Women’s art is everywhere. Tate’s summer blockbuster, a Georgia O’Keefe retrospective, opened last week. There’s must-see exhibitions of Yayoi Kusama at Victoria Miro, and Mona Hatoum at Tate Modern. The Mary Heilmann exhibition at the Whitechapel is garnering much attention, while Hilma af Klint at the Serpentine this year and Georgiana Houghton at the Courtauld, are being heralded as pioneers of abstract art and modernism, predating and inspiring the ‘fathers’ of abstraction, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich. We have women at the helm of major art institutions: Iwona Blazwick at the Whitechapel, Frances Morris at Tate Modern.
Do we need Women in Art, an initiative to promote gender equality in the art world and profile women working in the industry?
Women’s role in art has been debated for decades. The Western art world obsession with white, male, American and European artists was openly brought into question with the rise of Feminism in the ‘60’s and 70’s. In the 1980’s, the Guerrilla Girls burst onto the art scene to protest against discrimination in the contemporary art world. Their initial focus was on ‘An International Survey of Painting and Culture’, a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which purported to be an accurate survey of the best in contemporary art. It featured few women artists or artists of colour. This led to broader questions concerning the art world as a whole. The Guerrilla Girls launched campaigns highlighting the lack of diversity within the art world, and the sexism inherent in art institutions, galleries and the market.
Over the last four years the issues have been addressed in the UK by the Fawcett Society, the UK’s leading charity campaigning for women’s equality and rights, and the Freelands Foundation, set up to increase art engagement and empower artists. They found significant inequalities persist at the professional milestones of a successful career as an artist. They found a drop-off in numbers between women graduating at university and those working in the industry. The ratio of solo shows by women artists still lags behind mens. The numbers of women represented by galleries is still significantly less. The visibility of mid-career women artists is much lower.
Of course, the art world exists within the wider structure of society and reflects the dominant hierarchy. Therefore, just as women are primarily presented in the media as mothers, sexualised beings or a spectacle (The Sun’s reaction to Theresa May’s promotion to UK Prime Minister was to put her shoes on the front cover, rather than her policies), women’s art is seen through a similarly reductive gender paradigm where Tracey Emin and Georgia O’Keefe are discussed in terms of sex and sexual imagery, rather than their contribution to the art canon.
We can see inequalities reiterated when we look at the gender gap in prices paid for works of art. Georgia O’Keefe famously hated being categorised as a female artist. Her painting, Jimson Weed, White Flower No. 1 (1936), broke the record for the most expensive work by a woman sold at auction, netting $44.4 million at Sotheby’s in 2014. This remains the highest amount paid for a women’s artwork and while an awful lot of money, pales beside the highest prices reached by male artists. Pablo Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger, (1955) was sold last year at Christie’s in New York for just short of $180 million.
For living artists, Bluewald (1989) by Cady Noland was sold at auction for just below $10 million in 2015, Yayoi Kusama’s White No. 28 (1960) sold at Christie’s New York for approximately $7.1 million, and Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, produced in the 70’s, were sold for around $7 million in 2014. These sales are dwarfed by Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog (Orange), which sold for $58.4 million in 2013.
The question Linda Nochlin famously posed – ‘Why are there no great women artists?’ – seemingly resonates in the minds of art collectors today, and is reflected in the commercial viability of women’s art.
Do you want a glittering and critically acclaimed art career? Fine if you‘re male, old, white or dead. If you’re young, female, or an artist of colour, there’s work to be done. Which is where Women in Art comes in.
We’re looking forward to seeing more diversity, young and mid-career women artists’ work shown and occupying expanded press space, more women graduating and working in the industry, more work by women artists reaching higher prices in the market, more critically acclaimed blockbuster exhibitions, and more women taking up positions of power in art institutions, with a more equal balance of support roles. Women in Art will explore and debate these issues, and actively promote women in the art world.