According to the art database Artsy, globally a mere 10% of galleries have a share of 50% or more woman artists. Picture: 123RF/DMITRY PETROV-KORSUKOV
According to the art database Artsy, globally a mere 10% of galleries have a share of 50% or more woman artists. Picture: 123RF/DMITRY PETROV-KORSUKOV

The exhibition I Am … Contemporary Women Artists of Africa opened last week at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. It presents multimedia works by 28 modernist and contemporary artists from 10 African countries and runs until July 2020.

The show came about after a collections assessment five years ago revealed that only 11% of the artists in the permanent collection were women. Since then, the percentage of women represented in the museum has risen to 22%. The exhibition is part of its standing commitment to increase the representation of women in the arts.

Also in the US, the third edition of the Whitney Houston Biennial presented 400 women artists in New York in May before moving to Los Angeles in June. The event was launched in response to the low number of female artists represented by the Whitney Biennal, the much -revered survey of the best in US contemporary art.

There appears lately to be a proliferation of women-only shows that are staged in an attempt to rectify the market of women artists. While some have questioned the relevance of such shows, others such as the curator and arts writer Maura Reilly, of the major exhibition Global Feminisms fame, calls them necessary “curatorial correctives” in an environment where nearly allmen shows seem to be the accepted norm.

Gender equality may be a human right today but the reality still lags behind.

Unsurprisingly the art world is in no way different. A number of recent studies look at the gaps in representation and pay.

One notable example is the Art Basel & UBS Art Market report 2019 which releases sobering statistics. The share of women in global exhibitions has grown from 4% in 1900 to just 25% in 2000 — and to a paltry 33% in 2018. Almost half of the women represented appeared after 1950. This is no surprise since, historically, women were forbidden access to training and working in the arts.

The report shows that, in the primary market, 36% of artists represented by galleries are female. The sale of work by women artists accounts for an average 32% of annual turnover.

Galleries have a higher share of emerging women artists (43%) which declines as artists become more established and older. The art database Artsy finds that globally a mere 10% of galleries have a share of 50% or more woman artists.

Gender disparity varies with geography too. Asian galleries reportedly have the lowest average of the representation woman while Africa & Middle East galleries have the highest.

A look at the SA gallery landscape echoes the findings, with an average 34% female representation. Shockingly, one gallery represents two women artists among 14 men.

Research on the auction market shows that women representation is about half that in the primary market and that there is an average 50% price gap between male and female artists. Cultural economist Clare McAndrew argues that while lower values can be explained in older sectors where the supply of women artists is low due to historical factors, it is harder to understand why the disparity still holds today.

The SA auction market constitutes a glaring exception where paintings by Irma Stern (1894-1966) grab the records.

A true reflection of the times, Art Basel has recently presented talk programmes at its various fairs that explore gender disparity in the art world. Last December in Miami, Maura Reilly and Billie Zangewa participated in the discussion entitled “Feminism/The Global View ”, in which Reilly pointed out that “MoMA’s permanent collection display is 12% women, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s is 4%”.

Earlier in June in Basel, SA artist Candice Breitz was a panellist in “Mind the (Price) Gap — It’s a Gender Thing”.

Breitz took this opportunity to further emphasise that works by black women account for only 1% in MoMA’s collections.

How can we understand women’s lack of success? At the University of Luxembourg in 2017 about 2,000 participants were invited to rate artworks that were computer-generated and randomly attributed to fictitious male and female artists. Guess what? Works by women were rated lower.

Breitz puts it bluntly: “For as long as the decisionmakers are men, this kind of disparity will continue.”

In essence, gender disparity persists in the art world because of what Clare McAndrew calls “the behavioural patterns of the gatekeepers and tastemakers”.

What will be fascinating to follow is the potential effect of women collectors who have earned their own money and are now entering the art market.