“To put it simply, works that have taken so much love and energy have not been valued as they should have been, because it is part of patriarchal culture to systematically downgrade women’s work.”
The perspective to follow is limited in its scope. I will focus on my personal experience of working at a commercial gallery, which partly specialises in works produced by female artists active during the 70s and 80s. Even more problems would inevitably arise if this same discussion was to take into consideration race and sexuality, and expand the notion of gender from strictly male/female to account for trans, intersex and genderqueer perspectives.
After half a century of female artistic struggles that were predominantly the direct result of collective feminist political work, we are now experiencing an increased market presence by female artists who were relatively unknown when they were producing artworks in the 60s, 70s and 80s. During my 4-year experience in a London based high-end gallery, I have worked with some of these influential artists, most of whom are now in their seventies or eighties. I continue to be affected, if not completely enraged, by the explicit gender-based discrimination they have faced across the fields of art, work, education and society: unsupportive families, having to choose between motherhood or art, being demeaned and/or sexually harassed by their professors and continually undermined by their male peers. These stories I think are now well-known and, while they are worth repeating, I want to concentrate on how these experiences continue to currently affect women, as well as how this affects the culture of sales. But first, a little background on why women are now more “marketable”, to use the language of gallerism.
Struggling to find appreciation, respect or work in a male-dominated world, feminist artists resorted to strategies they borrowed from the feminist political sphere: collective organisation and mobilisation. Numerous initiatives provided support and resources for women, some of which took the form of the gallery context: New York’s A.I.R. gallery, running since 1972, would only exhibit female artists including Eleanor Antin and Ana Mendieta; the Italian collective Cooperativa del Beato Angelico, active during the 70s in Rome and exhibiting one-women shows, including the likes of Suzanne Santoro and Carla Accardi; the Viennese group which formed around the exhibition Magna: Feminismus, curated by VALIE EXPORT in 1975, including Renate Bertlmann and Birgit Jürgenssen. The market we now have access to, but which will take many more decades to balance, has been the direct result of these and many other feminist transnational and transgenerational coalitions of artists, theorists, curators, lovers and friends, that have in their respective ways rescued women’s work from cultural exclusion.
At a recent talk for the exhibition The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s, I found the exhibition’s curator Gabriele Schor refreshing and almost shockingly transparent in her approach: she disclosed that she received approximately 1 million euros from Sammlung Verbund to acquire women’s work for the collection; that she encouraged the artists who were under-valuing their work to raise their prices; that the collection is still expanding; that it has been touring Europe and it will now continue a world-wide tour; and that new catalogues are created in specific occasions. These strategies do not only transfer art-historical value into the works but, more significantly, they increment their market value.
There is a certain discomfort when you find yourself confronted with women artists, some of them explicitly feminists, whom, after years of anonymity, have all of a sudden been “re-discovered” by the art market. Why has this re-discovery been possible in the past decade and why is it today a “market trend”? Women’s work, and less so explicit feminist art, are now neglected “niche” markets that have never been fully explored (or exploited) during the time in which they were made. These works also have an increasingly expanding public, not only within the gallery or institution, but also within the academic sphere. The market presence of female artists has increasingly created awareness among women that their work is worth more than what they expected. So why is it that when asked to price their work, women themselves undervalue their art?
One of the reasons is that during the evaluation process, these women have clearly not been supported by the galleries who approached them in first place and, as a consequence, their vintage work, once re-discovered, is sold immediately at a very low price. This might serve the gallery’s pockets, but it is detrimental to the artists’ own career and their own art market presence. The gallery might in some occasions go on to profit from the price agreed with the artists by overwriting the latter with a new retail price without informing the artists and, consequently, without sharing the profit. The artists then never see the true monetary value of their work (which is still very low in relation to their male counterparts), remaining under the same assumptions about the value of their artwork. Most of the time, such situations are made possible because the artists have no first-hand art-market experience, as during their times, there was little opportunity for women to sell their works or to work directly with galleries.
So, it is not that women “naturally” lack self-esteem or confidence. On the contrary, when the whole structure of both the art market and society are systematically underestimating women’s labour, across all forms of labour, it is only a matter of time before this system becomes internalized by women and culturally endorsed by cultural agents. How can a woman give value to days, months, sometimes years of activity that are behind an artwork – in addition to the material costs, research and development of the artwork, in addition to the childcare, family, other jobs and commitments? What part of the creative process gets transcribed into the final price? To put it more simply, works that have taken so much love and energy have not been valued as they should have been, because it is part of patriarchal culture to systematically downgrade women’s work. In some cases, this same culture expects women to work for free.
Paradoxically, the art market is now, more than ever, saturated with women. More female students (in some universities they almost make 80%), more female interns, more women with postgraduate degrees willing to work as invigilators for near to nothing. It is in fact common to see galleries or institutions composed of exclusively all-women teams on the bottom level, but men occupying senior positions. Next time you visit a gallery or buy from a gallery, keep this in mind. Women are everywhere, but nowhere that matters in terms of leadership. There are exceptions of course.
Balancing the number of women in the market will not even out the debt owed by patriarchy. It will take a far more radical approach to this topic. Instead of examining why there aren’t enough women artists in the market, or why they are undervalued, we need to examine whether the art-market can, in any way, be fit for a feminist approach. We will have to argue for healthier, more transparent and sustainable systems for creativity to flourish, where feminists – men and women – will have to, once again, invent a new art market. One that really has the benefit of the artist in mind. With this in mind, I offer an example as well as a conclusion. My text here had to remain anonymous, because I work for a high-end gallery, and as most high-end galleries, my contract stipulates a confidentiality clause. Which is a legal way to ensure that that if one is faced with any “ethical” issues, they may address them, but they will never see the light of day. Isn’t this simply another way of silencing women, and are we sure that these are the conditions that we want more women to partake in?