I wrote an article for the NY Times Arts & Leisure section about the reasons art made by women sells for lower prices than art made by men. Itís a tricky subject, partly because art is subjective and inherently difficult to compare side-by-side, and partly because the art world is not known for the transparency of its financial information and sales figures.
For the article, I narrowed the data sample used to the upcoming contemporary art sales in New York. Itís a snapshot, a limited and admittedly arbitrary choice, which is not to say itís not useful or thought-provoking. Another, more systematic but equally imperfect data set I analyzed didnít make it into the article: the Kunstkompass, which is an annual ranking of the 100 biggest living artists compiled by the German business magazine, Capital.
The results surprised me, although I donít think they, in themselves, constitute a smoking gun of art world sexism or anything. Still, theyíre illustrative and provocative. And after researching this topic intensively for several months, I think theyíre about as compelling as anything youíre going to find out there.
One of the trickiest things in determining whether art made by women actually sells for significantly less than art made by men is figuring out what data to use. Strategies for grouping artists for comparison are shot through with subjectivity; the inherent subjectivity of any art itself, compounded by additional layers of assumptions about its value and similarities.
Investment bankers preparing an IPO employ time-testedóor at least industry standardómethodologies for determining a companyís value by looking at its comparables, companies whose stocks are already traded, with operations, scope, products, and performance that is demonstrablyóor at least arguablyósimilar to the new company.* Meanwhile, traders, and portfolio and hedge fund managers devise elaborate indices and strategies to identify market opportunities based on their proprietary analysis of endless streams of often-arcane publicly available financial data.
The art marketís imperfect information flows and dealersí stubborn penchant for secrecy (or discretion, or control, or manipulation, theyíre all on the spectrum) have long made transparent analysis of art sales and pricing a fantasy. The information revolution that Bloomberg terminals were to the financial markets has only made small inroads into the art world via auction results databases like Artnet and Artprice. Despite the well-worn caveats about their not being a true reflection of value, and the relative ease with which auction prices can be manipulatedóand believe me, I heard tons of stories and rumors while reporting my articleóthe art world, like a drunk looking for his keys under the streetlamp, still uses auction results to keep score, primarily because thereís so little other light available. One indirect effect of this information opacity: spotting price anomalies is difficult at best.
One other attempt to systematize art world information is the Kunstkompass, or Art Compass, published annually by the German business magazine, Capital. Since the 1970ís, Art Compass has calculated the worldís ì100 Greatest Artistsî using its own points system, which is based on the frequency and prestige of museum exhibitions and publications. The Art Compass methodology has plenty of problems, including some apparent biases that may exacerbate gender disparity. On the other hand, you gotta at least give it points for consistency, tenure and fame. So what does the Art Compass reveal about price disparities between menís and womenís art? That women get half as much as men.
First, a little info on the sample: Among the 100 biggest living artists in the 2004 Kunstkompass, only 20 are women** (including two, Jeanne-Claude and Hilla Becher, who work with their husbands). There are three women in the top ten: Louise Bourgeois, Cindy Sherman, and Rosemarie Trockel (FYI, Richter, Polke, and Nauman are 1, 2 and 3). Eleven of the 18 solo practitioners are in the bottom 50.
Because thereís a cumulative element to the ratings, old standards are favored over new hits; there are only ten artists (and one woman, Mariko Mori) in their 30ís. Younger, strong-selling, strong-showing artists you might think would make the listó-Elizabeth Peyton, Lisa Yuskavage, Julie Mehretuó-didnít, but then neither did John Currin. And where is Agnes Martin? She only passed away in December, months after the 2004 Compass was published. Her exclusion seems like a mystery. [Of course, the difficulties in getting the Compass editors to the phone were a major reason I had to write it out of the Times piece.]
The Compass includes price estimates for a ìmedium-sized, new workî by every artist (except performance artist, Marina Abramovic). But prices and auction performance are pointedly not included in calculating rankings; thus, the highest price artist, Jasper Johns (EUR4 million) only reaches 46th place, and Marlene Dumasís 2004 million-dollar auction records donít lift her beyond 96th.
All this is a long buildup to the simple analysis I did: I compared the average price ranges of the women to the average ranges of the men. The results were the same, almost every way I sliced them: artists under 50, top 50, bottom 50, everything but top ten, where the steep Bourgeois Effect washed out the practically free Sherman/Trockel Effect. The womenís average, EUR98,000-140,000 is roughly half of the menís, EUR190,000-300,000.***
There are all kinds of possible explanations for this gap: it pits female photographers against male painters, etc., but for every rationale for the gap, I can poke even more holes in the data and the Compass methodology itself. But taking down each piece of evidence on technicalities has the cumulative effect of continuing to deflect the issues at hand: that art world valuations are just as susceptible to gender bias as other modes of production. And that decades of exclusion and under-representation for art by women--in galleries, museums, histories, and the critical discourse--has an under-examined, indirect, but persistent economic impact.
The X-Factor [nyt]
Capital Kunst Kompass [capital.de]
* The equivocating of someone whoís been through the IPO process and knows how much of it is SWAG. And donít get me started on the price manipulation and cartelization.
** You've come a litle way, baby. It took 20 years for 10 women to make the list. The landmark was commemmorated in 1990, when the Compass was titled, "Die Frauen Kommen."
*** These are remembered figures. Since re-keying a giant table into Excel isnít my idea of a beach vacation, Iíll plug in the exact numbers Sunday night when Iím back to my own computer.