Art Market

Artistic Shifts: Making Space for Women in the Art Market of Tomorrow

Jenna Ferrey | February 25, 2019

Zoe Leonard, Homage, 2018 (Site-specific installation, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) © Zoe Leonard and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

In 1971, art historian, Linda Nochlin asked, “Why are there no great women artists?” Her seminal essay challenged the institutional obstacles that limited female artists’ access to museum and gallery walls. Nearly 50 years later, walking into almost any museum or gallery, we are still compelled to ask, “where are the women?” Women’s access to art history, and to history in general, is impeded by their casual erasure from it.


The assumption, often, is that women weren’t making history, (or they weren’t making art) because they were historically relegated to other, secondary roles. A more conscientious approach to history, however, reveals women were actively making history and actively making art. We can look back to the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft, Septima Poinsette Clark, and Dorothy Hodgkin among countless other women who shaped the course of history. While the academic recovery of these women’s contributions is slow, progress is happening. Similarly, in the art world, shows such as the Hilma af Klint retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum (Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 12, 2018 - April 23, 2019), is working to place female artists back into the canons of art history. However, painters like Tina Blau, Suzanne Valadon, or Mina Carlson-Bredberg continue to remain largely overlooked and fetch relatively low prices at auction.

Today, women artists continue to face adversity in the market and struggle to find their places in gallery rosters and as subjects of major museum shows. This lack of access to collectors and to exhibition space limits the ability of women to progress and change to be reflected in the prices of their work. If women’s work doesn’t find its way onto gallery and museum walls, collectors don’t see it. If collectors don’t see it, they don’t buy it. If the work isn’t purchased its value can not increase, thus creating a circular and self-sustaining assumption that women’s art is less valuable.

(1) Suzanne Valadon, Portrait of Mme Zamaron, 1922, Oil on canvas, 32 1/8 x 25 7/8” (81.5 x 65.6 cm) © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
(2) Toyin Ojih Odutola, Representatives of State, 2016 - 2017 ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York (mobile: this credit line belongs to the photo below.)

Some progress has been made and we see artists like Toyin Ojih Odutola, Frances Goodman, and Kara Walker pushing in and carving out space for women on walls of galleries and museums. Their work is being shown, discussed, written about, and celebrated. Just last year Jenny Saville set a new $12.4M auction record for a living female artist.(1) Their voices and narratives enrich the canon of art history and offer women potential new avenues from which to the work.

This progress and the carving out of space in some ways can be understood as a reflection of social change happening outside the museum walls. There has been a perceptible shift in contemporary culture. The Women’s March and the #MeToo movement have fostered a sense of change, and millennial women are willing to examine access and representation in new ways. There is a stronger focus on intersectionality, and an awareness that women do not have equal rights unless cis and trans women of all races, religions, sexual orientations, and ability have equal rights. In 2006, the #MeToo movement was initiated by Tarana Burke as a way to help women and girls of color who had been victims of sexual violence.(2) In 2017, celebrities and actresses also used #MeToo to describe their experiences of sexual violence.(3) The hashtag went viral and created a groundswell movement; women all over the world joined in sharing their experiences.

It was in the context of the #MeToo climate in 2017 that several women came forward to share their stories of harassment by artist Chuck Close.(4) As a result of these accusations, an exhibition of Close’s work planned at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. has been postponed indefinitely (perhaps cancelled altogether).(5) The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia decided not to cancel a show of Close’s photographs. Instead, they elected to stage an additional adjacent exhibition featuring works from their permanent collection to “catalyze conversations about power, gender, visibility, and voice.”(6)

The Guerrilla Girls’ #MeToo poster ©The Guerrilla Girls

In 2018 The Art Review listed #MeToo as the number three most influential ‘people’ in the art world.(7) The acknowledgment that a women led activist movement is having a clear impact on the art world demonstrates that, while art creates culture, this relationship is reciprocal. It is clear that the shifting tides in social and political realms influence and affect the world of art as well.

Museums and galleries are now being asked to consider the broader gendered implications of the work they show. It is not simply enough for the wall labels to present a version of history that asks the viewer to separate the artist and the art. As the market begins to court the next generation of art collectors, dealers, galleries, and other players are going to have to adjust their strategies to meet the needs and values of millennial consumers, who care considerably about social justice.(8) Millennial consumers are willing to research their purchases and to divert their money into organizations and businesses whose values align with their own. Furthermore, women have higher earning potential than ever before and according to Forbes, “women drive 70-80% of all consumer spending.”(9) Young female collectors are going to be essential to the future of the art market. The casual justification or minimization of sexist and racist attitudes are not going to be as easily tolerated by future collectors.

If the art market wants to replace aging collectors then, millennials and women are going to be important target markets. The archaic and subtly sexist thinking that has been standard in the industry since its inception will need to evolve more swiftly. This is not to say that there aren’t still significant prejudices to overcome among millennials, even within communities of activists and artists. If we can consider, however, that the future might actually be female, in the art world we ought to brace for seismic shifts. We might soon have the opportunity to walk into an art museum and not have to ask where the women are. If the art world is able to meet the challenges posed by new generations of consumers, we may finally be able to cite Nochlin and proclaim, “there are many great women artists, here they are.”

Frieze New York 2018. Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy of Mark Blower/Frieze

(1) Judd Tully, “Jenny Saville Painting Sells for $12.4M. At Sotheby’s London Record for Living Female Artist,” ArtNews, updated May 10th, 2018, http://www.artnews.com/2018/10/05/jenny-saville-painting-sells-12-4-m-sothebys-london-record-living-female-artist/.
(2) #MeToo: A timeline of events, “The Chicago Tribune, last modified December 6, 2018, https://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyl es/ct-me-too-timeline-20171208-htmlstory.html. “#MeToo: A timeline of events,” The Chicago Tribune, last modified December 6, 2018, https://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/ct-me-too-timeline-20171208-htmlstory.html.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Robin Pogrebin, “Chuck Close Apologizes After Accusations of Sexual Harassment: Several women complained that the celebrated artist, known for his outsize portraits, asked them to pose naked and made inappropriate sexual comments,” The New York Times, last modified December 20, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/20/arts/design/chuck-close-sexual-harassment.html
(5) Colin Moynihan and Robin Pogrebin, “The National Gallery of Art Cancels a Chuck Close Show After Misconduct Accusations.” The New York Times, last modified January 26, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/26/arts/design/national-gallery-of-art-cancels-chuck-close-thomas-romasexual-misconduct.html.
(6) “PAFA Organizes Interactive Exhibition on Gender Equity and Power Dynamics in the Art World,” Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, last modified February 8, 2018, https://www.pafa.org/press-room/press-release/pafagender-equity-power-dynamics-exhibition-020218
(7) “2018 Power 100: This year’s most influential people in the contemporary artworld,” Art Review, Accessed Feb. 25, 2019, www.artnet.com.ezproxy.sothebysinstitute.com.
(8) Jeff From, “Why Conscious Capitalist Brands Win With Cause-Focused Millennials,” Forbes, updated Aug. 16, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jefffromm/2017/08/16/why-conscious-capitalist-brands-win-with-cause-focused-millennials/#6d13ab7eeca2. (9) Bridget Brennan, “Top 10 Things Everyone Should Know About Women Consumers,” Forbes, Updated Jan. 21, 2015, https://www.forbes.com/sites/bridgetbrennan/2015/01/21/top-10-things-everyone-should-know-about-women-consumers/#6833ddbb6a8b.


Jenna Ferrey (PhD) recently completed Master’s degree in Art Business from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York City. Her thesis research focused on misogyny in the art world and argued at that a more nuanced understanding of misogyny as a systemic socio-political phenomenon is key to fostering equality. Currently, she works in research and business development with Richard Taittinger Gallery in the Lower East Side of New York City. Jenna holds a PhD from the University of Calgary, Canada, where she studied multiculturalism and religious diversity in Canada. She also holds a Masters of Philosophy degree from the University of Birmingham, UK, and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from the University of Ottawa, Canada. Prior to moving to New York City Jenna lived and worked in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Her interest and passion for art developed first as a personal hobby and interest; the shift to working in the art market allows Jenna to marry her passion for humanities research with a focus on art in a business environment.

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