The Art World's Glass Ceiling | Does the Art Market Still Discriminate Against Women Artists?

Some time ago, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about new auction records set for artwork by women artists.

The long and short of the article was that, even though, broadly speaking, work by female artists tends to be valued at less than similar work by their male counterparts, the gap is slowly beginning to close. In February, a portrait by Berthe Morisot’s set an all-time record for artwork by a female when it sold at $10.9M. The article goes on to point out that 9 of the top 10 records for artwork by women have sold in the last five years.

While this trend is encouraging when you consider how men have dominated the art market, women still have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to auction values.

A quick survey of some of the prestigious artist groups around the country shows women making inroads, although there are still a number of notorious hold-out, all-male clubs (I’ll refrain from naming any here – I don’t care to open that can of worms).

I’m happy to report that in my market segment, the glass ceiling seems to be far more fragile, even if it hasn’t quite shattered. A glance around my gallery and you will find my display space equally divided between male and female artists. Looking at sales, the same is true.

I don’t perceive any blowback from collector’s when they discover that an attractive piece was created by a woman.

Gladly, I think the days of a woman having to sign her art with only a first initial to obscure her gender are behind us

I would expect that, over time, there will be a trickle-up effect. As women become a bigger part of the broader market, and as the value of their work catches up in the contemporary market, values will also increase for female artists who move into the high-end market and more and more women will become blue-chip artists.

Even so, I talk with many artists who feel there is still a bias in the market, and I wouldn’t want to downplay that perception. The art market has been slow to evolve, and because galleries are virtual fiefdoms, where the gallery owner can express his or her own biases without much fear of repercussion, it can still be difficult for a female artist to break through.

So what’s a woman to do?

Gladly, I think the days of a woman having to sign her art with only a first initial to obscure her gender are behind us, but there are still a few things a woman can do to overcome any residual bias. I speak here from both experience and from conversations I’ve had with women artists.

 

  1. Work harder. If there is still something for a woman to prove, it behooves you to do everything in your power to prove it. This advice actually applies to any artist, female or male. Sometimes an artist may sense discrimination when their work doesn’t find a ready audience among galleries or collectors when, in fact, the problem lies in the work itself. It’s hard work building a successful career as an artist, don’t assume that every failure is the result of discrimination.
  2. Leverage your strengths. I’ve written a number of posts over the years on the importance of communication and building relationships. I’m probably going to take some flak for saying this, but in my experience, communication and relationship building are not always strengths for men – in fact they often are not strengths. If these are strengths for you, take advantage of those strengths.
  3.  Be doggedly persistent. If doors seem to close in your face, keep knocking. While you can strive to create great work and do everything in your power to get it out there, there are some things you can’t change – your gender is one of them.

What do you think – does discrimination against women still exist in the art world? Have you experienced it? How have you overcome discrimination? What advice would you offer other artists who are concerned about how their gender might impact their success? Leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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