Here’s a statistic that should make your blood boil: on average, only 5% of the pieces in permanent collections of museums around the globe were created by women. 95% of the art that has been purchased by museums—the very institutions that safeguard our culture—was created by men. While women earn half of the MFAs granted in the US, only a quarter of solo exhibitions in New York galleries feature women.
We’re over half the residents of the planet earth, but when it comes to culture, we’re still woefully underrepresented, undervalued, and underpaid.
I’m researching a piece right now about gender inequality in the gallery world. While part of me is overjoyed to be doing this kind of work, to be writing about a subject that’s so important to me, there’s another part of me that is just angry. Filled with rage at the injustice of it all.
A recent study from Lehigh University found that “artistic careers are subject to the same social forces that drive gender wage gap in other fields. ‘Though one might expect that the flexible nature of many artistic careers—well as research indicating that artists tend to possess more liberal ideologies than other professionals—would result in greater gender pay equity, our research shows that the difference between the incomes of female and male artists are about the same as you’d find in other fields,’” explains study co-author Danielle Lindemann. Not only is there a significant pay gap for women working in the arts, but there is also a “fatherhood premium” and a “marriage premium” that applies to men only. While women’s pay takes a plunge when they have children, men’s paychecks get a nice little bump. Fortunately, in the arts, women don’t experience the same motherhood penalty (but men do still receive a fatherhood premium).
Does this piss you off? It should. Whether you’re male, female, or don’t ascribe to gender binaries, this should really make you mad. Because it means we still don’t value women’s work. As a society, we place a higher value on art produced by men. Their work goes for far more at auction. Male museum directors and curators make more money than their female counterparts. Male writers are paid more, and their books sell more copies. It’s true across the board.
For years, I’ve been seeking to address this in small, quiet ways. I buy books written by women. Much of the art that hangs in my house was painted or photographed by women. I buy albums by female artists, rather than just listening for free on Spotify. When I want to read a great new book by a talented female author, I buy it. I get Melville from the library, but I pay full price for Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Zadie Smith, Emily St. John Mandel, and Eleanor Catton.
I believe in voting with my dollars. I also try, in this small, tiny, personal corner of the internet, to highlight female artists as often as I can. While men make great work, too, they don’t need my help. Not when their work comprises 92% of lots for sale at New York evening auctions. Not when there are men like Georg Baselitz arguing that “women don’t paint very well” in well-respected places like The Guardian.
Baselitz says, “the market does not lie.” But money doesn’t equal talent. We should all know that by now.
I’ll end this rant before I get too wound up and decide to quit working as a female writer and start selling my eggs instead (they’re worth more than my words, apparently). But I want to say this: If this subject is something you care about, you need to start voting with your dollars. Spend money on women artists. Pay women writers. Support women in the arts, because we still need it.
Image: Maman by Louise Bourgeois. This piece, which sold for $25 million, was the only one to make the top 100 lots sold at auction in 2015. All 99 other top-selling pieces were by men.