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Women artists get a raw deal in historical collections. Will that ever change?

2 March 2015

It is over 40 years since the art historian Linda Nochlin published an essay called, ‘Why have there been no great female artists?’ She described the situation like this: ‘The fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists, as far as we know, although there have been many interesting and very good ones who remain insufficiently investigated or appreciated; nor have there been any great Lithuanian jazz pianists, nor Eskimo tennis players, no matter how much we might wish there had been.’

Written in the first surge of the most significant feminist movement since the suffragettes, Nochlin’s 1971 essay marked the beginning of an era in which public art institutions were challenged about the representation of women in their collections. Inequality in almost every area of the art world was obvious: male artists dominated both historic collections and also exhibitions of contemporary art; women were excluded or absent from major art history books; almost all the staff in art institutions and universities were men; and work by female artists had less commercial value.

Although there have been improvements since then, imbalances in almost all these areas still exist. Statistics from 2012 reveal that 90 per cent of the visual artists featured in art books were men; work by women artists made up three to five per cent of major permanent collections in the US and Europe; artworks by female artists achieved none of the highest 100 auction prices; of The Art Newspaper’s top 30 most visited exhibitions in New York, Paris, and London, only three were solo exhibitions featuring female artists. And, depending on how you interpret the figures, at best, 36 per cent of living artists collected by the Tate that year were women; at worst, it comes out at 21 per cent.

Perhaps this is understandable if we agree that, as Susan Fisher Sterling, the director of Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), puts it: ‘Museums, in general, mirror the power structures in our society, structures that in the arts, for example, privilege the history of white men’s accomplishments.’ The NMWA was founded in 1987 to be a museum that presents the work of women artists only.

Fisher Sterling believes that taking a strong position and actively reinserting women into the history of art is especially important for the future status of female artists. ‘To empower and support living artists,’ she says, ‘it was necessary that [our] new museum take the lead in shedding light upon women artists of the past and rightfully placing their work within a historical context.’

This leaves older public art institutions with the problem of how to address the prevalence of male artists in their historic collections and exhibition programmes. Do they risk compromising the quality of their displays and failing to represent their permanent collections accurately? Many leading organisations are not shying away from the issue, despite its complexity. ‘Museums ought to question dominant established narratives,’ says Álvaro Rodríguez Fominaya, a curator at the Guggenheim Bilbao. ‘Art institutions can have a great impact in the struggle for gender equality, and the result of this research should be reflected in its programming.’

Eileen Cooper, artist and Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools, says that we should be doing everything we can to help this issue: ‘I am a product of the 1970s art schools, when the feminist debate was just starting. To see that very little has changed over the course of my working life – it’s just so shocking.’ In a piece for RA Magazine last summer about positive discrimination and women artists, she wrote: ‘Contemporary artists are in constant dialogue with art history and, as a generalisation, art history is overwhelmingly about male artists.’ Cooper explained that she favoured a limited form of positive promotion: ‘A short period of prioritisation would allow the achievements of female artists to be visible in the future and help encourage us to present more art by women.’

(c. 1660), Mary Beale.

Sketch of the Artist’s Son, Bartholomew Beale, Facing Left (c. 1660), Mary Beale. Tate Collection

The extent to which this approach is being taken within the museum world, however, varies considerably. It ranges from the NMWA’s women only collection and exhibition-programme to an entire wing of the Brooklyn Museum being dedicated to feminist art; there’s also The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision to show work by lesser-known artists like Helen Torr and Elizabeth Catlett that has never been on view in ‘Reimagining Modernism: 1900–1950’ (the rehang of their modern art collection); and there’s the recent acquisition by the Tate of a painting by Mary Beale, who is regarded as Britain’s first professional female artist.

There seems, however, a general reluctance to introduce quotas that would actively and permanently promote women artists. ‘While we do not operate positive discrimination in relation to women artists Tate is keen to address areas where, historically, women artists may have been unduly neglected,’ explains Ann Gallagher, Head of Collections (British Art). In 2013, her colleague Frances Morris, Head of Collections (International Art) at Tate, was quoted in The White Review as saying: ‘If you implemented a 50 per cent rule in our collection displays, we’d probably be drawing on a fifth of the collection to represent 50 per cent of the display, which would have a grossly distorting effect.’

At the Guggenheim Bilbao, Rodríguez Fominaya prefers more research and awareness-raising to quotas. ‘Gender representation,’ he says, ‘is addressed as part of the museum’s programme and collection in context and in relation to the latest developments in the history of art.’

Even museums with historical collections, such as the National Gallery, are thinking about the problem. Caroline Campbell, who is Head of Curatorial there, points out that the majority of the gallery’s curatorial staff are educated in the feminist debate. ‘Art history is full of surprises and unexpected discoveries,’ she says. ‘We are always looking for a new slant on how we show the collection to engage our audiences, as well as thinking about how the pictures themselves are described to the public.’ However, the museum’s chief concern, she stresses, is always with quality. There are also practical considerations. Artworks are less likely to survive if they are not valued in their own time; the same applies to information about the artist. I asked Campbell about a work by Rosalba Carriera, a female pastel portraitist who lived and worked in Venice in the early 18th century, which was recently rehung. Was that because she was female? ‘Partly,’ she replies, ‘but also because it is a rare and fine example of a pastel portrait, and because it was still in its original frame, which is equally interesting.’ But of course the standards by which art is judged to be of ‘quality’ are not objective. In common with many other pre-1900 collections, the National Gallery was founded upon principles established in the Renaissance. ‘Women artists were admired, and several entered the collection at an early date,’ Campbell explains, ‘but they were considered prodigies.’

Feminist historians argue that art is a language of forms that are sifted into a hierarchy of value – and that it is these fundamental systems that need to be challenged. We should question why so few women are considered to be great artists. In their book Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (1981), Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker wrote that, ‘Women artists have always existed, but because of the economic, social and ideological effects of sexual difference in western, patriarchal culture, women have spoken and acted from a different place within that society and culture’.

Eileen Cooper acknowledges that historical collections like the National Gallery face a dilemma. ‘I see that if you attempt to integrate more women into historical shows you’re working against the canon – of history of art told from a male perspective. But even now I’m thinking about re-evaluating the way I assess what I think is good art, because I realise how much I’m taught in that tradition.’

It is more difficult to argue that post-war collections would suffer similar existential crises if they were to hang more work by women in their displays. The art critic Jerry Saltz lambasted the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its ‘stubborn unwillingness’ to integrate more women into its galleries after a 2006 rehang (three to eight per cent of the work on view was by women, according to his calculations). Promoting artists like Barbara Hepworth and Louise Bourgeois would not have warped the narrative they were trying tell, he argued. The museum’s display was ‘not only a failure of the imagination and a moral emergency; it amounts to apartheid’. MoMA did not respond to the criticism with quotas or a dramatic rehang. Rather, in 2010 it launched the Modern Women’s Project, ‘the first effort by a major North American museum to examine its collection by highlighting the production of modern and contemporary women artists’. Through publications, exhibitions and symposiums, it constructed what it called ‘a conversation between past considerations of MoMA’s collection and current feminist narratives of art history’.

Like many of the other museums I contacted, MoMA clearly feels that its role in addressing the prominence of male artists within art-historical narratives lies not in assigning quotas based on gender, but in programming for the future and in thinking about how women are represented (both as subjects and as creators) within their collections. This year, it will have an equal number of solo exhibitions by men and women. Guggenheim Bilbao held a retrospective of Yoko Ono’s work last year and another devoted to Niki de Saint Phalle has recently opened. Similarly at the Tate, ‘We are actively trying to increase representation of women in the collection, across all periods,’ says Ann Gallagher, ‘but there is naturally better representation for contemporary art. Monographic exhibitions at Tate are a great opportunity for us to raise the profile of women artists.’ This year the Tate is hosting five major solo retrospectives of women artists, including Agnes Martin, Sonia Delaunay and Barbara Hepworth.

The discrepancy between the emergence of feminist art history and the time it has taken for its thinking to manifest itself in public displays and education policy suggests that there are other factors at work. In November last year, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 set the world record for an artwork by a woman when it sold for $44.4 million (£28m) at auction in New York. It trails behind the highest price achieved for a male artist at auction, however, and is an anomaly in terms of women’s auction prices. (The second highest price for a woman artist at auction is $11.9 million – for an abstract painting by Joan Mitchell, was also achieved that year.) Six out of 64 lots in February’s Post-War and Contemporary Art evening sale at Christie’s were by women. At Sotheby’s, it was only one out of 77.

‘The art market is such a financial force,’ says Cooper, ‘that the decisions about who is awarded exhibitions is probably influenced by the idea that women aren’t as bankable as the men – precisely because they’re not as well known and they don’t have as many major shows. It’s market driven, and it’s self-perpetuating.’ Fisher Sterling agrees: ‘There are still dramatic inequities. That’s because there are several key “value indicators”, that inform how an artist’s work performs at auction: gallery exhibitions, solo museum shows, museum collection representation, and significant press coverage.’ She also believes that the inequality is not something that can be challenged by public art institutions alone. ‘How can the market test be the “value test” when gender bias exists not only top to bottom in the art world but across society? The conversation needs to start with acknowledging that gender inequities exist in the arts from the ground up.’

The fact that there are more women in senior jobs than ever and that the majority of art and art history students are women, will no doubt affect what happens in the future. Whether there is a bias at work against living artists is a more difficult question.

For now, a cursory glance at the permanent displays of many art museums still leads us to the same question that Nochlin posed years ago. The solution is never going to be easy, because the answer involves reassessing what we consider to be culturally important – in our most prominent cultural institutions. As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, ‘If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where, I asked myself, picking up a notebook and a pencil, is truth?’

From the March 2015 issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.