The $192 Billion Art Gender Gap

There is a huge gender pay gap in the art world. Female artists’ works sell for a fraction of the prices fetched for comparable works by male artists.

Of the $196.6 billion spent at art auctions between 2008 and 2019, works by women accounted for just $4 billion, or about 2 percent of total sales. Fortunately, the tide may be turning and artists’ works are beginning to receive more recognition and reward.

The gender gap is most striking for works that fetch the highest prices, often referred to as blue-chip art. For example, the highest price ever paid for a work sold at auction was $450 million for Leonardo da Vinci’s Savior of the World. The comparable record for a female artist is less than 10 percent of that figure, $44.4 million for Georgia O’Keefe’s “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1.” Since women did not have as many opportunities to create art during da Vinci’s time, this may not be a valid comparison.

Turning to the present, the record prices achieved for works by living artists show that little has changed. The highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist is $91 million for Jeff Koons’ Rabbit. Jenny Saville’s “Propped” holds the record for a living artist, earning $12.4 million. Although a large sum, it is only 14% of the dollar amount received for Koons’ work.

And the gender gap isn’t just about million-dollar sales. Using a sample of 1.9 million auction transactions from 1970 to 2016 for 69,189 individual artists, the researchers found that works by female artists sold for as much as 42% less than works by male artists.

Some equally staggering statistics reveal the breadth of the gender gap in the art world:

  • An analysis of 18 major American art museums found that their collections were 87% male and 85% white.
  • When men sign a piece of art, it increases in value compared to a painting that is not signed. But when a woman signs a piece of art, its value diminishes.
  • The best-selling art book often used as a textbook for students, Gombrich’s The Story of Art, mentions only one female artist in its 688 pages, according to Mary Ann Sieghart, presenter of a BBC documentary on the gender gap in art.
  • Even in the newest medium, NFT, there is a huge gender gap. Only 5% of the money generated by NFTs goes to female artists.

Are male artists more talented than female artists?

With such a dramatic gender gap in art appreciation, some might question whether male artists create more attractive work than female artists. The researchers concluded that gender differences in art do not explain the gender gap in art prices.

To reach this conclusion, the researchers presented a computer-generated artwork to study participants and asked them to rate how much they liked the painting. Half of the participants saw a female name listed as the artist under the work, and half saw a male name. In both cases, the picture was the same, computer generated. Participants who had an interest in art and visited museums gave higher ratings when a male artist was listed. This result clearly indicates that the preference for male artwork is a function of gender bias rather than a different talent between men and women.

In another study, scientists showed participants works painted by men and women and asked them to guess the gender of the artist. Participants guessed correctly about 50% of the time, or what you would expect from a random guess. In other words, the participants could not tell which pictures were painted by men and which by women, indicating that men’s works did not differ in any significant way from women’s.

In the study of gender and artwork, several differences emerged between paintings of men and women. The most important of these differences is that women are less likely to paint cattle than men. But these differences do not account for gender differences in art appreciation.

The fact that male collectors still dominate the traditional art market may also contribute to the preference for male artists. Researchers have found that men and women use different criteria when evaluating art. When deciding whether to purchase art, men tend to focus more on the artist and the artist’s background, while women pay more attention to the artwork. Male collectors’ emphasis on an artist’s potential can make it difficult for underrepresented artists to break into the art world.

Increasing interest in female artists

Despite the bias against women artists, there is a growing interest in acquiring art by women, and prices for works by artists are beginning to reflect this trend.

According to a BBC documentary, secondary market prices for works by artists are rising 29% faster than prices for men’s art (despite starting from a lower base). In addition, Art Basel and UBS’s annual survey of wealthy art collectors found a steady increase in the representation of female artists in collections over the past few years. Women artists now make up 40% of these collections, up from 39% in 2020, 37% in 2019 and 33% in 2018.

Nuria Madrenas, the founder of Tacit, an online gallery and art consulting firm featuring exclusively female artists, has also noticed an increased interest in diversity. Madrenas says: “I’ve seen an increase in people’s interest in having their collections more widely represented across the board. Not only by integrating female artists, but also artists of color and artists in the LGBTQ+ community. I’ve had specific requests from clients for this equal representation when curating pieces for their spaces.”

Madrenas is also optimistic that younger generations will help level the playing field for underrepresented artists. Often referred to as the transfer of great wealth, between now and 2030 an estimated $15.5 trillion in assets will be inherited by future generations, according to a recent report. According to Madrenas, future generations of art collectors probably won’t spend that money on the same works as their parents. She says, “We’ve seen that tastes in art have shifted from the Boomer generation to Gen X and Millennials. Millennials want to collect from their peers. They want to collect from emerging artists. They’re not necessarily as interested in blue chip art because of the differences in that space. And they want a collection that’s more diverse.”

For now, the works of artists seem like a promising investment. They are available at a discounted price and increase in value faster than men’s art. It’s not clear whether this trend is related to collectors taking advantage of the opportunity for greater returns, or whether they’re actually starting to appreciate women’s work—either way, it should create more opportunities for women artists.

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