Women and Art: Progress of a Sort

Self-Portrait, Louise Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Self-Portrait, Louise Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

There’s been a lot of discussion around the issue of gender diversity in the arts recently, highlighted by a New York Times article   on the resurgence of women-only art shows. 

It was against this backdrop that I attended a panel discussion on Women and Art, hosted by the Austrian-, German- and Swiss- American chambers of commerce.  A varied group of women from those countries who are now working in the U.S., (artist, journalist, curator, dealer, philanthropist) discussed this topic with a very engaged audience.  Throughout the evening, some common themes emerged, which applied to working women in the U.S., no matter what their profession. Here’s a very short summary.

In general, for both men and women, it’s hard to enter the art world, as you need to do a lot of networking to build up relations with galleries and collectors.  For women, this becomes even harder if and when they have children.  Several participants cited the need for workplaces to offer both paternity and maternity leave (especially long-term) as well as more flexibility in working hours/place – this would permit both parents to care for children.  Hard on it’s heels was the need for more systematized/institutional support for child care – not everyone can afford a nanny, and babysitters/family/friends are not always reliable.

Even though female artists may be getting a lot of attention at the moment, there’s no disputing that they are underrepresented in museums and galleries.  To add insult to injury, there’s the added issue of women’s works being underpriced compared to men’s.  You need only consider that the highest price at auction for a work by a female artist to date was $44 million for a Georgia O’Keefe painting in 2013, compared to a Picasso which sold for $160 million earlier this year.  According to Artnews, work by women artists represent around 8% of the lots  sold at auction. 

Unfortunately, many people view price as being indicative of talent, even though one really has nothing to do with the other.  However, prices for work by a given artist are established relative to her peers, making it harder for women to command the same sums as their male counterparts.

As to whether or not all-women artists shows tend to ghettoize the work, the consensus seemed  to be that there’s always that risk, but these types of shows have value, introducing viewers to artists they hadn’t previously known, or revealing additional depths in their work – everyone cited the Vigée le Brun exhibit at the Met.

However, on the institutional front in New York City there’s good news.  The NYC Department of Cultural Affairs’ recently released study on diversity in the arts  showed that women occupy about 50% of leadership and staff positions at the cultural institutions funded by the City.

All in all, still a lot of work to be done…

Elisabeth of Austria (1837-98)

Elisabeth of Austria (1837-98)

The evening kicked off with a keynote address by Dr.Sabine Haag, Director General of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna (KHMW),  Dr. Haag gave an extensive overview of the Museum and its collections, as well as her vision for expanding and refurbishing various galleries of the KHMW which is celebrating its 125th Anniversary.  I’ve greatly enjoyed visiting the KHMW, or I should really say, just some of it, as it comprises 13 collections housed in 5 locations in Vienna and 1 in Innsbruck. An encyclopedic museum (founded with significant contributions by the Habsburg’s), the KHMW is known for its picture gallery, coin collection, and collections of Egyptian, Greek & Roman art, as well as the Imperial Treasury, the Theatre Museum, the Archeological Museum  and the Carriage collection.   Notable female patrons include  Margaret of Austria, Empress Maria Theresa and Princess Elisabeth (Sisi) of Austria.

If you can’t make it to Vienna, you can see a bit of  the KHMW uptown, as they have loaned three pieces to the Met for it’s Pergamon exhibit which begins April 18th.

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