Art & Design, FeaturesDuke FORM

100th Anniversary of Women's Suffrage: Turning the Tide in Art

Art & Design, FeaturesDuke FORM
100th Anniversary of Women's Suffrage: Turning the Tide in Art

The shortage of prominent female figures in art history is well-documented. Since Linda Nochlin’s seminal 1971 essay—“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”—there has been an increased awareness of gender inequity in the art world. The emergence of feminist voices in the art world spurred some initial improvements, yet the underrepresentation of women has persisted well into the 21st century. Consider this: out of the National Gallery’s archive of over 2,300 works in 2011, only eleven were by women—less than half a percent of the total collection. Gender disparities are also clearly defined in the art market, as 96.1% of auction sales between 2000 and 2017 were by male artists. Despite this lamentable precedent, the tide of gender dynamics in the art world is finally showing signs of turning. Indeed, recent events are setting 2020 up to be a watershed year for female representation in art. 100 years after women were granted the right to vote in America, another feminist paradigm shift could be in the works. 

Within the first two days of August, two pieces of art world news indicated major—and perhaps long-term—progress being made in favor of female artists. On August 1st, ArtNews reported that “returns for works by women artists are outmatching those of men.” The following day, the Baltimore Museum of Art announced its plan to dedicate all of its 2020 exhibitions to female artists. These successive stories are particularly promising because they suggest improvement in both the museum and market realms of art.

2019 has largely continued the positive trends of 2018, which saw many influential museums and galleries putting on exhibitions for historic and contemporary female artists. This year’s most notable shows include Hilma af Klint at the Guggenheim, Lee Krasner at Barbican and Dorothea Tanning at the Tate Modern, as well as Victoria Miro’s collaboration with the Instagram account @thegreatwomenartists—a summer exhibition featuring the work of three women under the age of 40: María Berrío, Caroline Walker and Flora Yukhnovich. When taking current circumstances at face value, one cannot help but be optimistic about the future of women artists. Contemporary female artists, like 34-year-old Toyin Ojih-Odutola, are having their work sold at auction by Sotheby’s while other notable figures, such as Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, are posthumously leaving their “artist’s wife” labels behind and being recognized as masterful artists in their own rights. But while recent developments are promising, lasting change in the art world is far from guaranteed.

In the worst case scenario, recent representation and recognition of female artists could end up being nothing more than a passing fad—a marketing trend rather than a permanent progression. The deciding factor will likely be the financial performance of female-centric exhibitions. In examining the art world’s exclusionary past, we often see a precipitous drop in the public’s regard of a female artist once museums decide to stop collecting or displaying her work—this disappearance from museum walls then causes faltering auction performances for the same artist. It is of the utmost importance, then, for museums and galleries to discern value—that is, monetary gain—from exhibiting more work by female artists. The key here is to push museums towards permanently acquiring women artists’ work. By placing these artworks in their collections, museums can ensure some degree of much-needed perpetuity in female artistic representation. 

Global feminism has been on the rise for a few years now, and this fervor will likely be heightened by the American suffrage centenary. Heading into 2020, major players from around the globe have committed various efforts towards achieving gender parity in the art world. We, as consumers, yield much control over the success of these undertakings. Indeed, by showing sustained interest and support for their work, we can make sure female artists are represented in more museums, auction houses and art history textbooks.


WORDS BY DANI YAN