Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Girls Just Want to Have Funds"

Rema Hort Mann Foundation panel at PPOW Gallery.

On Tuesday night, the Rema Hort Mann Foundation sponsored a fantastic panel on the not very Cyndi-Lauperian topic of why women artists fail to achieve anywhere near the prices that men do, especially at the upper echelons of the market. To standing-room only crowds, the dedicated director of the Foundation, himself markedly not a woman artist, explained the need for the focus on women artists, and promised to have a similar panel in exactly a year to see where things stood. Indeed, the evening was full of numbers and near-scientific figures, a way to measure and gauge success over time. The moderator, the enlightening and clear-voiced Sarah Douglas, introduced the discussion with statistics that clarified that through all strata of the artist's career arc, men out-earned women, and were disproportionately represented in galleries. She noted that at the height of the market, in 2007, of the top 100 earning artists, only 4 were women, and the highest price for an American woman was $7 million for Joan Mitchell. And while 50% of all MFA students were women, even those galleries that showed emerging artists were already more focused on men in their roster.

Right: Marilyn Minter, "Parted", 2010, 30" x 24", enamel on metal, $35,000.

Indeed, Douglas said that several dealers complained that they were hard pressed to find the talent among women, which of course the mostly-female audience booed under their breaths. A more likely excuse was suggested by the younger artist on the panel, 20-something Xaviera Simmons, who said that women needed confidence, and a business-like approach, in order to succeed. When Sculpture Center Director Mary Ceruti was asked by trustees why her shows were mostly of women, she had to explain that the opposite was true: so many men who were talented already had weighty exhibition histories, while mature talented women were left out, and ripe for a non-profit museum. Amy Capellazzo, the head of Contemporary Art at Christie's, had the most "go-get-'em" approach of all: what women were missing was a sense of entitlement that men seemed to automatically have. If women just believe that they deserved more money, higher salaries, bigger studios with assembly line production, more critical acclaim and approval, then they too could break the $1 million dollar auction price barrier, and be a more saleable brand. Her advice had some resonance, as in her example of the change in women's attitudes over the past 30 years concerning their sexuality, and certainly it was refreshing to hear voices of encouragement and not empathetic coddling of the "woe-is-me" variety. Capellazzo even ended the evening with a reiteration of her call to arms: if you decide you want economic parity, you can achieve it, she coached the crowd. Still, to some of the audience, certain questions remained - for instance, the fact that some of the discrimination and insistence on male supremacy came from women in power. Marilyn Minter, a raucous addition to the roster, and an artist whose rise in economic power has been well-documented, mentioned that even a woman collector had questioned whether her prices were prudent, while dealer Tony Shafrazi claimed only men earned "that kind of money".

Right: Amy Capellazzo, Head of Contemporary Art, Christie's.

In fact, Minter was a good case study in success: her tenacity- creating art even when it was unpopular and not as rewarded -- won her a long wait-list of collectors, and the enviable position of having a studio with 6 assistants. Yet even she portrayed some traits that were a perfect example of why differences still remain, and why the path to success is perhaps slower (if not fully erased) for women: while Jeff Koons, Murakami, and Damien Hirst were well-known for having huge factories of assistants and therefore were able to earn disproportionately massive amounts of money, Minter had to be persuaded to increase her studio to 10 people, and she needed to know them personally, so that she could have a mentoring role. On the other hand, she spoke honestly and humorously about how hungry she was to get higher in the earnings department, and do her personal best to achieve parity with men.
Left: Suzanne Valadon, Self Portrait, 1927.

While the audience clapped most heartily when it was cruelly lured into thinking Cyndi Lauper herself had shown up to perform the titular song of the evening, the end of the panel's discussion beckoned the audience members to stay and dish about the topic of the night. Was pregnancy and motherhood adequately addressed? If Capellazzo claimed that biology wasn't destiny, then what else could women count on as definitive markers of lesser value? Prejudices that exist about the very nature of art made by women and men were not touched upon, and perhaps those very powerful ideas, found in both men and women, are the real reason behind the lack of financial potency in women's careers. I recalled the thesis I wrote on an artist of the turn of the century, Suzanne Valadon, and how her art was interpreted by critics and peers as uniformly "male", and not very saleable. Yet her son, Maurice Utrillo, with his run-of-the-mill paintings copied from postcards, went on to become a much higher earner, and today is a far more marketable name. Of course most women on the panel shared anecdotes about how times had changed from even 20-30 years ago. Let's hope that looking forward will define both progress in actual earning power and the underlying attitudes behind lesser representation.