Do we really need another article, book, or panel addressing gender disparity in the art world? Some might think that we have addressed the issue ad nauseam but the reality is that until measurable change happens, the answer is, yes, we must continue the conversation.
I recently came across a letter I wrote to the editor published in the New York Times in 1992 (THE GUGGENHEIM; No Place For a Woman? New York Times, July 19, 1992). The precipitating event was the reopening of the Guggenheim Museum. I was relatively new to New York City at the time, but was active in the Women’s Action Coalition and knew about the activities of the Guerrilla Girls, so my antennae were out. My search for women represented in the reinstalled permanent collection yielded only two: Liubov Popova, a member of the Russian avant-garde, and the usual suspect, Louise Bourgeois. I described my dismay over Dan Flavin’s “huge phallic symbol of light penetrating the undulating, feminine forms for which the building is known,” and the portrayal of women—Giacometti’s “Woman with her Throat Cut,” and one of Picasso’s women, ironing. “On the way out,” I write at the end of the letter, “as I again passed by Flavin’s monument to this bastion of maleness, I wondered: which would be more tragic—if the Guggenheim did not have women in its collection or if it had them and chose not to display them?”
Twenty-two years have passed since that letter was written. And what exactly has changed? Not as much as one would hope from the statistics gathered in The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium. Twelve percent of the solo shows in New York galleries in the 1970s were by women. By the 1980s, this had risen slightly to 15 percent; by the 1990s, the number was at 24 percent. Progress was being made. And there it has stalled for two decades. Even as the number of women graduating from MFA programs annually has risen to approximate 50 percent, when they get out into the art world, their chances of getting a solo show in a gallery are still 24 percent.
Micol Hebron, a West Coast artist, has organized a collaborative effort called “Gallery Tally” which looks at representation in L.A. galleries and then presents them on posters and billboards. Some of her statistics are even more depressing. Blum & Poe represents 89 percent men; Mark Selwyn 81 percent. Thankfully, others have a much better track record, such as marc foxx with 41 percent of his stable female. Of the 29 artists Suzanne Vielmetter represents, 15 are women.
In the seven panels that we have presented for The Reckoning, we have invariably been asked about the role of female curators. How supportive have they been? We’ve not gathered those statistics but it would be an interesting exercise for the future.
Since I’m on the subject of the Guggenheim Museum, let’s take a look at Deputy Director and Chief Curator, Nancy Spector. In 2007, she was U.S. Commissioner of the Venice Biennial presenting Felix Gonzalez-Torres. For the Guggenheim, she has organized exhibitions of Torres, Richard Prince, Matthew Barney, Louise Bourgeois, Marina Abramovic, Tino Sehgal, and Maurizio Cattelan. For the Deutsch Guggenheim in Berlin, she oversaw commissions by Lawrence Weiner, Andreas Slominski, and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Of this cursory reading of her record, two of the artists she has highlighted are women.
In 2014, Spector was named one of the top 25 most important women in the art world by Artnet and is in an incredibly powerful and influential position. Just how different would the art world and the Guggenheim’s record be if she had chosen to throw her support behind equally accomplished and historically important women artists like Carolee Schneeman, Joan Jonas, or Pat Steir?
The premise of Siri Hustvedt’s incredibly insightful and beautifully written book, The Blazing World, revolves around the frustrations of a mid/late-career woman artist, Harriet Burden, who can’t secure a gallery exhibition or get critics to review her work. In desperation, she convinces three young male “hunks” to front for her in an experiment she calls Maskings in her quest to secure gallery shows and attain critical success.
The book opens with a quote, Harriet’s own letter to the editor: “All intellectual and artistic endeavors, even jokes, ironies, and parodies, fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or the great spoof it can locate a cock and a pair of balls.” With this, Hutsveldt throws down the gauntlet, leaving her heroine to navigate the perils of the art world.
When I’ve mentioned The Blazing World to mid-career women artists who find themselves in the same position, to a one they say, “I’ve fantasized about that!” Fantasy? Fiction? Fact. To achieve gender equality in the art world requires a transparency and awareness across the board, so we don’t fall into complacency where we look to past decades only to see no progress, or even worse, a slip backwards.
Sue Scott is an independent curator and writer living in New York City. She is co-author, along with Eleanor Heartney, Nancy Princenthal, and Helaine Posner of After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art (Prestel, 2007) and The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium (Prestel, 2013).