Maura Reilly: Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures, and Fixes — May 31, 2015

Published in the WOMEN IN THE ART WORLD June 2015 edition of ARTnews, Maura Reilly’s article brings into focus the on-going issues that form gender inequality in the contemporary art world. Read an excerpt from Reilly’s compelling essay below.

BY Maura Reilly

“Despite encouraging signs of women’s improved status and visibility in the art world, there are still major systemic problems. Do not misunderstand me: women artists are in a far better position today than they were 45 years ago, when Linda Nochlin wrote her landmark essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” published in the pages of this magazine. Access to “high art” education, to which women have historically been denied, is now possible for many with financial means. (According to The New York Times, in 2006 women represented more than 60 percent of the students in art programs in the United States.) Moreover, the institutional power structures that Nochlin argued made it “impossible for women to achieve artistic excellence, or success, on the same footing as men, no matter what the potency of their so-called talent, or genius,” have been shifting.

But inequality persists. The common refrain that “women are treated equally in the art world now” needs to be challenged. The existence of a few superstars or token achiever—like Marina Abramovic, Tracey Emin, and Cindy Sherman—does not mean that women artists have achieved equality. Far from it.The more closely one examines art-world statistics, the more glaringly obvious it becomes that, despite decades of postcolonial, feminist, anti-racist, and queer activism and theorizing, the majority continues to be defined as white, Euro-American, heterosexual, privileged, and, above all, male. Sexism is still so insidiously woven into the institutional fabric, language, and logic of the mainstream art world that it often goes undetected.

The Museums
Last fall, artnet News asked 20 of the most powerful women in the art world if they felt the industry was biased and received a resounding “yes.” Several were museum directors who argued that the senior management, predominantly male, had a stranglehold on the institutions, often preventing them from instituting substantive change. According to a 2014 study “The Gender Gap in Art Museum Directorships,” conducted by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), female art-museum directors earn substantially less than their male counterparts, and upper-level positions are most often occupied by men. The good news is that, while in 2005 women ran 32 percent of the museums in the United States, they now run 42.6 percent—albeit mainly the ones with the smallest budgets.

Discrimination against women at the top trickles down into every aspect of the art world—gallery representation, auction price differentials, press coverage, and inclusion in permanent-collection displays and solo-exhibition programs. A glance at the past few years of special-exhibition schedules at major art institutions in the United States, for instance, especially the presentation of solo shows, reveals the continued prevalence of gender disparity. Of all the solo exhibitions since 2007 at the Whitney Museum, 29 percent went to women artists. Some statistics have improved. In the year 2000, the Guggenheim in New York had zero solo shows by women. In 2014, 14 percent of the solo exhibitions were by women.”

Read all of Maura Reilly’s essay at ARTnews.
Read more on Reilly’s publications, projects and activities on her website.

There have been many and varied responses to the article published on ARTnews from artists across generations.
Read a sample of some below.

Lynda Benglis
“I feel that whatever I do has to do with my being a person who happens to be a woman. But I think the political issue is a great issue, although I’m not involved with the economics. I’m involved with the ideas.Nevertheless, I think we, as women artists, have to make our demands. And I think I do everything for myself that I possibly can within that situation. I’m lucky enough to have always had outlets for my work. But also, I’ve assumed power. You have to carefully sift out the important things that don’t necessarily apply to your life in order to get to more important things, in order to go on, to make your own rules and not be a victim. Worrying takes a lot of energy, and it’s negative.” Read Benglis’s full response here.

Cindy Sherman
“While I agree that there have been great strides in making things better, we still have a ways to go before there’s real parity. I am well aware that my prices aren’t anywhere near those of my male counterparts, and while it annoys the hell out of me, I also think, How can I complain when I’m still doing so well? I was brought up to be self-sacrificing and more concerned with others than myself. I’ve never been super-competitive. Even in the hyped-up ’80s, when I felt I was getting at least equal the praise of my male peers, my work sold for a fraction of their prices. But there was also the issue of photography versus painting, so my work would naturally be cheaper.
And then there’s the theory that that is why so many women artists of my generation worked in photography, precisely because it didn’t compete with painting.” Read Sherman’s full response here.

Chitra Ganesh
“The majority of my colleagues are women. Because my work opens up narratives to offer alternative representations of sexuality and eroticism, it is considered feminist.I bear the legacies of being a woman artist and at the same time using imagery that many people would consider foreign or inaccessible in an American cultural context.At a moment when so much is contingent upon an artist’s market success—inclusion in biennials and museum shows, attaining gallery representation, higher-level grants and commissions, and mainstream visibility—it is difficult for artists whose cultural materials, art-historical referents, or formal approaches are not readily apprehended in the context of the mainstream market. I experience some of this in the reception of my work, with its combined presentation of figuration, sexuality, dark-skinned bodies, and seemingly “foreign” influences that a viewer located in the West might not be able to connect to American history or Western art history. Because of its apparent “illegibility,” support for my work is at times more institutional than commercial.” Read all of Ganesh’s response here.

Wangechi Mutu
“It’s important to notice how women are represented in exhibitions and other art infrastructures, and it’s absolutely necessary to look at raw numbers in order to grasp the gender imbalance in any situation or context. The numbers can be shocking and glaringly honest, and without them people wouldn’t be fully convinced of how uneven the playing field is.But I think there are other ways as well to note the disparities—nuanced ways in which the absence of women is manifest—in terms of ideas, choice of imagery, type of work curated in exhibitions, and how the female form is presented. How often do women appear in art, and how do they sit and perform in the works? Is the figure always represented as docile, inactive, sexualized, or subordinate? Does she have an inferior role in a larger narrative that emphasizes the superiority of the male protagonist? Is her appearance stereotypical in terms of weight, skin color, hair texture, and facial expression? Statistics help document the unfair representation of women, but studies and analysis of conceptual and intellectual misrepresentation are also important.” Read all of Mutu’s response here.