Has the Needle Moved for Women Artists in the Art Market?

Artwork detail by Laure Prouvost, presented by Galerie Nathalie Obadia at Paris+ par Art Basel 2022

There has been much lip service paid to gender equality in the art market, even if the data tells us that the struggle for equal pay among artists is almost at a standstill. However, hope comes from the Art Basel and UBS report A Survey of Global Collecting in 2022, which found that the needle has moved to some degree, with female artists accounting for 42% of works in collections in 2022 compared with 33% in 2018.

While the survey does not conclude that this shift is being solely driven by a specific generation, there is some evidence to suggest that millennials are partly responsible, particularly when it comes to collecting ‘ultra-contemporary’ art created by their peers (born after 1974, according to the definition of the term). According to Artprice, half of the USD 200.9 million hammered at auction for ultra-contemporary art in the first half of 2022 came from 10 artists, seven of them women: Ayako Rokkaku, Flora Yukhnovich, Avery SingerMaría Berrío, Anna Weyant, Christina Quarles, and Loie Hollowell. In Hong Kong in particular, records for some of these artists have been bolstered by Asian collectors under 45.

Left: Pilar Corrias. Courtesy of Pilar Corrias, photograph by Charlie Gray. Right: Artwork detail by Cui Jie presented by Pilar Corrias in the Unlimited sector at Art Basel in Basel 2022.

While some say art history is being rewritten, others say speculation has been a factor in driving up the prices for emerging female artists. Chiara Repetto, who runs kaufmann repetto in New York with her sister Francesca Kaufmann, thinks it’s a bit of both. ‘The market is smart,’ says Repetto, whose growing stable of artists is predominantly female. ‘There’s a lot of market potential for the work of women artists, because their bodies of work are strong, but their prices are still much lower than their male counterparts.’ At the same time, an emerging generation of collectors are ‘less affected by bias,’ she adds. ‘It’s important to be aware of how our differences affect us, but it is refreshing to speak about the work of female artists without having to specify gender.’

The London-based gallerist Pilar Corrias, whose roster is two-thirds women, believes there is ‘a genuine desire’ to balance the art historical canon. She says: ‘Many younger collectors are aware of the numerous inequities that have passed unchallenged for too long. I think they recognize that change is a collective force, and wish to contribute to a new way forward.’

Collectors surveyed by Art Basel say that gender ‘plays a minor role in purchasing decisions,’ suggesting instead that the availability of female artists’ works in galleries and auctions shapes the composition of their collections. Foregrounding women can be a fraught path, however. Corrias notes how the response to the Italian curator Cecilia Alemani’s Venice Biennale last year, in which female artists outweighed men both at the Giardini and Arsenale by a ratio of roughly nine to one, was mixed. ‘While many celebrated the predominance of women, some dismissed it as virtue signaling, a politically correct move,’ the dealer says. ‘Correcting deeply entrenched biases will take a long time and requires dogged determination.’

The picture in India concerning emerging artists compared with those who are more established is slightly different. While younger female contemporary artists are challenging the status quo, it is an older generation who are garnering attention, both in museums and the market, according to Amrita Jhaveri, the director of the Mumbai gallery Jhaveri Contemporary. ‘Increasingly, mature female artists are coming to the fore,’ she says, noting how, for example, Arpita Singh’s My Lily Pond (2009) sold at Pundole’s auction house in Mumbai last year for USD 1.18 million. For context, the highest price achieved for a work by an Indian artist – Vasudeo S. Gaitonde – was USD 5.7 million at Saffronart Mumbai in March 2023.

Left: Amrita Jhaveri. Photograph by Matthew Cole. Right: Installation view of artworks by Rana Begum presented by Jhaveri Contemporary in the Discoveries sector at Art Basel Hong Kong 2017.

Unsurprisingly, and in step with the Western art market, the auction market in India remains staunchly male dominated. For the period 2020-21, men accounted for 84.6% of the total number of artists at auction, according to the advisory firm Artery India. As Jhaveri points out: ‘Most of the auction houses and secondary market dealerships are run by men. It’s a boys’ club, with a culture of late nights, drinking, and deals. However, a large percentage of the galleries operating in the primary market in India are run by women. This is reflected in their programs in which female artists are well represented.’

Not only are women relatively well represented at Jhaveri Contemporary, where 35% of its roster are female artists, last year, 45% of the gallery’s revenue came from its women. It is a pattern repeated globally. According to the latest Art Basel and UBS Art Market Report, having a very low share of female representation was correlated with low performance in 2022. Galleries with fewer than 20% of female artists in their programs had ‘stagnant and declining sales’ year-on-year, while sales grew by 21% for those with more than 80% of women.

Millennials may be pushing the agenda forward in the private sector, but museums are also filling in some of the gaps. According to Isa Lorenzo, the co-founder of the Manila gallery Silverlens, most of the museum acquisitions she is working on ‘are for the work of women artists.’ She notes how the practices of the female artists her gallery represents tend towards community-based projects or incorporate textiles, assemblages, and other craft-based media. Historically, these kinds of practices have been considered less important in a market that values bombastic large-scale works over more domestically sized, contemplative pieces.

The French dealer Nathalie Obadia suggests that female artists are ‘more attentive to the quality of their work’ and less inclined to take up space unnecessarily. She explains: ‘Women do not seek to make spectacularly large-scale works with enormous production costs. In situations where grandiose works are commissioned to occupy public spaces, male artists are more compliant, even if it means proposing huge works that don’t add any artistic meaning.’

Left: Nathalie Obadia, 2022. Photograph by Aliki Christoforou for Art Basel. Right: Isa Lorenzo. Courtesy of Silverlens, photograph by Joseph Pascual.

When it comes to museum acquisitions in the US, meanwhile, Repetto says conversations around diversity are increasingly common, but she notes how boards of trustees and donors with more antiquated notions of art history have made it harder for institutions to embrace change. ‘There’s a certain counterbalance to this natural progression towards female artists,’ she says. Repetto’s observations are borne out in the data. Last year’s Burns Halperin Report, which explores representation in US museums and the international art market between 2008 and 2020, showed just how limited the purchasing power of museums is. The issue of gifts further complicates this picture: focusing on the breakdown of gifts versus purchases in museum acquisitions, for female artists, gifts outweigh purchases by 71% to 29%, revealing how much museums rely on donors to shape their collections.

Overall, the Burns Halperin Report serves as a stark reminder of just how far we have yet to go, noting how, at the current rate of growth, we won’t see parity in the auction market for work by female artists until 2053. As Corrias puts it: ‘Many are doing the work, but we have a long way to go. We cannot afford to become complacent. Our work must reflect the world that we live in.’

Anny Shaw is a contributing art market editor at The Art Newspaper and author of Resist: Rebellion, Dissent & Protest in Art.

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