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The Art World Lacks Faith in Female Artists

25/11/2015 16:54 GMT | Updated 25/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Frieze, London, 2015. I am chatting to one of the world's most respected gallerists. His stand includes a colossal installation and some works on paper by one of my favourite artists. When I show my surprise at how relatively affordable the works are, he shrugs and says, "what can I say, people don't have faith in female artists." Of course he is being somewhat flippant; no commercial gallery operates as a charity. Yet afterwards I ask myself, would the artist in question be priced higher if she was male? In Siri Husdvedt's new novel, The Blazing World, which I am currently reading, the female protagonist only gains attention in the art world when she has adopts male pseudonyms.  Her rationale: "All intellectual and artistic endeavours (...) fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or the great spoof it can locate a cock and a pair of balls." Could it really be that in 2015 misgivings of the female artist still reign?

As an artist myself, suspicions of latent sexism in the art world have always lurked. Art history reminds us of the spattering of artists and art collectives such as Judy Chicago and Guerrilla Girls who have brazenly tackled sexism in the art-world. Other artists, such as Louise Bourgeois and Alice Neel only gained prominent recognition late in their careers - in their 70s - reinforcing the idea that women in the art-world need to go that extra decade (or three) to be valued. Of course the sheer dearth of women in art history is remarkable. Countless have been ignored, undervalued or, in the case of Lee Krasner, eclipsed for far too long by a famous husband. These days, however, it is easy for discrimination in the art-world to go relatively undetected because it is seemingly subliminal and less prominent than it was. Besides, aren't there numerous female artists of all ages enjoying tremendous and well-deserved success? What's the problem?

The problem - apart from tokenism, which blinds us into thinking all is fair and square - is that all is not fair and square. If money talks, the gap between the most expensive artworks at auction by living female and male artists speaks volumes. In 2014, a Yayoi Kusama painting fetched $7.1 million. That same year an editioned sculpture by Jeff Koons went under the hammer for a record-breaking $58.4 million. Death doesn't prove to be the great leveller either. While a Georgia O'Keefe painting went for $44.4 million in 2014, Pablo Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger trumped at $179.4 million shortly after. Artnet recently published their 2015 Top 100 Most Collectable Living Artists lists. In the list that ranks artists by the total value of secondary market sales, just six female artists feature. The list that tracks top lots for individual artworks sees only Yayoi Kusama making the grade. Woeful statistics, especially given that female art students have been outweighing their male contemporaries for decades now.

The closer one examines art-world statistics, Maura Reilly observes, the more glaringly obvious it becomes that discrimination against women permeates every aspect of the art world. Her essay, Taking the Measure of Sexism: facts, figures and fixes, is an epic exercise in tallying the numbers. Whether its auction prices, press coverage, gallery representation, inclusion in museum's permanent collections or solo exhibition programs, women are trailing. Art critic Jerry Saltz, addressing MoMA's "stubborn unwillingness" to include more women in its collection, refers to it as "apartheid." When Artnet questioned 20 of the most powerful women in the art world on whether there was an industry bias, the artist Marilyn Minter's quip "Hahaha...Is the Pope Catholic?" summed up the collective mood. As Reilly surmises, "despite decades of postcolonial, feminist, anti-racist, and queer activism and theorizing, the majority continues to be defined as white, Euro-American, heterosexual, privileged, and, above all, male." This is a catastrophic case of missed opportunities the world over.

Undeniably, women artists are in a far better position today than they ever were.

Increasingly more women hold higher powered roles in the sector. Bright sparks like Iwona Blazwick, director of Whitechapel Gallery, granted 40% of its exhibitions over the last seven years to female artists (in comparison to the Hayward with 22%). Tate Modern, despite dedicating only 25% of exhibitions to females over the same period, included 3 solo exhibitions by female artists in their 2015 program. The tide is turning but we must not be lulled into complacency. All artists - regardless of their sex, race, gender, age, physical ability, sexual orientation or where they were born - should be judged on an equal footing. Great art, after all, is rare. It is in everyone's interests to facilitate its discovery and nurture its development.

What can be done? Seeing is believing. Before researching this post I had no idea how far the imbalance tipped. The lack of faith in female artists is entrenched. Awareness is key. Women artists must confront the reality of their present situation. We must talk about it, loudly. We must urge museums, galleries, collectors, critics, curators, lecturers and art dealers to do their own number crunching. We must insist they play their part in lessoning the disparity. Recently, at Dublin's national theatre, gender bias took centre stage. #WakingTheFeminists swept social media, trending on Twitter and filling column inches. Even Meryl Streep got on board to contest the Abbey Theatre's male saturated theatre program. Talks were held, eyes were opened and Irish theatre was given a good kicking in its sexist behind. We must learn from campaigns like these. We must join forces across industries and with other marginalised groups. Equality is for all. We must be fearless about demanding it.

Tracy Emin said it would be some 200 years before women are fully valued as artists. Shaving off even a zero is defeatist. We must actively seek parity today.