US museum wants to fix gender gap by buying only works by women artists

This year, the Baltimore Museum of Art will buy only works by female artists. American painter Amy Sherald's Planes, Rockets, And The Spaces In Between (2018) is among the 3,800 works by women in the museum's collection.
This year, the Baltimore Museum of Art will buy only works by female artists. American painter Amy Sherald's Planes, Rockets, And The Spaces In Between (2018) is among the 3,800 works by women in the museum's collection.PHOTO: BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF ART

BALTIMORE • An American museum has come up with a bold way to boost women's participation in the arts: This year, it will acquire only works by women.

The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) in the state of Maryland is best known for housing the largest public collection of Henri Matisse works anywhere in the world.

Last year, it attracted major press attention with word that it would buy only works by women this year, drawing praise and scepticism.

"I think it's a radical and timely decision in 2020, to take the bull by the horns and do this," museum director Christopher Bedford said.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gave women the right to vote.

It also gave the museum pause to do some soul-searching: Of its 95,000 works, only 4 per cent are by women artists, says Mr Bedford.

"We're an institution largely built by women leaders," he said.

The museum's first director was a woman. It is largely thanks to two women - sisters Claribel and Etta Cone - and their friendship with Matisse that the museum boasts such a rich collection of works by the French artist.

CENTURIES OF DISCRIMINATION

The museum will spend US$2.5 million (S$3.5 million) this year on works by women.

It will also reorganise several of its rooms to showcase the work of women and offer about 20 exhibits of works by female artists. It will, however, continue to accept donations of art done by men.

The BMA is hardly alone in having such a disproportionate amount of art by men. The fame of artists such as Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois is an exception to the rule.

A study published last year by scientific journal Plos One found that in 18 major American museums, 87 per cent of the artists whose works were on exhibit were men.

From 2008 to 2018, of 260,470 works acquired by 26 big museums, only 11 per cent were by women, according to a study by the company Artnet and the podcast In Other Words.

This is the fruit of centuries-old discrimination that can be either intentional or not, said Mr Bedford. "Unless you call out that habit and consciously find a way to work against it, then you will never have a properly equitable museum."

A TINY STEP

While the museum's initiative has been welcomed by many as a good first step, not everyone is sold on it.

Ms Teri Henderson, a curator based in Baltimore, said she questions the museum's use of the word "radical" to describe its decision to acquire only art by women for a year.

"I have observed that organisations and institutions use the word 'radical' as a sort of buzzword without implementing any programming or effort that is truly radical," Ms Henderson said.

"I do know that one year of collecting attached to this interesting choice of word cannot truly rectify the imbalance in the art world and in museums," she added.

"I do think this year of collecting art by only women could possibly be the first step, but it is a tiny step."

Mr Bedford agreed that this plan is just a start.

"I'm also hoping that our decision has a reverberating effect across the museum field," he said.

"That's a consciousness-raising act as well. It's supposed to precipitate an endless action in that direction," he added, promising also to publish the results of this female-only programme in a year.

But Ms Henderson insisted that "many gigantic steps" are needed to rectify the male-female imbalance in the art world.

She said that, for instance, museums need to invest in living artists that reside and work in the surrounding areas if they really want to reflect the richness and diversity of today's art.

She gave museums this advice: "Stop buying art that isn't good just because it's made by well-known white artists. Start taking risks and investing in black and brown living artists."

Ms Donna Drew Sawyer, chief executive officer of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and The Arts, had several questions about the initiative, including the fact that it drew so much attention.

She wrote in the magazine BmoreArt: "Why did a male's call to action seem to resonate so loudly in this instance when women are the subject and have been calling for the same action forever?"

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 12, 2020, with the headline 'US museum wants to fix gender gap by buying only works by women artists'. Print Edition | Subscribe