I have collected art, and been involved with artists and the art world, for almost 50 years. Through all that time, I have wondered why female artists have less success, fewer exhibitions and attention, than male artists. I own works by women artists; it is hard for me to see, literally to see, how women and men differ in the quality of their work. Why are women artists less known and less admired?
The facts and statistics for women artists in market share, in museum and gallery showings, are dismaying. Dealers claim that women artists are not as salable as men, that they are a poor investment. We know that there are few women art collectors, a fact which may have an impact on the market. Women artists, no matter how well recognized they are, are seldom given solo exhibitions or featured in significant group shows. They are never top-ranked in auction choices. Skate's Art Market Research, in a recent report, claims that women artists work in mediums that are "hard to collect," a claim that seems oddly akin to the old idea that women confine themselves to "female" subjects. (As the artist Elizabeth Murray famously said, "Cezanne painted cups and saucers and apples, and no one assumed he spent a lot of time in the kitchen.")
I recently interviewed a group of outstanding women artists about their experiences, their trials and hopes. I wanted to know what they think about fortune, fame and being female. They were frank, and mostly hopeful. All of them expressed a level of discomfort about women in the contemporary art world. But the older artists felt that discomfort far more keenly, and had more evidence, or anecdotes, about discrimination. Artists like Dorothea Rockbourne remember so well being hidden behind a "wall of sexism" through much of her career, emerging, finally, in recent years. By contrast, a young artist like Rachel Whiteread achieved instant success and felt far less discrimination. There seems to be a definite shift in women's acceptance. Some younger artists seem little aware of how hard it has been for women, though they do acknowledge the discrepancies, even today, in rewards and recognition between themselves and the men they know. There is even reason to fear that a younger generation lacks knowledge of the challenges, the claims for place, and the revolution in attitudes that have actually secured their careers.
More than 40 years ago, art scholar Linda Nochlin contributed an essay, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" to ARTnews. Feminists at that time were searching for neglected women artists in the past. Nochlin concluded that, in fact, none would be found to rival Delacroix or de Kooning, Renoir or Rauschenberg. Neglect was not the answer. She examined theories about differences between women and men artists in themes, or materials, or ways of working; she determined that art-making was not notably characterized by gender. Nochlin proposed a far more revolutionary theory: that "...our institutions and our educations...," our very expectations, keep women's creativity down. Women fail, very simply, if they have no guidance and friendships in art, if they are not perceived as, or permitted to be, artists, and if they have no institutional access. That judgment led to new ways of thinking about the art world and the roles within it for women.
In 2003, ARTnews asked whether change had come. It was time to see what scholars, curators and artists thought about the status of women in the field thirty years after that original revolutionary article. One notable curator summed up the thinking: "...on the whole, women's presence in the art world is much healthier than it was 30 years ago," and yet -- she also pointed out -- in acquisitions, exhibitions and auction prices, male artists are still way ahead. Another specialist said, "... the playing field is relatively flat (but) it is not flat at the top ... department chairs, deans, museum directors... (that is) still a "boys' club," blocking the achievements of women in so many ways.
This year, in an interview, Nochlin describes the most basic change, saying "... women have changed the course of art and art history enormously... it is much better for women artists today than 30 years ago... women... that enter history do not simply substitute for... male authority; they change the whole paradigm... they bring new premises into art..." The question itself has changed, from "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" to "Who Are the Great Women Artists?" which was the actual title of the ARTnews 2013 survey of women in the arts.
My interviews document the high aspirations of women artists, their fresh confidence and courage, their great creativity. But the art world remains, mysteriously, more difficult for them than for men. It is a sorry fact that, as Nochlin has recently said, "We will need all our wit and courage to make sure that women's voices are heard, their work seen and written about."
Women artists, and friends of women artists, still have much to do.