Out of the canvas and behind it

Art is not born from nothing. It follows social structures. Art is not only about aesthetics, especially today. On the contrary, it has developed a complex relationship with the idea of beauty – but this is not what the following lines are about. Art is part of the substance of society, like a canvas soaked in ink and staring you straight in the face. And you can’t hide from that blue colour…

A discussion about art is not only about the content, about what art itself is, but also about where it is exhibited, how it is bought, and, more importantly, who is behind it. As in life, the underrepresentation of women in art should not be a surprising coincidence. Nevertheless, don’t take anyone’s word for it – numbers are safer to trust.

 The story is long and complex, so let’s start systematically, with the school. It seems that a kind of gender parity has been formed among students (in some places in the West, at least) ever since the 1980’s. In recent years, the balance has tilted in favour of the female gender. Historically, women have been excluded from the professional spheres in many fields, and their practice included in the amateur zone. Once in school, women are taught not to make art that is too feminine, not to use pink, flowers or other such “derogatory” elements.

After graduation, the next glass ceiling that female artists must pass through is to be chosen and represented by a gallery. A recent study reports that only 13.7% of gallery artists in Europe and North America are women. The emerging female artist status raises many questions for gallerists and becomes more difficult to overcome…

One of the most frequent reasons is that women’s art is less valuable (good) than that of men. Or at least that’s how the arguments sounded in the ’80s, when the feminist-activist Guerrilla Girls group was founded as a reaction to the status quo in art. Since 1985, the Guerrilla Girls have pointed the finger at the world’s art institutions like museums and galleries, and even art critics, through street actions, posters or exhibitions organised in the very institutions they criticize. They have put this issue on the public agenda.

 However, like any revolutionary movement, the group has had to cope with a number of problems, such as the argument, put forward by decision-makers in art, that women’s art is not as present, as visible, as that of men. The circularity of this argument doesn’t seem to be much of a problem for the art world, so we can move on (please don’t roll your eyes, dear readers, this is just beginning).

 Once displayed in galleries, art created by women must make the leap from the primary market (galleries) to the secondary market (auction houses). Statistically, there is a significant difference between the male artists (96.9%) and the female artists (93%) who take this leap. Almost 15% of the living female artistic population give up art while making this leap. The percentage is higher, because the statistics refer only to the artists who manage to be represented by a gallery.

 On a higher level of the contemporary artistic world, that of museums, the situation is not look better either. Only 11% of artists have the chance to be exhibited in museums. Between 2007 and 2013, of the 590 major art exhibitions in the U.S. art institutions, only 27% were dedicated to female artists. The problem also extends to the administrative-institutional level. In almost 230 years of existence, the Louvre appointed its first female director only in September 2021, while the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have never had a female director.

 Returning to the female artist’s career path, those who manage to break into the secondary market must learn “the winner takes all” lesson – the winnings go to a small number of people in a group. On a global scale, only 146 female artists (around 2.6%) were responsible for 91% of auction house sales between 2000 and 2017. In the case of men, however, the percentages are distributed more evenly.

 We have reached the last level, that of superstars. Joan Mitchell, the best-selling artist between 2000 and 2017, ranks only 47th in a ranking that includes both genders. And “the icing on the cake” is that the cumulative sales of all the female artists (5,612 in number) included in the database used in this study do not even equal those of Andy Warhol, who ranks second.

Statistically, becoming a (well-known) female artist is almost impossible. Over time, women have faced discourses that denied their humanity, their right to vote, their right to education or to their own bodies. What has remained constant is their resilience, their confidence or at least hope for justice. And although hope is sometimes considered as naive as female art, the woman’s merit lies in the fact that she has made herself human. And she will make herself an artist too.