“Museums can’t deaccession work they own,” well known conceptual artist Fia Backström told me at an E-Flux Pawnshop discussion panel earlier this year. Backström presumably drew this conclusion from a story she told the crowd about an unnamed museum in the EU that had not been allowed to sell any of the work in its collection. The institution was used as an example of how attempts to equalize the ratio of male to female artists can easily be neutered, though it did more to illuminate the perceived inflexibility of museums and canonical structures than it did to illuminate gender representation. Most of these organizations can in fact deaccession art if the artist is no longer alive.
The assumption that change often meets strong opposition within museums and other fine art establishments may have its place in the conversation about gender representation not because museum officials are busy hindering the efforts of female artists, but because we’ve had so much trouble identifying unconscious behavior and unwitting mistakes that led to the disproportionate representation of women.
For the most part, the discussion about male and female exhibition records follows a familiar history of head-counting, which has its place but does little to reveal how the evaluation of work necessarily follows gender biases. For example, while male abstract expressionists are often credited for their aggressive brushwork, careful examination reveals that artists like Willem de Kooning applied paint with incredible delicacy, while painters such as Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner worked with greater abandon. The fact that art made by men and women more than 50 years ago is characterized by pejorative misplaced descriptions, yet still accrues value disproportionately, suggests a collective preference for work made by men.
Such statements come as no surprise given that we trust what we know, and certainly a much richer history of greatly talented male artists has been documented. Today, while the fact that women see less success than men in the field of fine art remains consistent, it’s an idea that’s frequently applied too broadly, leaving fields that have seen significant leveling in the evaluation of talent uncredited, and effectively removing women whose success might help correct disproportionate numbers in other fields from the conversation. Even in a superficial evaluation of today’s most prominent painters, more female artists come to mind than men. Jenny Saville, Cecily Brown, Lisa Yuskavage, Inka Essenhigh, Julie Mehretu, Elizabeth Peyton, Dana Schutz and Nicole Eisenman are easily considered among the top artists working today, yet I almost never hear about their accomplishments in conversations of gender representation.
Such success should represent a welcome change for those who feel the discussion about the economic disparity between women and men in the field of fine arts has been repeating itself since the seventies; painter Joan Semmel complained about as much at Forgetting the F Word, a panel discussion hosted by Renee Varo I was part of last year. While the head-counters clearly tell us we have a long way to go before basic equality has been achieved, we might start by studying the rise of contemporary female painters and attempting to duplicate it. With so many examples in hand, the perception of intractable institutional and canonical structures simply can’t be maintained