Opinion

Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios
Gender bias in the art world

Last year, London’s 200-year-old National Gallery acquired a self-portrait by the Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi in a bid to improve the gender balance of its 2300-work permanent collection. The acquisition lifted the number of paintings by women on the gallery’s walls to 26.

To say women are underrepresented in the visual art world is to state the obvious. Unpicking how and why we have ended up here, though, is less straightforward. The German dauber Georg Baselitz believes he has worked it out: “Women don’t paint very well,” he told Der Spiegel in 2013. His unwitting answer, perhaps, to the question posed four decades earlier by art historian Linda Nochlin in her landmark essay “Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists?” Nochlin herself offered something of a less belligerent view. She argued there were countless gifted female artists who had struggled to gain traction through history, only to be stymied by circumstances beyond their control and prevented from enjoying the same opportunities as their male peers to achieve greatness.

The data suggests progress has been slow since the impact of Nochlin’s 1971 essay. In Britain, while more than 60 per cent of visual arts postgraduate students are now women, the Freelands Foundation found 68 per cent of the artists at the top London commercial galleries are still men.

And the larger the gallery, the fewer female artists you will find on its walls, according to “The Art Market 2019”, a global report by Art Basel and UBS. Try it for yourself – have a look at Gagosian’s website and count how many of the featured artists are women. I found just 14 among 88. The pinnacle of commercial achievement in the arts is representation by multiple galleries – internationally, 90 per cent of the artists represented by more than 15 galleries are men.

But in this, Australia has recently emerged as something of an outlier.

Building on the work of the Guerrilla Girls, Australian artist and activist Elvis Richardson started the Countess Project in 2008 to collate data on the local art scene. The first “Countess Report”, based on 2014 figures, found that only 40 per cent of the artists represented in Australian commercial galleries were women.

Five years on, there has been a surprising development – this year’s report shows that 53 per cent of exhibitions at commercial galleries have featured female artists. Gender parity has also been achieved in art prizes, fairs and biennales.

“At large institutions, initiating change can be like turning the Queen Mary,” says John Cruthers, chair of the Sheila Foundation, the organisation that backs the “Countess Report”. And it’s true – locked into long-term programming and lumbered with the legacy of an unenlightened collections policy, many attempts by heritage galleries to address gender imbalance get tangled in a web of systemic and ancient bias. But shame, it seems, can be a powerful motivator, even for gargantuan cultural organisations. According to the report, many of these gains came in just the past two years – with female representation jumping 20 per cent at some institutions.

At the National Gallery of Australia, there has been something of a reckoning. As NGA council member Alison Kubler puts it: “When the NGA made a decision to examine its own collection as a first step in understanding gender equity representation, we discovered in Australian art that women were only 25 per cent of the national collection. That meant we had to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions.”

She acknowledges the influence of the “Countess Report”. “They hold us to account,” she says. “Without them, institutions such as the NGA might as well be in an echo chamber.”

However, it should be noted, the report found female representation fell to 25 per cent at the NGA, compared with 27 per cent in the last count, while at state galleries it was down from 37 per cent to 34 per cent.

Institutional shifts are important. For many Australian artists, project-based work commissioned by public bodies are their bread and butter. As celebrated photographer Anne Zahalka says, “These opportunities are extremely important to enable me to continue my art practice and cover the enormous costs that I undertake in creating work.”

For Georg Baselitz though, it was all about the money. “The market test,” as he put it, “the value test.” Apparently, female painters don’t measure up in dollar terms. And while it would be nice to dismiss this as hot air from an old windbag, recent figures from the international art market don’t do much to deflate his claims. Here’s a sample: at “blue-chip” commercial galleries, women’s artworks sell at prices 27 per cent cheaper than those by their male peers, according to “The Art Market 2019”. Research has shown the “gender discount” to be as high as 50 per cent in the auction market for paintings.

Which begs the question: could Baselitz just be voicing what many art buyers really believe – does the art market have a serious problem with women?

Remuneration is hard-won for all artists. But if you’re a woman, it’s tougher still. The gulf between prices for art by men and women in the secondary market is stark. Figures obtained from the Australian Art Sales Digest (AASD) showed that although 38 per cent of the artists listed in the database of auction sales are women, the combined value of the sale of women’s art is just 9 per cent of the total market. Collectively, the four top-selling female artists – Emily Kngwarreye, Margaret Olley, Rosalie Gascoigne and Grace Cossington Smith – have generated less than half the sales value of the highest-selling male artist, Brett Whiteley.

These figures are not surprising. AASD dates back to 1969, so, as in the public gallery world, the data carries with it the legacy of history. But auction prices are important indicators because they set a benchmark for an artist’s resale prospects. As long as prices at auction for female artists are lower than those for men, buyers who factor investment value into their acquisitions will see women’s art as a risky purchase.

The priorities at play in the primary market are entirely different. Commercial gallery representation is the first step towards securing a viable career in the visual arts. Gallerists use their contacts and influence to ensure their artists’ work is placed in key public and private collections and shown in important exhibitions. Artistic careers can then gain momentum. When an artist’s work appears on the wall of the National Gallery of Victoria, for example, it’s seen as an endorsement of that person’s prospects. And that translates to higher demand in the primary market, and, with that, more sales and higher prices. More sales mean more money for the artist, which then buys them more time to dedicate to their artistic practice.

But for most women, something is going amiss at this stage of the market – sluggish professional advancement remains a significant problem. Dr Clare McAndrew, founder of Arts Economics, puts it bluntly: “The share of women goes down as the measure of success goes up.” Here, Australia is unfortunately in step with the rest of the world. Although the “Countess Report” shows an improvement in the number of women exhibited in commercial galleries, the percentage of artists with formal representation is still out of kilter – just 42 per cent. This year, the report broadened to include non-binary artists as well, finding just 0.12 per cent of artists with commercial representation identified as non-binary.

This issue is magnified because we’re changing the way we buy art. These disruptive forces are providing new platforms for a younger generation of artists. “With the rise of biennales and art fairs, there’s a huge appetite for content,” says art adviser Sophie Ullin. The glitz and glamour of the art-fair scene, where the biggest commercial galleries display their wares, is also where most contemporary art collectors acquire their trophies – globally, art dealers made 46 per cent of their sales at fairs last year. But in this brave new world, female artists are missing out. “The Art Market 2019” found that only 24 per cent of the artists exhibited at 82 fairs around the world in 2018 were women.

Dr McAndrew regards this troubling inequity through two lenses. We can point the finger at entrenched discrimination against women by “gatekeepers and taste-makers such as gallerists, critics and collectors. Men and women produce the same thing – it’s just that women get paid less.” But she also draws attention to the supply side of the market, noting that “men and women produce different art … and we value male traits more. We judge artists and their success in a male framework.”

This might lie at the heart of the problem. And it’s one that no number of quotas and well-intentioned initiatives will fix, because what we’re trying to budge is the rusted-on bias that has informed the art world for centuries – that women’s art speaks of women’s things, and those things are of little or no interest to men.

This is nothing new, of course. As long as we’ve had art history, we’ve lived with the myth of the chest-beating great white male artist. And nothing’s improved over time; more women were mentioned in art texts by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century AD, Boccaccio in the 14th century and Vasari in the 16th century than in the 20th-century tomes by T. J. Clark, H. W. Janson and Meyer Schapiro. The subliminal messaging starts early; in 2016, more than 70 per cent of year 12 visual arts students in Victoria and New South Wales were female. Their exam papers asked them to respond to a selection of artworks, of which only 16 per cent were by women artists.

If we value women’s art less than we do men’s, then we need to rethink what it is that we value in art. If women’s art doesn’t slot neatly into the art historical narrative, then that story needs to be rewritten.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 2, 2019 as "Gender bias in visual art". Subscribe here.

Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios
is a Melbourne-based writer and researcher, and former lecturer at the University of Melbourne.