Interviews

Tallying Art World Inequality, One Gallery at a Time

Micol Hebron's poster for CB1 Gallery (all images via gallerytally.tumblr.com)
Micol Hebron’s poster for CB1 Gallery (all images via gallerytally.tumblr.com)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about counting. Counting women writers being published, counting black artists in the Whitney Biennial — I guess math is something you do when the numbers don’t seem to add up. Counting can feel lonely sometimes, like you against the world, so I’m always grateful when I encounter other people doing the same. Like artist Micol Hebron.

Last fall, Hebron began counting the numbers of male and female artists on the rosters of Los Angeles galleries (where she is based). She had previously initiated a monthly practice of counting the number of full-page exhibition ads that went to men and women in the pages of Artforum. Galleries were the next step. She put out a call, opened up the idea to the world, and the Gallery Tally sprang to life.

Evan Senn's poster for Mark Miller Gallery (click to enlarge)
Evan Senn’s poster for Mark Miller Gallery (click to enlarge)

In fewer than six months, more than 500 artists around the world have participated in the project, tallying the male/female breakdowns of gallery rosters. Once a counter has figured out the numbers and the ratio, they make a poster for the gallery, representing the data in any way they see fit. The posters — which range from fairly straightforward text or diagrams to floating penises to a single generic image of a horrified woman — are then reproduced on the Gallery Tally blog. And starting this weekend, 300 of them will go on view at For Your Art at 6020 Wilshire Boulevard in LA, in an exhibition titled (en)Gendered (in)Equity: The Gallery Tally Poster Project. In anticipation of the show, I emailed with Hebron to talk about counting, galleries, gender, and the many ways these issues intersect.

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Jillian Steinhauer: Tallies of events like the Whitney Biennial and big museum shows are something I think people have become used to seeing, but gallery tallies are a bit more of a surprise. I guess there’s a feeling that it’s more democratic, in some way, or that there’s less onus on galleries than there is on, say, the Whitney Museum, to be equal. How did you come to counting gallery numbers?

Micol Hebron: I agree that we think of museums as serving a larger general public, and that there is an implication that they are serving culture and history at large and not the market, in the ways that galleries are, and perhaps that accounts for the implicit expectation — or assumption — that there is a more equitable and diverse range of artists and artworks represented in museums (though I would argue that this is merely an assumption, and far from actuality). I also think that the gallery system has been so skewed for so long that the general audience for galleries has become complicit with, or ever supportive of, this model of operation. But if we ask why should galleries be exempt from an equal and proportionate representation of the larger demographic, it’s difficult to answer.

Mira Safura O’Brien’s poster for Mary Boone Gallery (Note: this is an updated version of the poster previously published.)
Mira Safura O’Brien’s poster for Mary Boone Gallery (Note: this is an updated version of the poster previously published.)

I began tallying gender stats in the art world after seeing Mary Beth Edelson’s “Some Living American Women Artists/The Last Supper” collage in the WACK! exhibition at MOCA in 2007. Looking at that collage inspired me to imagine how my life as an artist might have been different if I had seen women in the place of men whenever I had seen a work of art or a historical image. As I thought about this, I literally began to cry (perhaps the first time I have ever cried in front of an artwork). I spent eight years in higher education learning about art and art history, and looking at thousands and thousands of representations of artworks — the vast majority of which featured men as the subjects, authors, or both. As a woman artist, my sense of potential, of self-confidence, of opportunity, and of heritage within the worlds of art and culture would be vastly different had I seen as many women as I had seen men. It was at that point that I started wondering about the numbers in the art world today. It was obvious that there was gender bias, but I was curious to quantify exactly how biased it was.

So, I began tallying as a way to start to visualize and concretize the biases. I began counting the number of full-page Artforum ads for individual artists, counting the number of ads for women artists versus the number of ads for male artists. On average, the amount of ads for male artists was consistently 70% or higher. Artforum is considered the leading art magazine in North America. Single-page ads cost $10,000 or more. For a gallery to invest in such an ad gives a clear indication of their priorities and interests and of which artists they were trying to promote and support. Women are traditionally left out of history, especially art history. If we are to consider the means of creating history for artists today, it will be through things like printed ads, critical reviews, exhibition catalogues, and auction sales records.

Last year, I began tallying the artist rosters for galleries in LA. I wanted to know if my assumptions about male-heavy rosters were correct. I became fixated on counting. I would procrastinate on my studio work by trolling gallery websites and looking up artists, tallying the numbers of male and female artists. Unfortunately, the numbers were actually worse than I expected.

Kio Griffith's posted for Carolina Nitsch gallery (click to enlarge)
Kio Griffith’s poster for Carolina Nitsch gallery (click to enlarge)

JS: Why are these numbers important?

MH: I think these numbers are important for several reasons. For one, it makes a difference to see concrete, statistical data. People make assumptions that art-world bias exists, but no one that I encountered was aware of the actual figures. No one had run the numbers! (Yes, the Guerrilla Girls started examining gallery and museum practices in the ’80s, but their work for the last decade or so has focused on museums or art world administrators, not the galleries.) I think doing statistical research, providing objective data that actually quantifies how severe the imbalances are, is a powerful and irrefutable indicator of the conditions in the art world. (Now, trying to analyze and explain why the numbers are the way they are is a much more complicated issue.)

Secondly, I think that when you put the numbers out there, the problem has been identified and articulated, and people have to choose whether to address it or not. For gallerists, collectors, writers, or artists to ignore or dismiss such data once it is made public is as telling as acting upon it. I also think there are a lot of people who are simply not aware, or are unwilling to admit, that there is a problem (by problem, I mean radical imbalance). I hope that this project encourages people to be more conscious about equity in the art world, but also in the world in general. The consumers of culture are responsible for asking for and supporting the kind of cultural conditions that they want to see. I have already heard from several people who are doing their own counting now, which I consider to be a huge success. If people are thinking about and looking for the inequities, they will also be more likely to demand explanations and changes in relation to these inequities.

There are many facets to the art world, and the gallery system is just one of them, but it is a wide-reaching and profoundly influential facet that has undeniable repercussions upon an artist’s career and visibility. Personally, I would like to see our cultural systems reflecting the demographic of the general public. Women comprise 51% of the citizens of the United States and 30% of the artists represented by contemporary commercial galleries. The numbers are important because a large portion of the community is being excluded. And gender inequity is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If you look at numbers of people of color, disabled artists, LGBTQ artists, older artists, the biases are even worse.

Austin Young's poster for Andrea Rosen Gallery
Austin Young’s poster for Andrea Rosen Gallery

I think it’s also important to note that on average, the constituents of MFA programs are between 65% and 75% women. And then the gallery system is 70% men. This fact makes the imbalance even more egregious. It’s not as if there are fewer women wanting to be in the art world — there are more, if we take grad school as a bellwether. So, this means that men are being exponentially taken more often than women for representation in galleries.

When I approached gallerists and asked them directly about their numbers, they would say things like, “Well, I’m not interested in filling quotas,” and this harkens back to the language of the opponents of affirmative action. But what is ignored in this statement is that for centuries, the quotas of men have been overfilled. Maybe it IS necessary to make a conscious effort to include more women and people of color. So, I am not opposed to “filling quotas.” Galleries need to try harder — they need to look harder. There are a LOT of women artists, artists of color, and LGBTQ artists. It’s not like the galleries don’t have options. I think we need to think more consciously about who is getting opportunities and whose perspectives are being supported and promoted and how and why — because the mechanisms for promotion in the art world privilege males. So for a little while, it will be necessary to impose artificial structures by which more women and artists of color are consciously included in the system — because up until now, they have been excluded (consciously or not). ‘Quotas’ might be necessary in order to ‘retrain’ the minds of gallerists and curators. (I think of this as a contemporary version of the idea of consciousness raising that comes form the women of second-wave feminism and of Andrea Bowers’s notions of radical empathy, radical hospitality, and radical patience).

The implication is that to impose ‘quotas’ is somehow unnatural and that it would mean interrupting an allegedly natural system by which artists are inducted into the gallery system. But this system is not natural in the least, and has been constructed around patriarchal biases from the beginning. If we consider the history of the LA gallery scene, many people know of the Cool School (thanks to the movie), but far fewer are aware of the important groundbreaking work by Eugenia Butler, Claire Copley, Riko Mizuno, or Viriginia Dwan, for example.

Cara Despain’s poster representing the TOTAL percentage of female artists from the galleries tallied in LA and NY
Cara Despain’s poster representing the TOTAL percentage of female artists from the galleries tallied in LA and NY

JS: In your , you mention that you think part of the gender gap is related to the art world’s capitalist-heavy structure. Can you draw that out a bit for me?

MH: In short, capitalism is a patriarchal system, and its effects are complex and pervasive: women are still paid less than men (on average 70 cents to the dollar); women consistently start salaries at rates lower than men and are given fewer and smaller bonuses in the workplace; women are historicized and recognized less frequently than men (how many national holidays do we have for women? how many bronze monuments have you seen of women? how many inventions by women can you name?); women are absent from positions of leadership (look at the Fortune 500 companies — how many are owned/led by women?).

There are many ways in which the gallery world is driven by capitalism, and in turn many ways that capitalism affects the way women engage with the art world. Art by women — even the most successful women — sells for far less than art made by men. Out of 50 artists listed on Artrank, which tracks artists in the market, only TWO are women. That’s 4%. So, 96% of the artists that sites like this are looking at are male.

Ken Ehrlich's poster for David Zwirner gallery
Ken Ehrlich’s poster for David Zwirner gallery

I think we can also consider the trend in mega-galleries, like Gagosian or Blum and Poe. These galleries have a large amount of square footage to fill. It takes a certain kind of artistic practice to be able to produce a body of work for such spaces. Often it requires that the artist have numerous assistants, a huge studio space (or several), and substantial overhead costs. (Incidentally, this structure mirrors the model of the Renaissance artist’s studio, in which numerous assistants made the work, and one artist received the credit.) Paul McCarthy’s studio employ some 200 artists; Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are similar. It’s a patriarchal structure. Can you think of any women who have that kind of studio practice?

This is about returning to essentialism, in a way. I believe that our biological and social identities each play a part in how we experience the world, how we decide to make art, and how we perceive the art that we see. I believe that living as a female human is at times significantly different than living as a male human, and that I am treated — and I behave — in ways that are affected by my biology. When I go to museums or galleries, I look to them as indicators of the way that our culture processes and reflects ideas, theories, experiences, and emotions. If I consistently have to try to ‘put myself in a man’s shoes’ in order to ‘relate’ to a work of art, it begins to create an identity crisis of sorts. I am constantly being told by history, the market, and art world trends that to be successful, I have to be like someone else, namely, a male.

I think that if the galleries were 50/50 men and women, and if there were a proportionate number of artists of color as there are in the world, we would have some groundbreaking revelations about what it is like to live in our world today. This project is about encouraging empathy and compassion and community, and having curiosity and interest in the experiences of our fellow humans. I know that sounds a bit ‘hippie,’ but I am totally sincere. I’m not saying that women are better, just equal — and if we were more exposed to diverse perspectives, I truly believe that it would change things. I think we might have more artwork that is collaborative, for one thing! I think we may learn to be more compassionate and caring.

Katie Herzog's poster for Marlborough Chelsea gallery
Katie Herzog’s poster for Marlborough Chelsea gallery

JS: Why did you decide to have this project be a big collaborative one rather than just do it yourself (or at least invite specific people, rather than open it up so broadly)?

MH: The project models a feminist strategy and philosophy — collaboration is an inclusive and horizontal structure, not a hierarchical, vertical, exclusive one. It’s also anti-capitalist. It is important that there are many voices speaking out about inequity, and not just me, and that there are voices coming from all over the world (we have nine countries involved now). As a collaborative project that is still actually only in its infancy (the project started inadvertently in October 2013), there are now over 600 people involved. I think 600 people saying “Hey, look at this” is more powerful than one person saying it, don’t you?

The popularity of the project speaks for itself. The project has been self-defining and self-populating. From the beginning, people have simply volunteered and signed up, because it’s an issue that they care about. And yes, we have men too. The ratio of males to females who are making posters is about 30% males and 70% females (which, very coincidentally, inverts the ratio of males and females represented in the gallery world). I am also proud to say that there are participants who range in age from eight years old to artists in their 70s. I’m still waiting for octogenarians and nonogenarians to join up!

My work is often collaborative and crowd-sourced. I am interested in community and collectivity, and the voices and messages that result when there is a community-wide conversation.

JS: Do you have any plans to count anything else in the future, either different categories (e.g. artists of color) or different institutions?

MH: Oh, yes! And the additional tallying has already begun. I think tallying artists of color is the next important data set to look at — though, as you can imagine, it’s much harder and takes longer to confirm those stats.

We’d also like to track numbers of male, female, and LBGTQ:

  • MFA students
  • Collectors
  • Gallery directors
  • Curators
  • Arts writers
  • Sales at auctions

We’d like to tally the numbers of:

  • Articles written about female versus male artists
  • Reviews of male and female shows
  • Monographs published about male versus female artists
  • Solo exhibitions at top museums

I would also love to tally the prices and overall amount of sales of art by male versus female artists in galleries, but due to the secretive, unregulated structure of art world sales, I will never be able to get that information.

Kate Vida's posted for Andrew Kreps Gallery (click to enlarge)
Katie Vida’s poster for Andrew Kreps Gallery (click to enlarge)

JS: Have you received responses from any of the galleries whose rosters you’ve tallied?

MH: I have received lot of responses. I recently visited Culver City galleries with my students, and nearly every one of the galleries greeted us with either an apology, an explanation, or an excuse. And the galleries that had balanced rosters were very proud of it and said so!

In December of 2013 I went to Miami and talked to gallerists at Art Basel, Nada, and Untitled [art fairs]. I interviewed a little over 200 gallerists, and the responses were really interesting. I approached them saying, “Hello. My name is Micol, and I am an artist. I am doing research on gender in the art world, and I wondered if you have a minute to talk to me?” I then asked them how many male and female artists they represented, and how many male and female artists were on display in their booths. Many gallerists didn’t know their numbers. Some knew immediately that their ratios were imbalanced. Some thought they had good representation of women artists, but when we counted (together), it turned out that they actually had less than 30% women on their roster. Here is a sample of some of the comments (actual quotes) that I received:

  • Well, I don’t think about gender in the gallery.
  • We don’t have that many women artists, but we do have a gay artist — does that count?
  • We don’t have that many women artists, but our most important artist is a woman.
  • Women do not have the same drive or passion for their art as men do — they are not willing to die for their passions.
  • Women are not as prominent in the art world because they become mothers.
  • Women don’t market themselves as well as men do.

(en)Gendered (in)Equity: The Gallery Tally Poster Project opens at For Your Art (6020 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles) this Saturday, March 29, 6–9 pm.

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