A relatively small group of individuals wielding a disproportionate amount of influence determine success and make it difficult for women to achieve parity with men in the multi-billion dollar art world.
At first blush, this trend seems counterintuitive. I’m the Chief Curator at Saatchi Art, the world’s leading online gallery. More than half our employees are women and I am one of six women with a senior position at the company. When measured by participation, women are a majority in the art world at large-- 51 percent of visual artists globally are women and more than half of the MFA degrees awarded in the U.S. go to women.
Yet, while women are the majority in the art world overall, men and their works garner the lion’s share of the power and exposure. Consider these facts: In a 2014 report, Gallery Tally found that just 32.3 percent of the 4,000 artists represented in L.A. and New York were women. Men’s works also command significantly higher prices: in 2014, Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1” sold for $44,405,000, breaking the record for the most expensive work by a female artist sold at auction. Despite breaking records though, the price that O’Keeffe’s painting fetched didn’t come close to that of the most expensive work (a man’s) ever sold at auction: Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger purchased for $179.4 million.
Mirroring business trends globally, the art world’s most sought after and powerful leadership positions are held by men. A 2014 report discovered women represent only 24 percent of the director positions held at art museums that boast operating budgets above $15 million annually. The gender gap in the art world is further exacerbated by the fact that art works are valued employing a range of subjective and often deliberately opaque factors.
Art world success is reliant on establishing and building relationships over time. The likelihood of an artists’ works selling well, or a collector deciding to purchase a particular piece of art can be largely dependent on the right relationships. Currently, the individuals that influence and make decisions in those relationships are a small and very powerful group, made up mostly of men.
The most effective way we can help eliminate barriers to women achieving success and being leaders in the art world is to the open up what has long been an exclusive group to new leaders and audiences. We need to decrease the role relationships and gatekeepers play in artists obtaining exposure, and we can do so using the Internet.
If we sell and show art online, we increase the opportunity for more female (and male) artists to acquire nearly unlimited audiences and prospects for exposure. Consider this example: during 2014, 39 of Saatchi Art’s top 100 best-selling artists were women. Contrast that success rate (gained through online exposure) to that of offline auctions. According to a May 2015 ArtNews article, “Each year Artprice.com draws up an international report on the contemporary art market, as seen through the prism of auction sales…In its 2014 report there were just 3 women in the top 100.”
The art world can be democratized by the Internet’s ability to expand opportunities for all. It can effectively change who holds the taste-making power and the control that establishes who is successful and who isn’t. When art works by women are more widely accessible and the means of purchasing art is more approachable, we are well on our way toward eliminating the hurdles that inhibit women’s success in the art world.
About Rebecca Wilson
Rebecca Wilson is Chief Curator and VP, Art Advisory at Saatchi Art. She was formerly a Director at the Saatchi Gallery, London, where she was instrumental in the launch of the gallery's online presence. In 2007 she created New Sensations, a prize for art students which identifies and supports the most exciting emerging artists in the UK. Prior to joining the Saatchi Gallery, Rebecca worked for 14 years in book and art magazine publishing: she was editor of ArtReview, and before that deputy editor of Modern Painters. She has over 10 years of experience working with emerging artists.