Just as is the case with the regular job market, there is a lack of gender parity in the art market.
Although women in America earn two-thirds of what men earn, Richard Saltoun, who represents the estate of Helen Chadwick, guessed that art by women sells for one-tenth of the prices for work by their male counterparts.
Over the years, this dissonance in the art world has been well documented. For decades, powerful male gatekeepers have kept women at the margins of the art market.
Since the very nature of textile art has made it a “feminine” art form, it’s not difficult to extrapolate that textile art is even more marginalized. And its artists earn much less than the regular underpaid female artist.
Recent research found that in 2017, sixty-six percent of postgraduate art and design students were female, but just 28% of artists at major commercial galleries were women, a drop from 29% in 2016.
According to Artsy, Melanie Cassoff, the managing director of the research firm, said it’s worth looking at not just the cracks in the pipeline, but also the deeper social forces that channel women and men into different areas of study.
“One can even ask the question: Why are so many women doing these studies?
Is it because women are more creative?
Is it because women are being pushed by their parents to not go into the commercial sector, whereas men are?” Cassoff asked.
“I think the arts are probably an outlier—they’re so badly paid as a career that men are probably discouraged.”
That last part of Cassoff’s statement – economic reasons discourage men from becoming [textile] artists – is echoed by quilt artist Joe Cunningham in my interview with him.
It is therefore really important to figure out why female artists careers struggle. Here are some reasons I got from my research:
Reasons for the Gap in Sales and Representations for Female Artists
- supply and demand (the demand for buying this type of work is very limited)
- the ‘assumption by art academia that women’s work is going to be about themselves’
- characteristics of certain types of works like the smallness of scale, lightweight, delicacy, sewing, and craft; are assumed in art historical literature to be “feminine”
- a majority of museum owners and gallerists are men, and they show works they themselves want to see
- a majority of commercial art collectors are men and they buy works by male artists
- motherhood, family life, and caring for parents
Museums play an important role in how people learn things. So, getting your works in there can be a game-changer for an artist. But, there’s no denying that the chance to exhibit in major commercial galleries is an opportunity not only to get recognition but also for value to be attributed to your works.
Obviously, “opportunity is the key. But how are we going to get it”, asks Faith Ringgold, the famous quilt artist? Until recently, Ringgold spent most of her life without commercial representation, although her work has been in museums and of interest to academics throughout her long career.
Despite heightened awareness of female artists’ work and achievements, the gender gap in sales and representation still persists.
As a result of the disparities, women artists have had to create alternative paths for themselves outside of the mainstream art market.
Here’s how women have charted their own paths
- Resisting the status quo by making their work – on buttons, posters, and other types of ephemeral things – completely different from the art market
- Selling directly to collectors who “don’t follow the art market”
- Teaching Art
- Using grants to support themselves
- Write and Publish books
- Creating opportunities for other women
- Finding support from other women
Progress has certainly been made over the years. But the assumption that time will naturally fix this situation is a scary one. How much time will it take? If we really want it to happen, then we need to actively engage in efforts to make it happen.
Suggestions for Bringing Parity to Commercial Representation & Sales of Female Artists’ Works
- Establish a network of professionals committed to the promotion of art by women (Louisa Elderton, writer)
- Collectors should start buying and supporting the work of women artists (Valeria Napoleone – a contemporary art collector)
- Women should go into the business of building and owning prestigious art galleries (Genevieve Gaignard – artist)
- We must raise our daughters differently and we must also raise our sons differently – (Anthony Spinello – Gallerist and Curator)
- I expressed my personal ideas about how this can happen in the article: Can Women Reshape Contemporary Art.
Part of making these changes happen in our industry is recognizing the value of textile art and helping others do so too. After writing the article Can Women Reshape Contemporary Art, I felt a strong urge to personally commit to making this happen in my own small way.
A few months after writing that article, I started an Instagram account where I curate and showcase awesome textile art from around the world. I’m encouraged by the response so far. This week, we got a thousand followers and one post reached over 20,000 viewers! For an account that’s only a couple of months old, that’s really something.
Artsy has a wonderful 3-part video series on gender equality in the art world. It’s really worth the time to watch all three very short videos. The videos feature story-quilter Faith Ringgold (whose work I reviewed in this article) plus some other artists.
Question: Do you think the gender gap in sales and value of female artworks will change in your lifetime? What suggestions do you have for effecting this change?
I can’t wait to read your comments.