Can You Name Five Fine Artists That Are Women? : Planet Money On average, work by women artists sells for 40% less than work by male artists. Their work also represents just a small sliver of what's displayed in museums. So, how did women get shut out of the art world?
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Can You Name Five Fine Artists That Are Women?

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Can You Name Five Fine Artists That Are Women?

Can You Name Five Fine Artists That Are Women?

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Jose Pagliery lives in New York and works for Univision. And he has a 3-year-old daughter named Olivia. Now, Sally, you met Jose and Olivia for the first time when they were sitting on the front steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York, the Met.



Did you guys just visit the museum?

JOSE PAGLIERY: We're about to go in.


HERSHIPS: What you need to know about Jose is that he is, like, the world's best dad. Olivia loves drawing.

PAGLIERY: Can I show her your art? That's the background on my phone right now.

HERSHIPS: Oh, my God. So you painted that?

OLIVIA: I like paint. I like it because it's beautiful. I like it. I like it. I like it.

GARCIA: Sally, I think she likes it.

HERSHIPS: I'm still unclear. So even though it's this freezing-cold day, Jose has brought Olivia here to see artwork by women. He wants his daughter to have some female role models.

GARCIA: But there's a problem. Sally, you asked Jose to name five famous artists, which he could do. But then you asked him to name five famous female artists. And here is where things did not go so well.

HERSHIPS: Not at all. Jose, the world's greatest dad, totally failed.

PAGLIERY: God, you made me feel so terrible that I can't name women. It's so bad.

HERSHIPS: Now you'll have purpose inside the museum, right? You'll go...

PAGLIERY: Now I'm going to seek it out.

GARCIA: So how did we get here to a place where a father who came to one of the world's greatest art museums to show his daughter female artists can't name five of them? - 'cause we got to say there are plenty of female artists in the world. But you know what? This is not really Jose's fault. There is a much larger problem here, which is that very little of the artwork hanging in museums is by women. Eighty-seven percent of the art in major museum collections is by men.


HERSHIPS: And I'm Sally Herships. On today's show, how we got here - the difference in the way artwork by men and women is valued, why it's valued differently and finally, what one museum is doing to change that. And our first stop after the break - a famous artist you've probably never heard of.


HERSHIPS: There was this artist named Joan Mitchell. She was an abstract expressionist - all these giant canvases and lots of colorful scrawling with oil paints. Mitchell insisted on painting mostly at night and only with the company of her dogs. She died in the 1990s, but she painted a lot.

GARCIA: Yeah. Joan Mitchell was hugely successful. The list of exhibitions she's been in is, like, 31 pages long. Her work has been shown at the Whitney about 40 times. And to art world insiders, she's a big deal. But if you're thinking, well, I've never heard of her, you would not be alone.

Christa Blatchford is CEO of the Joan Mitchell Foundation. And Sally, you spoke with her.

HERSHIPS: So who was she showing with?

CHRISTA BLATCHFORD: So it would be William (ph) de Kooning, Franz Kline...

HERSHIPS: Jackson Pollock, all of the famous painters at the time - all men. In 2018, one of Joan's paintings sold for more than $16.5 million at auction. But Christa says before you go getting excited, you have to put that number into context.

BLATCHFORD: Wow. Mitchell's doing so well. And it's like, yes, she's doing remarkably well at auction. The prices are very high. But are they high in - relative to Jackson Pollock? No way. Are they high relative to de Kooning?

GARCIA: Nope. Paintings by de Kooning and Pollock have gone for 60- to $160 million. Christa says there is no record of Joan Mitchell getting anywhere close to that kind of money for her work, which brings us to a big part of the reason that people have trouble naming famous women artists. Artwork by women and men is just valued differently, and Joan Mitchell's story is a prime example of that.

BLATCHFORD: To be really clear, it's not a story of an artist who was working and working and working and then, after her death, was discovered. This, to me, is really indicative of, here is a participant within the community who then art history left out.

HERSHIPS: Just because she was a woman.

BLATCHFORD: Because she was a woman.

HERSHIPS: There are a bunch of myths surrounding women and art, like myth No. 1 - that art by women just isn't as good as art by men. But lucky for us, the subject has been studied a lot. Renee Adams teaches finance at Oxford, and she and some of her colleagues did an experiment. They picked paintings at random - all kinds - seascapes and abstracts and still lives with bunches of grapes. And they showed them to viewers and asked them to guess if the artist was a man or a woman, which turned out to be a trick question.

RENEE ADAMS: So first of all, you know, if you look at a painting, on average, the experiment subjects couldn't guess if it was painted by a man or a woman, right? So it's not like you look at a painting and you can say, oh, well, this was painted by a woman.

GARCIA: Renee says it is practically impossible to look at a painting and figure out the gender of the artist. So you can strike down myth No. 1. But, she says, if we know or think we know the gender of the painter, it does impact how we feel about the art.

ADAMS: If the subjects guessed that the painting was painted by a woman, then they liked the painting less.

GARCIA: That's not cool, Sally.

HERSHIPS: Totally not cool. Not only did the subject in Renee's experiments like paintings they thought were by women artists less; Renee looked at millions of records from auction sales, and she found out that on average, work by women artists sells for 40% less than work by male artists. And because art by women is valued for less, museums buy less of it. And that is how less artwork by women ends up on display in museums.

GARCIA: And that brings us to myth No. 2, the argument that female artists have a style that does not appeal to men. But remember, now we know that most of the time, we just can't tell if the artist of a work is male or female, so you can kind of automatically scratch that myth off your list as well.

HERSHIPS: Oh, I have scratched that off the list. So the reason that we don't value art by women more highly and the reason that there isn't more of it in museums - good, old-fashioned gender bias.

ADAMS: I viewed this paper. So it's about art, but really, it's not about art. It's about gender. So a lot of times what people say is, you know, well, women are not represented in management because we all know that women shy away from negotiation, and they're not very competitive. So there's always this narrative that it's the woman's fault.

GARCIA: Which it's not.

HERSHIPS: At the Baltimore Museum of Art, only 4% of the collection is by women artists. The problem is the same at major museums around the country. Christopher Bedford is the museum's director. He says that's why next year, any new artwork the museum buys will be by women.

CHRISTOPHER BEDFORD: The market never lies. And I think if you look at those numbers, you see the residue of great, great bias, and that's what we're trying to combat.

GARCIA: Christopher says that putting art on display in a museum can be absolutely transformative for the way that an artist's work is perceived. It can lead to fame, increased reputation, higher prices. But there are a lot of hoops that an artist has to jump through to get on those museum walls in the first place.

BEDFORD: So there are collections committees. There are executive committees of the board. That's the board of trustees. There are curators. There are peer curators. And that system comes together in various different forms specific to the museum to filter the history of art and to include or exclude.

HERSHIPS: Unfortunately, in the case of women artists, often, museums have been excluding. And this can be a really hard problem to fix. Christa says anyone who's buying art, museums included, has to be careful of what's called the superstar effect. Sales of female artists represent just the tiniest slice - just 2% of the market. But if you zoom in to that tiny slice, that 2%...

BLATCHFORD: Of that 2% percent, 40% percent is 5 women.

GARCIA: That's what can happen with the superstar effect. A tiny number of artists become like tokens or symbols. And art buyers or museums or individuals feel like they've bought something by a lady, and so they feel like they don't have to do anything else.

BLATCHFORD: But then museums can essentially say, OK, I've done my female show. We'll move back to our normal.

HERSHIPS: But the Baltimore museum is trying to change that. And this April, Joan Mitchell's work is going to get some big shows, starting with the Baltimore museum.

GARCIA: Sally Herships, thanks for bringing us this story.

HERSHIPS: Thank you.

GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Leena Sanzgiri. It was fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

PAGLIERY: Hi, Sally. It's Jose. I just wanted to call and let you know that without seeking it intentionally, it took me and Olivia about two hours to stumble upon a female artist at the Met. And it was Rosa Bonheur and "The Horse Fair," a painting which, I have since learned, apparently required the artist to dress up like a man in order to not get harassed while sketching the animals.


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