Brushed aside: Female artists struggle for equal gallery representation

Five years ago, Micol Hebron, a video and performance artist and art professor at Chapman, wanted to find out how many galleries hosted shows by women artists, but all of her searches for information ran dry. Soon, she became “obsessed” with finding answers and started the Gallery Tally project where Hebron and a handful of volunteer students travel to galleries to record the ratio of male to female artists. So far, they’ve traveled to over 5,000 galleries across the nation, but their findings have remained constant no matter where they go.

“Month after month, (it’s) 70, 80, 90 percent male artists,” Hebron said. “Women have been excluded from the professional pipeline.”

At Chapman, the main artist of the iconic (and sometimes controversial) bronze busts strewn about campus is a woman. Newport beach based sculptor Miriam Baker sculpted at least 20 of the busts, including the likenesses of Ronald Reagan and Ella Fitzgerald. Still, Baker is the exception, not the rule.

When Gallery Tally surveyed the works on display in Chapman’s Hilbert Museum of California Art in 2016, they found 99 percent of the works were made by men. The Hilbert collection houses art from more than 300 artists. Only 48 pieces, or 16 percent, were made by women, according to Mary Platt, director of the Hilbert Museum.

Jackson Gathard’s poster from the 2016 Gallery Tally review of the Hilbert Museum. | Photo courtesy of Micol Hebron

The Phyllis & Ross Escalette Permanent Collection of Art, the largest of Chapman’s art collections with more than 700 pieces, does not keep track of the ratio of male to female artists, but they are, “busy trying to proactively add more women artists to (their) collection,” said Dr. Lindsay Shen, Director of Art Collections for Chapman. Hebron has tried to tally the Escalette collection, but has run into “difficulties” receiving exact information.

Though about 46 percent of artists are female, according to the most recent data available from the National Endowment for the Arts, galleries around the world don’t reflect this number. Work by female artists makes up roughly 35 percent of art on display in the Tate Modern, and from 2007-2014, only about 20 percent of solo exhibitions in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) featured women artists.

“It’s so strange because there’s so many female art students, and then when you see it in a professional realm, not that many female artists make it,” said Kayla Quinlan, a junior fine arts major.

Though Chapman is generally along the same lines as national galleries concerning it’s representation of female artists, the school’s art community hopes changes can be made. Platt is working towards putting together an exhibition of female California artists at the Hilbert, while professors continue to encourage their students to think critically about their entrance into the art world.

“The field that (art students) are entering has never pretended to be equitable,” said Denise Johnson, an art history professor at Chapman. “It’s privileged, and in the economy of the art market, there’s very little that would persuade it to be equitable.

Even when women are represented, they are often not paid as much for their work as their male counterparts. The highest selling painting by a male artist is Leonardo DaVinci’s “Salvator Mundi”, which was bought at auction in 2017 for 450 million dollars. The top selling female-made painting, Georgia O’Keeffe’s “White Flower No.1”, sold for 4.44 million.

“The disparity is just appalling,” Hebron said. “The art world is one of the few remaining markets that is completely unregulated.”

The entrance of the Hilbert Museum | Photo by KALI HOFFMAN

Alongside educating her art students about the issue of representation, Hebron also encourages them to treat their art like a “business” and be smart about who takes an interest in their work.

“There are people who play artists as if they are betting on horses,” Hebron said. “You are essentially an independent contractor, an entrepreneur. Female artists undersell themselves, that’s a part of capitalism and a long standing bias that women aren’t worth it.”

There’s also no official oversight system, like unions, in place for freelance artists. Museum review organizations exist, but they generally have no say over how artists get paid or who is selected for galleries, Platt said

Though Hebron said the reality of the art world can be “disillusioning” for aspiring artists, especially since it’s often a “passionate” field, she said students have a better chance if they prepare themselves for the road ahead. She recommends art students minor in business, research galleries they want to collaborate with, and, most importantly, never work for free.

“I would love it if we didn’t have capitalism at all, but since we live in a capitalist system, I think women’s labor and their time and investment should be acknowledged and valued,” Hebron said. “I hope that students do stand up for what they’re worth, and don’t work with people who don’t recognize their worth.”

Quinlan has already put this advice into action. Instead of getting discouraged, she said learning about inequality inspires her to seek out potential employers that care about equal representation.   

“If anything, it makes me more ambitious in my work,” Quinlan said.

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