A new survey of the UK’s art sector found that chances for career success in the field of visual arts remain skewed against women. While incremental progress in gender parity was achieved in the British public sector, commercial galleries are still a disadvantageous environment for women artists.
The research, written by Dr Kate McMillan, a teaching fellow in culture, media, and creative industries at King’s College, for the London-based Freelands Foundation, looked into the representation of women artists in major commercial and public galleries, as well as the number of women selected to create new work for UK biennials and triennials.
After examining a sample of 28 London galleries showing in the main section of Frieze London in 2018, the research found that only 32% of the represented artists were women. That’s a mere 4% increase compared to 2017. The research also revealed that among deceased artists whose estates are managed by commercial galleries in London, only 23% were women artists.
Almost half (48%) of the top commercial galleries in the UK are run or owned by women. That, however, does not bode a higher number of women artists in galleries, as the research found almost no link between the two. “The adage that equality trickles down is not evident,” McMillan wrote in the research’s introduction.
In non-commercial galleries and museums, 55% of exhibitions were by women. This marks a significant increase from 2017, when just 39% of solo shows were by women artists. The research also looked into artists representing Britain in the Venice Biennale and found that the number of women artist has risen to 50% in the past ten years (compared to 36% in the ten years before that.) Similarly, the percentage of women in UK biennale and triennials (Folkestone Triennial, Liverpool Biennial, and Glasgow International) stands at 51%. An improvement is also evident in the number of women winning the prestigious Turner Prize. The last three prize winners were all women, helping make women artists 66% of all winners since 2009.
In auctions, however, the numbers are strikingly glum. In 2018, a staggering 88% of sales in the contemporary auctions at Sotheby’s were by male artists. This data point, which hasn’t changed in the last three years, is “very concerning,” McMillan wrote. “The collectors and investors buying on the secondary market affect decisions made by commercial galleries, which in turn is reflected in programming decisions in the not-for-profit sector,” she explained. “It is not acceptable to simply allow the market to determine the legacy of female artists,” she said adding that auctions continue to reflect “anecdotal attitudes” in the sector that female artists make poorer investments.
This very slow stride toward gender parity in the British art world reflects what’s happening in other sectors across the world. The research quotes from the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2018, which states that it will take 108 years to achieve gender parity in all sectors at the current rates of change.
The Freelands Foundation is a philanthropic organization founded by Elisabeth Murdoch, the daughter of Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch. In conjunction with the research, the foundation named the nominees for the Freelands Award, a £100,000 (~$127,00) prize awarded to British organizations outside of London that work with mid-career women artists. The winning institution gives £25,000 (~$31,700) to a woman artist of its choice. The organizations shortlisted for the 2019 Freelands Award are First Site in Colchester; Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire; John Hansard Gallery at the University of Southampton; MAC in Belfast; MK Gallery in Milton Keynes; and Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne. The winner and selected artist will be announced in the fall.
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