Towards Gender Parity: Quality and Fairness in the Art Market

Architectural rendering of the new Pen and Brush exhibition space in New York City, due to open Winter 2013/14. ADG/McDonald

In January of this year, the Rema Hort Mann Foundation staged a lively panel discussion on the enduring disenfranchisement of women in the art market, moderated by the foundation’s director, Quang Bao. In response to Bao’s essay accompanying the podcast of the panel here at artcritical, Janice Sands offers her perspective on gender parity as director of Pen and Brush, the 119-year old nonprofit women’s art organization.

Quang Bao’s observations on gender and the art market are right on the mark. His essay resonated for us at Pen and Brush.

For decades, thousands of emerging and mid-career artists from across the United States and several countries internationally, exhibited artwork in our Greenwich Village galleries. Some attracted collectors and some parlayed their selection by our jurors (drawn from museum curators, gallerists, art and academic institutions) into commercial gallery representation. The majority, however, found recognition for their work elusive.

We agree the marketplace has its own imperatives – gallery rent, collectors’ preferences, auction house economics – which incline decision makers, many of whom are women, to avoid the risk of taking on women artists, especially those whose work is untested and lacks a reliable means of valuation. The inertia that has to be overcome to change this paradigm is fueled by persistent misconceptions that too few women produce consistently good and marketable work, their subject matter is perceptibly feminine, and their professional arc will be interrupted by domestic issues, none of which is born out in our experience.

Abundant statistics demonstrate women seeking careers as artists face the same gender-based inequality women in other professional endeavors face, notwithstanding those individual women in the visual arts who have not personally experienced gender discrimination, have gallery representation, sell at market prices, or have ascended to the ranks of super-stardom, achieving top tiers at auction and having work in major museum collections.

We feel pride at the achievements of these women, but our take is these are the examples of exception, and as such, represent a kind of phenomenon, even in a way, tokenism, that can conveniently stand in for real parity.

We do not subscribe to the idea that the few will lift the greater number. Rather, we believe lifting the greater number will lift each individual woman artist. At Pen and Brush, our group exhibits have always been designed to demonstrate there is no shortage of good work by women, in all media, reflective in subject and treatment, of the diversity found not only among female artists, but among male artists. Nor do we subscribe to the idea that women should not participate in “women’s shows,” a view that by definition, says work by women is “less than” and any woman artist who shows work in such exhibitions will have it automatically devalued. We want to break the cycle that has “every woman for herself” on one end and affirmative action as a remedy on the other. The point is also not that women’s work is better than that of their male counterparts, nor should it be in order to gain recognition and value. It’s that it is worthy of equal consideration across price points and merit, essentially irrespective of the artist’s gender.

For us, group shows at Pen and Brush provide the opportunity to see quality work by women en mass, the sheer weight of which we think can change public perceptions about women’s endeavors in the arts – and perhaps become a resource for collectors and galleries. It has not, though, been a model preferred by those comprising the art press.

In fact, we realized the need to do a more effective job of advocating for gender equity in the arts and chose to sell our Village building, shedding its restrictive setting for a new space in the Flatiron District. Opening in late 2013, this new location is an accessible 5,500 square foot state-of-the-art facility that will accommodate any form an artist chooses for her work. Remaining committed to the group exhibition, we will have curators select work. From that platform, an additional review will further identify women whose work will gain greater exposure in focused curated exhibitions, more appropriate for artist advancement. We are fortunate to have the resources to do this and maintain, even celebrate, our “grassroots” level of participation, as Quang Bao refers to it, while, in recognition of the practicalities of reaching all the players shaping the art world, simultaneously adapt the commercial gallery model.

It may seem ironic, perhaps contradictory, that as a women’s organization we believe the gender of the artist should not serve as a qualifier. We have learned we are most “successful” when visitors (male and female) are clearly engaged in the work they see, and only when they express interest in the artists and in purchasing work, are drawn back to the realization that everything capturing their imagination is created by women.

Our advocacy is based on the belief that continued exposure to concentrated presentations of high quality work by women without commercial pressures, can, over time, influence market choices – and perhaps somewhat subversively, make the point that gender parity has to be about the work first.

Janice Sands has served as executive director of The Pen and Brush, Inc. since 1998.  She has participated in several arts organization panel presentations for the Arts and Business Council of New York, the Council for Arts and Humanities of Staten Island, Artists Talk on Art, and the Women’s Studio Center.  She is member of ArtTable, a national organization for professional women in the visual arts, and of Americans for the Arts, the Arts and Business Council of New York and the New York Nonprofit Coordinating Committee.