Last January millions of women around the world gathered for so-called women’s marches, to rally against the oppression of women and demonstrate for their rights and for equality. Reason enough to take a look at the situation of women in the art world.
For centuries women were not allowed to enrol at art academies and consequently, were denied access to established art education. In Britain, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser were among the founding members of London’s Royal Academy in 1768. Women in Russia, however, were not allowed to receive training at an art academy before the end of the 19th century and women in Germany had to wait until after World War I for the privilege.
In her ground-breaking 1971 essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, Linda Nochlin questions the institutional structures that made it – with a few exceptions – nearly impossible for female artists throughout history to succeed. She rejects the idea of female artists being less creative than their male counterparts, a notion underpinned by allegations that women’s work lacked artistic genius. Instead she names social structures and stereotypes (terms such as the ‘weaker’ sex, and the supposed incompatibility of family and career) and institutions (not just art academies but also art patronage and an art trade that focuses on male artists) as the reasons for the scarcity of great female artists.
It’s no question that today women are more influential than ever before. Increasingly they fill executive positions at the big museums – only recently has Maria Balshaw been appointed director of Tate in London and Nancy Spector will take over as artistic director at the Guggenheim in New York. They run successful galleries: Marian Goodman, Victoria Miro, Monika Sprüth or the sadly recently departed Barbara Weiss are just a few. Renowned artists such as Marina Abramović, Tracey Emin, Yayoi Kusama and Cindy Sherman have internationally celebrated solo exhibitions and their works achieve very high prices. More and more women make it onto Artreview’s Power 100 list, which records the 100 most influential people in the art world, and Kunstkompass, a league table published by Weltkunst, that is meant as a guide for art collectors and investors alike. Reading all this one might think that women and men would start off from the same position, and that gender equality is already happening.
However, these success stories are the exception, not the rule, and equal opportunities are still a long way off. A 2013 study by the Institut für Strategieentwicklung (Institute for Strategy Development) found that only one in four of the artists represented by galleries in Germany is female. A lack of interest on the part of the women is certainly not the reason for these figures: women have made up more than 50% of art students for years. Frauen in Kultur und Medien (Women in culture and media), a study commissioned by the Deutscher Kulturrat (German Cultural Council) in 2016, also concluded that opportunities for men and women in the arts are still markedly unequally distributed. Women are underrepresented in commercial galleries. Top jobs in museums are still primarily given to male candidates. In addition, women earn less than their male colleagues. The number of female art collectors is also very low compared to that of their male counterparts. Gender inequality is still alive and kicking.
But so are its opponents. The Guerrilla Girls, a group of female artists that forcefully drew attention to the topic back in 1985 with their work Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the modern art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female are still active in 2017 to address these and other deficits. Cultural awards for women artists, such as the one awarded by Landschaftsverband Rheinland, help to counteract this disadvantage.
Currently on show at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt (ends 19 March 2017): Geschlechterkampf | Battle of the Sexes. More information here.