla Girls’ 1985 poster showing the number of women who had one-person exhibitions at New York City art museums.

The goal of this analysis is to use data to identify, quantify, and explore gender trends among MoMA’s exhibiting artists during its first sixty years.

The MoMA exhibition dataset was compiled by a project team from the museum’s archives. This research dataset lists 28 variables for the participants of 1,788 exhibitions, all of the known exhibitions held at the museum in the 60 years from its opening in 1929 through 1989. A total of 11,550 unique constituents are represented in this dataset, including all known curators and organizers, artists, and other participants for each exhibition. The total number of instances is 34,558. Approximately 15% of raw data is missing the artist’s gender; the majority of the missing information was added based on internet searches (e.g. Wikipedia) and deduction based on the artist’s first name.

In addition, this analysis utilizes another dataset prepared by MoMA, the staff history dataset. This dataset provides information about all directors of the Museum and department heads of individual curatorial departments since the Museum’s founding. The total number of instances is 65.

This analysis also uses the Women in the Labor Force dataset compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, which provides the number of women in the U.S. workforce by year.

This analysis examines the gender of the exhibiting artist, considering both each instance of an exhibiting artist and unique artists only, depending on the specific analysis. For the purposes of this analysis, “gender” is defined as male, female, or unknown (i.e. the artist’s gender is not included in the dataset). The data includes only those constituents whose role in the exhibition is identified as “Artist” (other roles such as “Curator” are not included) and who are identified as “Individual” (not “Institution” or “Company”).

The number of artists by gender shows the great prevalence of male artists over female artists, particularly when the analysis is of all instances (i.e. includes multiple exhibitions of a single artist), where males outnumber women nine to one. (See Fig.1.)

Fig. 1 — Number of artists exhibited by gender for all instances and unique artists only.

Both genders showed fluctuation in the number of artists exhibited year over year (see Fig. 2). These numbers do not exhibit a clear upward or downward trend over time.

Fig. 2 — Number of artists by gender by year.

However, the analysis of absolute numbers of artists by gender by year may mask or distort trends as the total absolute number of artists varied from year to year, from 24 in 1929 to 1,297 in 1949. Because of this, the proportion of male and female artists per year is likely a better measure of gender disparity (see Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 — Analysis of male and female artists, showing the year and the lowest percentage of artists shown for each gender and the year and the highest percentage of artists shown for each gender.

The percentage of artists exhibited by gender fluctuated year over year (see Fig. 4). This chart does not demonstrate a clear upward or downward trend over time, although it shows an increase from beginning to end.

Fig. 4 — Artists by gender as a percentage of total artists exhibited by year.

By decade, it is easier to see that the percentage of artists by gender exhibited does show an upward trend in female artists’ representation over time, from 8% in the 1930s to 14% in the 1980s, but with a relatively large dip (3%) in the 1960s. Male artists’ representation shows a corresponding downward trend over time, from 92% in the 1930s to 86% in the 1980s. (See Fig. 5.)

Fig. 5 — Artists by gender as a percentage of total artists exhibited by decade.

Furthermore, the total number of days that male artists’ work was exhibited (2,275,948 days) is more than ten times the number of days that female artists’ work was shown (223,228 days) (see Fig. 6). The average male artist was shown for 16% longer than the average female artist (91.26 versus 79.33 days).

Fig. 6 — Number of exhibition days by gender.

By decade, the gender disparity in number of exhibition days is slightly greater than the disparity in number of artists exhibited, with female artists exhibited on 6.5% of the total exhibition days in the 1930s to almost 13% in the 1980s (see Fig. 7). It is positive that over time the proportion of exhibition time almost converged with the proportion of number of artists, meaning that by the 1980s the amount of time artists were shown was close to proportionate regardless of sex. However, at 13–14%, both the number of female artists and the amount of time that they were exhibited were still very low.

Fig. 7— Number of exhibition days by decade by gender.

The gender split among the exhibiting artists clearly did not track with the even gender split of the overall population; this led to an examination of whether the gender disparity was consistent with gender disparity in the American workforce as a whole. In comparison to the representation of women in the overall civilian workforce in the United States (16%-28% from 1948 (the earliest year for which the employment data is available) to 1989 (the latest year for which the MoMA data is available)), representation of female artists in MoMA’s exhibitions is quite low at 5%-16%. In addition, female participation in the overall workforce steadily increased over the time period between 1948 and 1989, while female participation in MoMA’s exhibitions shows much more fluctuation, with 1968 — almost the exact midpoint of the dataset’s time period — being the year of lowest female representation. (See Fig. 8.)

Fig. 8 — Comparison of female artists as a percentage of total artists exhibited to women workers as a percentage of total U.S. workforce, by year.

An amplifying factor in the gender imbalance is that female artists were less likely than male artists to have multiple exhibitions; the average number of exhibitions for a unique male artist was 3.6 between 1929 and 1989, while the average number of exhibitions for a unique female artist during the same period was 2.4 (see Fig. 9).

Fig. 9 — Average number of exhibitions by gender.

This phenomenon is also illustrated by a comparison of the most-exhibited artists by gender (see Fig. 10); the most-exhibited male artists were shown four to six times more often than the most-exhibited female artists.

Fig. 10 — Top ten artists by total number of exhibitions, by gender, ranked from highest to lowest.

In addition, the data shows that male artists consistently had more solo (one-person) exhibitions than female artists (see Fig. 11). The average annual number of solo exhibitions featuring male artists was 8.6 and the maximum annual number was 22, while the average annual number of solo exhibitions featuring female artists was 2.0. Notably, between 1929 and 1938 and again from 1950 and 1965, there were no one-woman exhibitions.

Fig. 11 — Number of solo artists exhibited by gender by year.

The only year in which the number of solo exhibitions was equal was 1981, which is also the year of the greatest number of one-woman exhibitions (six). However, even in a year in which equality was achieved by this measure, only 79 artists were female out of 499 total shown, and male artists were exhibited for more than five times as many days.

Analysis of the Museum’s directors and curatorial department heads over the same period reveals that the time of lowest female representation among the artists, the 1930s and 1960s, approximately corresponds with the periods in which the Museum had no women in these leadership roles. Conversely, the time of highest female artist representation, the 1980s, was also the time of the highest proportion of female administrators. Another period with high representation of female artists, the 1950s, was immediately preceded by a period of high representation of female administrators, starting with the Museum’s first female department head, Janet Henrich of the Department of Architecture, in 1941. (See Fig. 12.)

Fig. 12 — Representation among artists and administrators by gender by year.

It is possible that the clear relationship between female administrators and female artists is a direct result of support of female artists by the female department heads. It is also possible that female representation in both areas resulted from the overall culture of the Museum at the time, with times of greater inclusivity reflected in higher numbers of women in both administration and exhibition.

MoMA’s exhibitions from 1929 to 1989 overwhelmingly featured male artists, who overall were shown at almost nine times the frequency of their female counterparts and for more than ten times as long. In addition, the much lower likelihood of female artists to be exhibited multiple times and to receive solo exhibitions indicates that female artists were not only at a numerical disadvantage but also lacked the status and recognition given to their male peers.

There are many possible explanations for why female artists were so dramatically under-represented in MoMA’s exhibitions during this period, and it is likely that a combination of different factors contributed to the disparity. One explanation is that there may have been fewer female artists practicing during this time period, which is a logical assumption since there were fewer women than men in almost all professions at this time. However, representation of female artists in the exhibitions was much lower than representation of female workers in the overall civilian workforce in the United States and did not show similar year-over-year improvement. Another explanation is that since the museum administration was dominated by men, they may have been consciously or unconsciously biased toward selecting male artists to exhibit. This theory is supported by a comparison of artists and administrators by gender. A third explanation is that both the development of artists and the works of art themselves are determined by social institutions, including art academies, systems of patronage, and cultural norms, which historically have strongly favored male artists and rejected female ones.

Surprisingly, the decade of the highest representation of female artists before the 1980s is the 1950s, a decade that is notorious for its gender inequality in American culture. Also surprisingly, the decade of the lowest representation of female artists after the 1920s is the 1960s, the decade of the Women’s Liberation Movement. If the exhibitions were influenced by overall cultural attitudes toward gender equality, it is possible that these attitudes were not reflected in the artist selections until some years later, which might have pushed their effect into the next decade.

Perhaps as a predictable reaction to the low representation of female artists in the 1960s, the watershed year of 1969 was the start of a fifteen-year period of activism focused on gender equality at MoMA. The data shows a modest trend of improvement in MoMA’s gender imbalance from that time until 1989, indicating that these efforts had some impact. However, gender equality at MoMA still lagged far behind the many societal improvements in gender equality that took place during the latter half of the 20th century.

While we do not have access to MoMA’s exhibition data from 1990 to the present, there is ample evidence that gender disparity in the visual arts is still a major issue today, despite that there are now more female professional visual artists working than men. Of 590 major exhibitions by nearly 70 institutions in the United States from 2007 to 2013, only 27% were devoted to female artists. The highest price paid for a painting by a female artist ($45.9M for Jimson Weed/White Flower №1 by Georgia O’Keeffe) is only about one-seventh the highest price paid for a modern male artist’s work ($310M for Interchange by Willem de Kooning). A 2016 survey of over 33,000 individuals with degrees in the arts found that female artists on average earn $20,000 less than men. And of the 100 most influential people in art, according to ArtReview’s 2017 Power 100 ranking, only 38% were women.

Yet there is also reason to hope. In the past two years, the dramatic elevation of public consciousness about the obstacles facing women today has shone a light on inequity in almost every industry, including the art world. Conversations about gender in art are everywhere, ranging from representation in exhibition to portrayal in the works to male artists’ treatment of women. According to biographer Mary Gabriel in her September 2018 New York Times op-ed, “Galleries are adding more women to their rosters, museums like the Uffizi in Florence are combing their storage facilities in search of treasures that deserve airing, and numerous institutions have been mounting exhibitions of art by women. On the eve of this fall’s auction season, the art market appears to be experiencing a long overdue correction… last spring in New York, auction sales records were shattered for the works of 15 female artists.” She goes on to point out that women have always made great art. What needs to change in order for them to achieve equality is the perspective of those who assign value to art — gallerists, curators, collectors — and even the ordinary museum-goer.