The art world has a massive gender pay gap. Works by female artists 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, work produced by women accounted for only $4 billion, or about 2% of total sales. Fortunately, the tide may be turning and the works of female artists are beginning to gain more recognition and reward.
The gender gap is most striking for works that reap the highest prices, often referred to as blue art. For example, the highest price ever paid for a work sold at auction is $450 million for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. The comparable record for a female artist is less than 10% of that value, $44.4 million for Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower #1. Since women did not have as many opportunities to produce art in 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 received for a work by a living artist is $91 million for Jeff Koons’ Rabbit. Jenny Saville’s “Propped” holds the record for a living female artist taking in $12.4 million. Although a large sum, it is only 14% of the dollar amount received for Koons’ work.
And the gender gap doesn’t just apply to multimillion-dollar sales. Using a sample of 1.9 million auction transactions from 1970 to 2016 for 69,189 individual artists, the researchers found that work by female artists sold for 42% less than work by male artists.
Some equally shocking statistics reveal the width of the gender gap in the art world:
- An analysis of 18 major US art museums found that their collections are 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, it decreases in value.
- A best-selling art book often used as a textbook for students, Gombrich’s History of Art, mentions only one female artist in its 688 pages, according to Mary Ann Sieghart, presenter of a BBC documentary on the gap gender in art.
- Even in the newest medium, NFTs, there is a huge gender gap. Only 5% of the money generated by NFT 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 produce more engaging work than female artists. Researchers have concluded that no gender differences in art account for the gender gap in art prices.
To reach this conclusion, 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 below the work and half saw a male name. In both cases, the painting was the same, a computer generated painting. Participants who had an interest in art and visited museums gave higher ratings when a male artist was listed. This result clearly shows that the preference for male artwork is a function of gender bias rather than different talent between men and women.
In another study, researchers showed participants paintings 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 random guesses. In other words, the participants could not tell which paintings were painted by men and which were painted by women, indicating that the works of men do not differ in any significant way from those of women.
In research on gender and artwork, several differences emerged between men’s and women’s paintings. The most striking of these differences was that women were less likely than men to paint cattle. But these differences did not take into account 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 buy 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 the artist’s potential can make it more difficult for underrepresented artists to break into the art world.
An increase in interest in female artists
Despite the prejudice against female artists, there is a growing interest in acquiring art by women, and prices for works by female artists are beginning to reflect this trend.
According to a BBC documentary, secondary market prices for the work of female artists are rising 29% faster than prices for men’s art (even though they are starting from a lower base). In addition, Art Basel and UBS’ annual survey of high net worth art collectors has found a steady increase in the representation of female artists in collections over the past several years. Female artists now make up 40% of these collections, up from 39% in 2020, 37% in 2019 and 33% in 2018.
Nuria Madrenas, founder of Tac, an online gallery and art consultancy featuring exclusively female artists, has also seen a growing interest in diversity. Madrenas says, “I’ve seen an increase in interest in people getting their collections to have broader representation across the board. Not just through the integration of female artists, but also artists of color and artists in the LGBTQ+ community. I’ve had specific client requests for that equal representation when we’re curating works for their spaces.”
Madrenas is also optimistic that younger generations will help level the playing field for underrepresented artists. Often referred to as the Great Wealth Transfer, 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 will not spend this money on the same pieces as their parents. She says, “We’ve seen art tastes shift 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 art. chip because of the disparities within that space. And they want a collection that’s more diverse.”
At the moment, works by female artists look like a promising investment. They are available at a discounted price and are increasing in value faster than art by men. It’s unclear whether this trend is related to collectors seizing an opportunity for higher returns or whether they’re actually starting to value women’s work — either way, it should create more opportunities for female artists.