Making a push for female artists

The works of French- American artist Louise Bourgeois (above), who died in 2010, will be jointly displayed with those of Yayoi Kusama by Sotheby’s this month.
The works of French- American artist Louise Bourgeois (above), who died in 2010, will be jointly displayed with those of Yayoi Kusama by Sotheby’s this month.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON • Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Botticelli, Titian, Nelli. All were once greats of the Renaissance, though if the last name on the list does not ring a bell, you could be forgiven.

Like those of her male contemporaries, Plautilla Nelli's Biblical paintings were masterful works of beauty, but, in a tale as old as patriarchy itself, she was written out of every Renaissance history book, dismissed as just another nun with a paintbrush.

Yet, in March, almost 500 years after Nelli was born, the Uffizi in Florence is to stage its first exhibition of her work - an attempt, says the Uffizi, to begin to correct the gender imbalance that still skews every major art collection in the world. As one of the world's most influential galleries, it is making an important, if overdue, statement.

The picture in Britain is equally dispiriting: female artists account for just 4 per cent of the National Gallery of Scotland's collection; 20 per cent of the Whitworth Manchester's and 35 per cent of Tate Modern's collections. Only 33 per cent of the artists representing Britain at the Venice Biennale over the past decade have been women.

The imbalance is systemic and exists not just in the enormous gaps that are evident in the collections of publicly funded institutions. It is also perpetuated by some of the biggest commercial galleries that operate in Britain and internationally.

Figures compiled by The Guardian show that, over the past decade, 83 per cent of Lisson Gallery's solo shows, 71 per cent of Hauser and Wirth's solo shows, 88 per cent of Gagosian's shows, 76 per cent of White Cube's shows and 59 per cent of Victoria Miro's shows were by male artists.

It is important to understand the impact this bias has had on the art world. These galleries, with outposts across America and Asia, are global tastemakers, championing artists, funding their work and introducing them to the world's wealthiest collectors.

It is still the case that the art that the world considers to be the most valuable, in monetary and cultural terms, is almost all by men.

It is the reason that the museums in the world considered to have the greatest and strongest collections are the ones that boast works by Turner, Matisse, Van Gogh and Picasso, Pollock, Rothko, Koons, Hirst and Hockney. That a female equivalent for each of these artists does not roll off the tongue says it all. It is also telling that the auction record for work by a deceased female artist is held by Georgia O'Keefe, for Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, which sold in 2014 for US$44.4 million, just 25 per cent of the record-breaking US$179 million paid for Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger the following year.

Yet, according to Artfinder, an online marketplace for 9,000 independent artists, women consistently outsell their male counterparts, and are the most popular picks for buyers. For every £1 million (S$1.76 million) worth of art by men that is sold on the site, women sell £1.16 million. In a bid to stoke debate, the company has published a report on gender equality in the art world, taking aim at the sexism of institutions higher up the pecking order.

Yet in Britain and the international art world beyond, a shift may be occurring, driven by women who have taken the helm of some of the biggest art institutions.

This year, Ms Maria Balshaw will become the first female director of Tate Galleries, while Ms Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern, has been vocal about championing female artists since she was appointed in 2015. According to Ms Morris, Tate Modern's permanent collection representing 335 female artists compared with 959 male artists is "just not good enough".

In a powerful move, she chose to devote half of the solo-artist rooms in the Tate Modern extension, Switch House, to female artists such as Louise Bourgeouis, Ana Lupa and Suzanna Lacey when it opened last summer.

"Very simply, we have made a commitment to rethinking our collection, how we build it and the choices we make," says Ms Morris. "And I think what we did with Switch House was in a way very simple. We didn't dress it up as a strategy or positive discrimination - it was just great work by women and an attempt to redress the gender balance. Simple as that. And a lot of my peers said: 'What a relief.'"

She has been responsible for the ever-growing number of solo female shows at Tate Modern including Marlene Dumas, Sonia Delauney, Mona Hatoum and Agnes Martin.

To her, the key for Tate Modern to progress towards gender parity is to untangle itself from the moneydriven monster that is the art market. After all, if the major institutions continue to buy and exhibit only the blockbuster artists that currently fetch the biggest price tags at auction, then women will never get a look-in.

Ms Morris refuses to accept that a price tag should have any bearing on what Tate Modern collects and displays. "We really have to stop celebrating creativity depending on how it's monetised by the art market," she says.

"My heart sinks when I read things saying the Tate Modern's collection is weak because they're using the standards of the last auction sales or MoMa in New York. That's not what we're about. It's not about constructing a collection based on shopping and taste in the private sector. We're interested in art whose value lies in excellence, provocation and fascination for the public. And, more often than not, that art is made by women."

In the public sphere, she is not acting alone. Ms Iwona Blazwick, director of Whitechapel Gallery, has staged more solo shows by women than men in recent years, including a current exhibition by Guerilla Girls, the artist-activist group set up in the 1980s to challenge the dismal representation of women in the art world.

The issue has also been championed by Mr Hans Ulrich Obrist, director of the Serpentine Gallery who was last year named the most powerful figure in the art world. "I always ask if there is a pioneering or exciting female artist who needs rediscovering," he says.

"That's how I found out about the work of great Brazilian artist, Lygia Pape, about Phyllida Barlow and, in the Middle East, Etel Adnan."

All have since had solo shows at some of the most important galleries around the world.

The big auction houses, which equal commercial galleries in terms of influence, also appear to be making an effort. This month, Sotheby's will open a joint show by Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama, two 20th-century female artists whose works command millions at auction, making them rarities in the field.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2017, with the headline 'Making a push for female artists'. Print Edition | Subscribe