The Contemporary Art Society (CAS) has teamed up with the collector Valeria Napoleone to give a work of art by a female artist to a UK museum each year from April 2016. Napoleone is an experienced collector who exclusively purchases work by contemporary female artists, and is on a mission to support ‘those realities which are overlooked and ignored’, while CAS has long helped public art institutions acquire new art for their collections. Together they will invite museums to pitch for a work based on its need to redress the representation of female artists within its collection. The newly purchased work will then be shown at the Camden Arts Centre, before forming the centrepiece of a solo exhibition at the recipient museum.
The numbers of female artists represented in public collections in relation to men is an awkward issue. Decades have passed since the imbalance was first raised by feminist art historians, and well over a century since the first women students were admitted into art schools. More women currently study art than men, and there is certainly no shortage of good female artists working today. Yet in the majority of contemporary and historic art collections, male artists predominate.
How museums can address this is not straightforward, for it goes to the heart of how value is attributed to art. Historical collections reflect historical attitudes. Contemporary collections on the other hand tend to reflect commercial values, and the markets show an imbalance. Five out of the 47 artists in June’s Post-War and Contemporary Art evening sale at Christie’s were women. At Sotheby’s, it was just three out of 37. An audit undertaken by the East London Fawcett Group in 2013 established that 31% of the artists represented by 134 commercial London galleries were women and that 78% of the galleries represent more men than women. At Frieze Art Fair 2012 well under a third of the represented artists were women. The world record price for an artwork by a woman, $44.4 million (£28m) for Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, trails behind the highest price achieved for a male artist at auction, and is an anomaly in terms of women’s auction prices.
In recent years this issue has received an increasing amount of attention, and more female artists are gaining international recognition. Although enforcing quotas is generally unpopular, curators and museum directors are unafraid of challenging traditional art historical narratives, and women artists have been given more prominence within exhibition schedules and collection re-hangs. This year, for example, the Tate is hosting five major solo retrospectives of women artists, including Agnes Martin, Sonia Delaunay and Barbara Hepworth. The Metropolitan Museum in New York included works by lesser-known artists like Helen Torr and Elizabeth Catlett that have never been on view in their recent re-hang of their modern art collection.
The delivery of just one new work a year under the new scheme won’t be able to redress any significant imbalances, but it should help ensure that the work is of quality and not gratuitous (although the budget for the purchase has not been disclosed). In the end, it is perhaps the pointedly proactive approach of Napoleone and the CAS that will do most to raise awareness. When it comes to gender inequality in the visual arts there is, as Caroline Douglas, the director of the Contemporary Art Society says, ‘still work to do’.
Inquiry: Wall Flowers – women in historical art collections (Lily Le Brun)
Abstraction and Representation: women artists and contemporary art (Catherine Spencer)