How The Art World Has Ignored Women

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Art made by men still completely dominates public galleries.

But some institutions are trying to change that and make sure women’s voices are represented just as much.

So, what’s going on in the art world that means men’s work is still taking up most of the gallery space? And why is it important that women’s work is shown as much as men’s?

In general, the gender ratio in galleries is pretty shocking and studies have shown that only around 30% of the art that’s hanging is ever made by women.

It’s a problem that’s come up again and again in the past few decades.

Activist groups like the Guerrilla Girls have been trying to dismantle the male monopoly on galleries around the world for years.

Back in the late ’80s, the group put out this poster because at the time, only 5% of the art shown in the modern art section of New York’s Met Museum was by female artists, but 85% of the nudes displayed were women.

But massive art institutions are still being criticised for inequality today.

There seem to be a bunch of different theories about why this problem persists, and one of those is to do with obvious systemic sexism in history.

Elspeth Pitt: “It’s a problem across the industry and there’s many reasons for this. One of them is networks: women were often excluded – historically speaking – from art schools and [from] this boy’s club of directors and curators who were collecting the works of art for these cultural institutions.”

That’s Elspeth Pitt, she’s a curator from the National Gallery of Australia.

The historic ‘boys club’ reasoning doesn’t really hold up with modern artists. Even though the gender imbalance of works on display is still there, over the past decade only 10% of all the work acquired by the US’ top galleries were by women.

Other experts have pointed to the idea that women are generally way less aggressive about promoting themselves, or that the trait of ‘genius’ is still one that’s usually only attributed to men.

So, what can the art world to do correct itself?

Elspeth and the team at the NGA have created a new all-female exhibition to front the names of women, trans or cis, who have been pretty much ignored by art history and even the gallery itself.

Right now, only 25% of the NGA’s collection is by female artists.

EP: “I think it’s really important as a national gallery – as a public collection – that we represent the work of all artists. And it’s really limiting if we only represent the perspective, or the output of one group of people … particularly as a cultural institution that should represent the art and ideas of all people. It’s very important for us to look deeply at the work of women artists and all artists across the board.”

But Elspeth acknowledges that it’s not just about creating these single symbolic events. There has to be bigger systemic change.

That’s why the NGA is also going to become the first major gallery in Australia to create a permanent guideline to make gender equality a priority.

Elspeth is optimistic that by making these massive cultural institutions change course, it’s going to benefit the art world, even at the lower levels.

And that’s pretty important considering female art graduates still earn about 22% less than men at the same level.

EP: “I think it does mean something when [it comes from] an institution like the NGA, which has budgets attached to it. It has weight, its ideas carry … and so to have change made at that kind of level, I think it is influential and it does help effect change elsewhere across the sector. And you know, it’s exciting. I feel excited and in many ways this has been a long time coming.”

The Takeaway

Systemic sexism in the art world isn’t exactly a historical problem. It still effects everything we see in public galleries and the art world is still full of inequality.

Galleries need to make broad systemic changes to champion the voices of women and minorities, because it would be outdated to continue consuming this skewed version of our own history and culture.