BORN IN PORTLAND, ORE., IN 1953, photographer Carrie Mae Weems has steadily built a critically acclaimed, internationally recognized practice. Weems uses photography and video to test and explore assumptions about race, gender, class and history. She is a trailblazer, who had few examples to turn to, model her career after or use as a measure for envisioning what she was capable of achieving in the field.
“There have been wonderful changes for women artists in the past 40-some years, and I know these women now in a way that I didn’t when my career began. As a student I went to the library to find books on women photographers and found there were very few,” Weems writes in ARTnews.
“Since then, there has been considerable improvement. However, although women artists are now being exhibited more, their work is still not valued to the extent of the male artists’. We are still a psychological and cultural distance away from recognizing and valuing them.”
ARTnews magazine has devoted its June issue to a special report assessing the state of women in the art world—how women artists are faring in terms of solo museum exhibitions and representation in museum collections, gallery representation, press coverage and market valuation, and also measuring opportunities garnered by female curators and museum directors.
The cover for the special issue features a collage painting by Wangechi Mutu. Inside, there are several essays and an interview with feminist art historian Linda Nochlin, who published a 1971 essay titled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in ARTnews. The centerpiece of the coverage is “Taking Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures, and Fixes,” an article by New York-based curator and writer Maura Reilley.
Weems’s statement is part of an essay she penned in response to Reilly’s report. The magazine gathered responses from 17 women artists, seeking to gain insight from different generations of artists about their experiences and the statistics she reveals. Four African American women are included. Along with Weems and Mutu, Coco Fusco and Mickalene Thomas, also participated.
Reilly begins her report by acknowledging remarkable progress and emphasizing the remaining challenges. “The institutional power structures that Nochlin argued made it ‘impossible for women to achieve artistic excellence, or success, on the same footing as men, no matter what the potency of their so-called talent, or genius,’ have been shifting,” Reilly writes.
“But inequality persists. The common refrain that ‘women are treated equally in the art world now’ needs to be challenged. The existence of a few superstars…does not mean that women artists have achieved equality. Far from it.”
“Inequality persists. The common refrain that ‘women are treated equally in the art world now’ needs to be challenged. The existence of a few superstars…does not mean that women artists have achieved equality. Far from it.” — Maura Reilly, ARTnews
Her findings, some of which are noted below, are extraordinary—in some regards surprising, in others familiar, rarely reassuring:
- • In 2004, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened its new building, with a reinstallation of the permanent collection spanning the years 1880 to 1970, of the 410 works on display only 16 were by women (just 4 percent). Even fewer works were by artists of color. More recently, in April 2015, 7 percent of the works on display were by women.
- • In 2005 women ran 32 percent of the museums in the United States, they now run 42.6 percent—albeit mainly the ones with the smallest budgets.
- • At auction, the highest price paid to date for a work by a living woman artist is $7.1 million, for a Yayoi Kusama painting; the highest result for a living man was an editioned sculpture by Jeff Koons, which sold for $58.4 million. The most ever paid for a work by a deceased woman artist is $44.4 million for a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, versus $142.4 million for a Francis Bacon triptych.
- • Each year Artprice.com draws up an international report on the contemporary art market, based on auction sales, and presents the top 500 artists according to turnover. In its 2014 report there were just three women in the top 100.
- • In 2014, Artforum featured a female artist only once on its front cover. In the September 2014 issue of Artforum, which featured Jeff Koons on the cover, of 73 advertisements associated with galleries in New York, only 11 promoted solo exhibitions by women (just 15 percent). More on Artforum’s gender record.
- • The December 2014 issue of Vanity Fair featured an article titled “Prima Galleristas” about the top 14 female art dealers. Ironically, few of these “galleristas” actually support women artists. All but one of them—Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn of Salon 94—represent women less than 33 percent of the time.
- • Of all the solo exhibitions since 2007 at the Whitney Museum, 29 percent went to women artists.
- • In the year 2000, the Guggenheim in New York had zero solo shows by women. In 2014, 14 percent of the solo exhibitions were by women.
Weems is among the few women artists who have had a solo show at the Guggenheim in New York. Her exhibition “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video” was on view from January 24 to May 14, 2014. The occasion marked the first time an African American woman has had a retrospective at the museum.
Compared with other contemporary artists, and certainly when measured against fellow female and black artists, Mutu, Thomas and Weems have achieved remarkable critical and commercial success. Fusco is also accomplished in her own right, both artistically and academically. Their strides have not blinded them to the gender climate in the art world though. Each offered thoughtful responses to Reilly’s eye-opening report.
Fusco is an interdisciplinary Cuban-American artist who probes the politics of race, gender and war. Born in 1960, she lives in New York and is MIT’s MLK Visiting Scholar for 2014-2015. Fusco cites the fact that unlike film and literature, which are largely dependent on popular demand in determining their desirability, visual art is “exclusionary,” with the value of works determined by “a tiny elite.”
“I don’t know if I am viewed primarily as a woman artist. I think I am viewed first and foremost as an outspoken person of color, and then as a person who is something of an interloper in the world of art, since I did not go to art school, and I write criticism and have an academic background,” Fusco writes in ARTnews
“There are times when I feel that males in positions of authority view me as a threat because I am female and not complicit in their sexist bullshit—these are the guys who fear mature female success, screw their female art students whenever they can, and treat female colleagues as subservient to themselves. They refuse to acknowledge and respect female talent, and they employ mafia-style tactics to undermine female advancement.”
Through mixed-media collage, installations and video, Mutu (b. 1972) presents the female figure in mesmerizing environments that reference myth and fashion and explore race, gender and political issues. Brooklyn-based Mutu says that she travels frequently internationally and has become more aware of her gender when she at home in Kenya. Whereas she feels “more detached by virtue of my race and ethnicity” when she is in the United States.
“It’s important to notice how women are represented in exhibitions and other art infrastructures, and it’s absolutely necessary to look at raw numbers in order to grasp the gender imbalance in any situation or context. The numbers can be shocking and glaringly honest, and without them people wouldn’t be fully convinced of how uneven the playing field is,” writes Mutu in ARTnews.
“But I think there are other ways as well to note the disparities—nuanced ways in which the absence of women is manifest—in terms of ideas, choice of imagery, type of work curated in exhibitions, and how the female form is presented.”
She adds: “Statistics help document the unfair representation of women, but studies and analysis of conceptual and intellectual misrepresentation are also important.”
Mutu notes that she insulates her creative environment by surrounding herself with a team of competent females. The last thing she wants is to have her art or workspace “sullied by sexist behavior.”
Thomas’s practice primarily focuses on powerful portraits of black women realized through photography and enormous embellished mixed-media paintings. Born in 1971 and based in Brooklyn, Thomas says it is important for women in positions of opportunity to think about ways to make change.
“I’m here as an artist, as a woman able to support myself solely on my art. Could I have done that in 1971? I doubt it,” Thomas writes in ARTnews.
“Many of the disparities between female and male artists today are subtle. I’ve been included in publications where the names of the male artists are in big, bold letters and all of the women’s names are in smaller sizes… The medium is the message, and these decisions are loaded with meaning that we respond to intuitively. If you see Jeff Koons in big letters and Kara Walker in a small font, you get a message about who is the more significant artist.”
Carrie Mae Weems
Based in Syracuse, N.Y., Weems emphasizes that groups, such as feminists, blacks and gays, that share a desire to gain equity in society need to organize around their larger goals of social change.
“As a society we are still seeking ways to deal with gender disparity. The isolation of women is culturally imposed, and it’s a situation in which they participate. Rising to the occasion is a tall order. I don’t blame women. But I’m always trying to discern how we might be complicit in our own victimization. I’m aware of the ways in which we are isolated and realize how difficult it is to combat that,” Weems writes in ARTnews.
“For my part, I find myself in constant battle with organizations, institutions, both male and female, about fair and equal treatment. I attempt in my work to negotiate the power imbalance. There is a certain lack of democracy, whereby women represent the womb of a democracy not yet born.” CT
TOP IMAGE: Clockwise, from left, Coco Fusco, Wangechi Mutu, Carrie Mae Weems, Mickalene Thomas
The author of several books, Coco Fusco’s forthcoming title is “Dangerous Moves: Politics and Performance in Cuba” Catalogs coinciding with the solo exhibitions of Wangechi Mutu, Mickalene Thomas and Carrie Mae Weems have been published in recent years. “Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey” accompanied Mutu’s first major solo exhibition; “Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe,” is Thomas’s first monograph; and “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video” was published to coincide with the first major survey of Weems’s career.