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What the Data Tell Us About the Challenges Facing Female Artists of Color

Our research uncovered something surprising: we had a lot of data about women in the arts, and a good amount of data about race and ethnicity in the arts, and plenty of articles stating that women of color fare worse in the art world, but not much hard data.

Adriana Varejão, “Contingente” (2000); chromogenic color print, 8 3/4 x 12 3/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, gift of The Heather and Tony Podesta Collection (image courtesy of NMWA © Adriana Varejão)

“Counting is a feminist strategy … One can argue that women artists are discriminated against but with a graph or chart chockfull of empirical data there can be no denying it. Numbers don’t lie.” — Curator Maura Reilly

“How does the phrase, women and artists of color, actually parse out? Who are the women and who are the artists of color? Where in the tables does the woman artist of color sit?” — Guerrilla Girl Alma Thomas, first annual Fresh Talk: Righting the Balance at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

WASHINGTON — Sometimes, it is impossible to grasp the true scale of a problem until forced to confront it directly. We wanted to work at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) because we believed in its mission — since women have systematically been left out of art history, a museum devoted solely to championing women artists is necessary to correct gender inequity. But neither of us realized just how bad the disparity was.

To fulfill our museum’s mission to highlight and correct gender imbalance in the arts, we collect and share statistics about the art world. What started out as a page of notes has grown into a massive internal document, cataloging different ways women are put at a disadvantage in the arts. These statistics help explain the need for our Women’s History Month social media campaign, “Can you name #5WomenArtists?

Fortunately, in the past few years there has been increased interest in this subject, with writers like Maura Reilly and Jillian Steinhauer publishing deep dives into the scale of the problem. Just this past year, two studies were published confirming the disadvantage women artists face in the secondary market (the resale of art through an auction house), and another study suggested that art by women — or thought to have been created by a woman — is seen as less valuable.

At the same time, in line with a broader national conversation about persistent racial disparities, there have been several studies confirming that members of the art world are overwhelmingly white, including museum workers and visitors, graduates of art programs, and artists able to make a living from their art.

NMWA is certainly no exception. Like many art institutions, our museum is staffed predominantly by white women. Our collection, though winning on the gender front, needs work to become more representative of all women artists. While the cards are stacked against women artists, the consensus in most of the studies we’ve consulted is that women artists of color fare even worse.

With all of this in mind — by placing emphasis on sharing the stories of women artists of color, and encouraging participants to do the same — this year’s #5WomenArtists campaign moves beyond raising awareness, to broadening understanding of the issue. While we recognize that using race and ethnicity to categorize individuals is fraught (particularly if the research cannot confirm that the designation matches the person’s self-identification) systemic racism disadvantages individuals or groups of people based on their perceived identity. Our aim is not to definitively classify but to highlight that, not only is the art world unequal by gender, but women artists of color experience a double disadvantage in an already challenging field.

To make our case for the campaign, we set about gathering the data.

And then we hit a wall.

Going back to our research, we realized something surprising: we had a lot of data about women in the arts, and a good amount of data about race and ethnicity in the arts, and plenty of articles stating that women of color fare worse in the art world, but they almost never specified hard data. Or they referred to “women and artists of color,” as if the two were mutually exclusive.

The only study we could find that specifically addressed representation of women artists of color came from a report produced by the “Arts in NYC” course taught at The City University of New York, Guttman College in Spring 2017, and reported in Hyperallergic in June 2017. Breaking down a data set of 1,300 artists represented at 45 of the top commercial galleries in New York City, the students confirmed a gender ratio of 70/30 for men and women. Within that 30%, more than 80% of the women artists were white. Overall, women artists of color represented just 5.6% of the entire dataset — a shocking statistic when you consider that overall, women of color make up approximately 17% of the U.S. workforce.

Other information that we found compelling:

  • A comprehensive study of auction data from the Artnet auction database 2000–17, revealed that women make up only 5% of the total number of artists in the auction market. In the list of the top 25 women artists by value of sales, there is only one woman of color, Julie Mehretu.
  • Surveying the top 100 US artists by volume from the last 30 years, and specifically looking at black artists, there are only three women: Kara Walker, Ellen Gallagher, and Mickalene Thomas.
  • In the history of the Turner Prize, one of the art world’s most prestigious awards, only eight women have won out, of more than 30 awards. In December 2017, Lubaina Himid became the first woman of color to win.
  • Of the winners of the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Awards at the Venice Biennale from 1986 onward (when the prize was revived after an 18- year break) 36% of the winners were women. Only one woman of color, Yoko Ono, has ever won.

There are clearly bits and pieces of statistics that point towards a vast problem of underrepresentation, but the research just isn’t there. Assuming there must be information we just weren’t aware of, we put a call out on Twitter. We didn’t get much further.

The data we do have points to inequality. And the anecdotal narrative supports inequality. So what’s going on? It’s certainly not a case of exaggeration: numerous studies address the gender pay gap — and demonstrate that women of color tend to experience an even more extreme gap compared to the earnings of white men. Writing for Artnet News, Ben Davis pointed out how the pay gap for female college graduates affects artists,

Women, on average, will therefore have 22 percent fewer resources to go into making and producing art. Women will, on average, have to work 22 percent harder to compete at the same level for scarce opportunities. Women will have 22 percent less of the “crucial financial support”…

The logical conclusion is that if women artists of color experience an even larger pay gap, the scenario described above will be even greater. It almost seems too obvious to point out that women of color experience a double disadvantage in the arts — but that’s precisely why we should be pointing it out. Our aim is not to diagnose why the disparity exists — we already know it exists because as Minnette De Silva, one of the pseudonymous members of the Guerrilla Girls BroadBand collective, points out: “the whole of American society is still incredibly racist and anti-women in certain ways. We see the art world as part of the world.”

Our aim is to collect the data that makes it impossible to ignore. As Maura Reilly says, “Numbers don’t lie.”

The only way to begin to solve a problem is to have a clear handle on its scale. We have compelling evidence, both anecdotal and statistical, demonstrating that women working in the visual arts face discrimination and inequities while trying to forge a career as an artist. What we don’t have is a comprehensive, data-driven exploration of how race and ethnicity intersect with gender in the arts.

Consider this our Guerrilla Girls-inspired call for a collaborative, intersectional exploration of women working in the arts. We don’t have all the answers. We are a mission-driven organization but not full-time researchers, so we’re seeking your help. Do you know of studies that focus on women artists of color? What research did we miss? We invite you to respond with additional resources so that the full scope of inequality can be revealed — and we can work to make the arts more equitable for all women.

We also hope you’ll join us this March and beyond to advocate for women artists, especially women artists of color, using #5WomenArtists. Challenge your friends, family, and colleagues to join and explore more ways you can take action today.

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