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Major Baltimore museum will only acquire works by women artists in 2020

The move follows a major survey that found only 11 per cent of all museum acquisitions in the past decade were works by women.

Move follows a report that found only 11 per cent of museum acquisitions in the last 10 years were by women

The Georgia O'Keefe painting "Pink Tulip" is one of the works by women at the Baltimore Museum of Art. (Baltimore Museum of Art)

A major Baltimore art museum is taking a significant step toward righting the gender disparity in the visual art world: starting next year, it's only acquiring works by women.

The move comes following a sobering survey, released in September, that shows just 11 per cent of all museum acquisitions over the past decade were works by women.

The investigation, conducted by artnet News and In Other Words, tracked a total of 260,470 works of art that entered museums' permanent collections since 2008; only 29,247 were by women.

What's more, only 14 per cent of exhibitions at 26 prominent American museums in the past decade were by female artists. 

"These findings challenge one of the most compelling narratives to have emerged within the art world in recent years: that of progressive change, with once-marginalized artists being granted more equitable representation within art institutions," reads the report. "Our research shows that, at least when it comes to gender parity, this story is a myth." 

This week, the Baltimore Museum of Art said it hopes to help correct that imbalance by only acquiring works by women — including female-identifying transgender artists — in 2020.

"The museum sees this as an opportunity to extend that commitment while also working to shift the scales within its collections, acknowledging that women artists are still underrepresented in the museum field and within museum collections," wrote the museum in statement emailed to q.

“The work of many women may not have got the platform that their male peers had, but if you start to look closely, the influence is obvious and has been largely ignored," says Montreal-based artist Jessica Eaton, whose work has been shown at major institutions across North America and in Europe. "In many cases the men followed what women were doing yet got all the credit.” Her work "cfaal 1037" is pictured here. (Jessica Eaton/Higher Pictures)

"We hope this will serve as a model and a first step towards better representation within our field. The BMA will explore works across genre, style, and medium, and will announce further details regarding the considerations and process for acquisitions in 2020 at a later date."

According to Montreal-based artist Jessica Eaton, who has had exhibitions in top galleries in North America and Europe, and whose works are housed in the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Musée d'Art Contemporain de Montréal, among others, the Baltimore Museum's move is "fantastic."

"The gender disparity in art is historically and continually so extreme there is a need for more drastic corrective measures. Sometimes you do need to rewrite history," Eaton told q. 

"The work of many women may not have got the platform that their male peers had, but if you start to look closely, the influence is obvious and has been largely ignored. In many cases the men followed what women were doing, yet got all the credit."

Eaton says the gender disparity is "extremely noticeable" in terms of gallery representation, museum exhibitions, collections and auction results — but also in terms of the language around work made by women in publications, critiques and other rhetoric.

But while Eaton applauds the Baltimore Museum's move, she doesn't think it will have a significant effect unless other institutions start taking up the same idea.

"I'd like to see the big galleries and institutions start picking up and exhibiting younger women. Men are often picked up by blue chip galleries or given museum shows earlier in their career, which gives you a lot of opportunity to expand your practice and some financial stability," says Eaton. 

"Women typically have to wait until they are elderly or dead. It is one thing to start giving major exhibitions to a woman at the end of her career — but imagine what the work could have been, had that artist been given that sort of support and encouragement earlier on."

These numbers are a little heart-wrenching. But they are also awakening. This is not about who you are as an artist — there is a system that you aren't a part of. It's still a boys' game."- Artist Mickalene Thomas 

The artnet study also found the situation for women artists of colour was particularly dire, with African-American women representing just 3.3 per cent of the total number of female artists whose work was collected by U.S. institutions.

The survey blames several factors for the ongoing gender disparity, among them a built-in bias in museum systems, and a lack of research into female artists. (It notes that a recent Yale School of Art study found that, even though the graduating classes achieved gender parity nearly 40 years ago, female alumni were written about in books and scholarly publications two to three times less frequently than their male classmates.)

"These numbers are a little heart-wrenching," artist Mickalene Thomas says in the artnet report. "But they are also awakening. This is not about who you are as an artist—there is a system that you aren't a part of. It's still a boys' game."
 

About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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