The Question:
Do Women Play Second Fiddle in the Art World?

Women not only paint worse than men, they don’t pass the “market test.” This claim was made by Georg Baselitz. For him, the market test is the “value test.” But does the market really have the last word? How can the success of female artists be measured? And why are works by women artists still being bought and collected less? ArtMag asked those who should know—international gallery owners, curators, and female artists themselves.

Elise Atangana / Independent curator and producer, Paris.
Photo: Salima Pujami

Elise Atangana

The issues related to gender inequalities are vast. From the 18th century until now, there have been questions posed concerning the practice of art by women.

Is the still glaring market and institutional discrimination linked to the fact that they are women, or to their practices? Is this possible and should one theorize about feminine aesthetics?

According to the art critic Aline Dallier-Popper, one contradiction remains for a woman artist: “In the need to defend their production, and therefore enter the art market system, retaining individualism and quality while actually participating to break this system, they often have to desacralize the specificity of their practice in favor of creativity that would finally be accessible to them all.” (1)

(1) Fabienne Dumont, “Aline Dallier-Popper. Art, féminisme, post-féminisme,” Critique d’art [online], 34 | Autumn 2009, Viewed October 15, 2014.

Susan Fisher Sterling
Director, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington.
Photo: Michele Mattei

Susan Fisher Sterling

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.

In the U.S. alone, the data shows that women artists continue to be in the minority in museums and galleries—yet 51% of artists are women artists. At the same time, the majority of these venues are owned or run by men.
How can the market test be the “value test” when gender bias exists not only from 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. Tackling the prevalence of gender bias is the key to future equitable value tests.

Mathilde ter Heijne
Artist, Berlin, in front of her installation "Woman to Go"
Frieze London 2013

Mathilde ter Heijne

Do women artists have any interest whatsoever in a patriarchal, capitalist art market?

I think they know that nowadays market value cannot be an adequate gauge of good and impactful art. Women organize themselves and develop their own art worlds, experiment with different, exciting art forms and art concepts. Unfortunately, the market is lagging behind the development.

Most collectors don’t seem to be well informed or perhaps have no real interest in what art can be today.

Siri Hustvedt / Author, New York.
Photo: Marion Ettlinger

Siri Hustvedt

If the art market is “always right,” as Georg Baselitz declared, then, by his own logic, his work is inferior to that of Louise Bourgeois. Her most expensive work tops his by millions. Such thinking, however, is absurd. The art market is about the perception of value, not innate value.

Perception is not passive, but active, and determined by expectation, much of which is unconscious. Many empirical studies have shown that the same work is judged superior by both men and women when a man’s as opposed to a woman’s name is attached to it. Universality is still coded as masculine. When was the last time you heard anyone mention a “man artist”?

Only when we become fully conscious of the entrenched biases against “women’s art” will our perceptions change.

Wangechi Mutu / Artist, New York.
Photo: Mario Lazzaroni

Wangechi Mutu

The art world is not separate from the rest of the world. Many of the persistent gender biases and sexual inequalities that plague women in the art world also exist in every other professional sphere.
The art world reflects and hopefully reveals the problems that the larger system is suffering from.

And yes, that includes sexism in the workforce, unfair monetary compensation, sexually biased attitudes, uneven dispensing of accolades, and underrepresentation in collections and on the market.

Janelle Reiring / Gallery owner, Metro Pictures Gallery, New York.
Photo: courtesy Janelle Reiring

Janelle Reiring

I can dismiss Georg Baselitz’s unfortunate statement, but there is a seed of truth in it: money is a powerful symbol of cultural worth. We all decry the fact, but no one can deny it. Women come up on the short end not only in the art world but in society as a whole. How many women CEOs of major corporations, heads of state, directors of blockbuster films are there? I first became aware of the outrageous disparity of auction prices for men and women artists from an article by Sarah Thornton in “The Economist.” An artist’s worth in the marketplace is based on many things. It starts with the intention and ambition of the artist and is followed by her/his support system—curators, galleries, critics, museums, collectors, auction house personnel, etc.

The recent incredible expansion of the contemporary art market has coincided with a generation of artists who came of age with the knowledge that artists could become both rich and famous, whereas the most previous generations could hope for was recognition. We now see brilliant artists who are also brilliant market manipulators and promoters of their work. Thus far none of them has been women, but it will happen. The two living women artists you mention as consistently listed in top twenty artist rankings—Cindy Sherman and Rosemarie Trockel—shy away from any hint of self-promotion and pursue their art with little regard for its market viability.

I’ve been fortunate to grow up in an art world that has seen an incredible number of extremely important and influential women artists (market aside), starting in the 1980s with Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Rosemarie Trockel, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and Marlene Dumas, and the pool keeps getting larger and stronger. The two most recent young artists who have joined the gallery are women, Camille Henrot and Nina Beier. I am in awe of the fearless attitude of young women artists today. They are savvy about art-world structures and the market. Galleries and museums are showing more women; collectors are buying more women artists; and auction houses are following suit. The numbers are still dreadful but I am optimistic.

Amanda Sharp / Founder, Frieze Art Fair, London.
Photo: Mike Gold, courtesy of Mike Gold/Frieze

Amanda Sharp

When looking through the lens of auction results, we might get a picture dominated by high-priced male artists. However, that is not the only art market operating today—it’s just that the one for female artists might not be so conspicuous.

Using high prices as the only tool to measure an artist's success skews the picture and will keep women in second place despite their prolific output and the fact that women’s work sells well and is featured in numerous museum shows. There is a corrective measure with a re-evaluation of women artists right now, and at Frieze we saw a huge interest in the Spotlight section of Frieze Masters, particularly from institutions. This section showcased lesser-known 20th-century artists including many women—this year U.S. Minimalists Rosemarie Castoro and Mary Corse were two notable examples.

Ranjana Steinruecke / Gallery owner, Mumbai.
Photo: courtesy Ranjana Steinruecke

Ranjana Steinruecke

Why is this question limited to art? Men take center stage in practically all professions. Very often women artists engage with their surroundings in their work, and these concerns may not have the wow factor that the art world is looking for.

Women often play down the subversive potential of their art. In our program, half the artists are women. This wasn't planned, but maybe it says something. The market plays a significant role, but in art there are also quieter forces that attract large segments of collectors.