The gender (im)balance in the art world: key figures

[03 Sep 2019]

In the fast-evolving segment of the Contemporary Art market, the relative value of works by female artists vs. male artists is growing rapidly. Several important women artists recently refreshed their personal auction records, including Lee Krasner (The Eye Is the First Circle, $11.6 million, at Sothebys on 16 May 2019) and Louise Bourgeois (Spider, $32 million at Christie’s on 15 May 2019), two of the rare female contemporaries whose prices have reached into eight figures (i.e. above $10 million).

At the beginning of the summer, Phillips sold a work in London by Lynette YIADOM-BOAKYE for just over a million dollars and $430,000 above its high estimate. Twenty minutes later, Marlene DUMAS was in the spotlight with a canvas that fetched $1.5 million… three times the low estimate (Losing (Her Meaning), Phillips, 27 June 2019). A feminine success that triggered the headline Female painters steal the limelight at Phillips contemporary evening sale in London in The Art Newspaper the following day (Anny Shaw, 28 June 2019).

Clearly a whole range of art market players, including journalists, critics, researchers, curators, auctioneers and collectors, are increasingly focusing a spotlight on a vast wealth of neglected and undervalued female creation in art and auction history.

Although prices appear to be levelling out over time, the reality of the figures proves that there is still an abysmal gap between male artists and female artists in terms of their relative economic performances. An analysis of the top 5 sales turnovers generated over one year (between July 2018 and June 2019) by each sex shows that Jean-Michel Basquiat’s economic performance is five and a half times that of Jenny Saville, the top-selling female Contemporary artist over the 12 month period.


Top 5 auction turnovers (July 2018 – June 2019)

Men Turnover                                        Women Turnover

Jean-Michel Basquiat – $157.2m             Jenny Saville – $28.8m

Jeff Koons$111.8m                                 Cecily Brown$28.5m

Kaws – $93.6m                                            Julie Mehretu – $9m

Christopher Wool$77m                         Dana Schultz$8m

George Condo – $45.7m                               Marlene Dumas – $7.8m

By 2018, the Contemporary British painter Jenny SAVILLE emerged as the highest-priced living female artist on the market when her Propped fetched a new personal record of $12.5 million at Sotheby’s on 5 October 2018. A month later, her living male compatriot David HOCKNEY scored a new personal auction record of $90.3 million for his Portrait of an Artist at Christie’s on 15 November 2018.

Hockney is considerably older and is considered Post-War (born in 1937), but the valuation gap of nearly $80 million between the best result for a living male artist and the best result for a living female artists last fall was nonetheless colossal. The gap widened even further in 2019 as the record for a living male artist was revised to $91 million last May when Jeff KOONSRabbit sculpture was sold at Christie’s in New York.

The ranking also shows that the overall turnover of the five most successful female Contemporary artists ($82.1 million since the summer of 2018) represents approximately half of Basquiat’s total sales revenue over the same period and $11.5 million less than the 40-year-old Kaws.

Market players are aware that an adjustment needs to occur and that everything starts with visibility. These abysmal price differences result from a lack of recognition of women artists in art history and in museum collections.

A recent study by the Public Library of Science has revealed that in the permanent collections of the 18 leading American museums, 87% of the exhibited works were created by men (and 85% by white men). Although the participation of women artists in major museum exhibitions is slightly up, their presence in auction sales catalogues is still very minimal: the catalogues for Christie’s next Contemporary Art sale (21 September 2019 in Shanghai) has only two women among the 30 artists in the sale.