The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Artnet News Pro that lifts the curtain on what is really current on the art market.
Two female artists made their high-stakes nightly auction debuts in New York in May: One was an 82-year-old veteran with a long history of solo exhibitions, museum acquisitions and rave reviews. The other was a 27-year-old rookie.
Who do you think sold more?
Mary Heilmann’s abstract painting, The passenger (1983), based on the similarly titled film by Michelangelo Antonioni, sold for $945,000 at the Thomas and Doris Ammann sale at Christie’s on May 9, tripling the artist’s previous record. The following night, Anna Weyant Summer time (2020) sold for $1.5 million.
This sums up the situation of female artists in today’s investment-driven art market. While women have made strides in recent years amid calls for greater equity, the older generation remains undervalued and generally overlooked by the market compared to the younger cohort. Even as auction houses broadcast greater inclusiveness, a new trend is to pile the front of evening sales with works by female artists – the gender gap remains, well, gaping.
Works by older female artists accounted for just 5.3% of the $16.7 billion in global auction sales over the past five years, according to Artnet Price Database. Proponents fear their prices will never catch up with those of their male peers.
“It’s a double whammy,” said Amy Smith-Stewart, chief curator of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. “You are a woman and there is this ageism.” The outlook becomes even more difficult along racial lines – of the top 25 auctioned female artists born between 1930 and 1975, only four are non-white.
We extracted auction data since 2017 for female artists in two age groups: those born between 1930 and 1975, and those born since 1974. The results are shocking—not because the younger generation does not deserve success, but because of the undervaluation of its predecessors.
Heilmann (b. 1940) and her peers—Joan Snyder (b. 1940), Pat Steir (b. 1940), Susan Rothenberg (1945–2020), Elizabeth Murray (1940–2007), Faith Ringgold (b. 1930), Howardena Pindell (b. 1943)— “are not under the radar, critically,” said Liane Thatcher, Heilmann’s longtime studio manager. “They are under the radar in terms of the market.”
Heilmann’s CV is 59 pages and his works are in more than 40 museums. Her art totaled $3.8 million at auction, just ahead of Allison Zuckerman (b. 1990), who has never had a major museum exhibition ($3.4 million).
Consider that Jamian Juliano-Villani (b. 1987) made about twice as much money at auction ($1.9 million) as Ringgold ($1 million), who just had a career retrospective at the New Museum. Or that Loie Hollowell’s (b. 1983) total of $18.8 million topped Steir’s $18.3 million. Weyant’s $5.2 million gross at auction (in just one year!) is second only to the $5.9 million generated by Eva Hesse (1936-1970), the subject of a new exhibit at the Guggenheim. Paintings by Issy Wood (b. 1993) fetched $5.2 million while Rothenberg, who just had a mini-survey at the Museum of Modern Art, fetched $4 million.
Of course, primary market prices and demand can tell a different story. But collectors entering the market — not to mention museums considering acquisitions — often use auction prices as a benchmark for determining how much they should pay, which only perpetuates the gap.
“Younger generations of women don’t usually have to deal with that same problem, thankfully,” Thatcher said.
Women also trail men in the fairer ultra-contemporary sector, with around 23% of the segment’s $1.7 billion in auction revenue since 2017, according to price database Artnet.
But young women also experience much more momentum. Total sales for women in the ultra-contemporary segment have increased by more than 800% since 2017. For those born between 1930 and 1974, sales have only increased by 65%.
“I’ve heard female artists in their 50s and 60s say, ‘I guess I have to be almost dead to do this,'” said Smith-Stewart, whose new exhibit, “52 artists: a feminist milestone“, is a tribute to the 1971 survey of 26 female artists, many of whom have just been rediscovered five decades later. The new interpretation adds a younger cohort, including Hollowell and Anna Park, to examine the evolution of feminist art practices.
“It’s exciting for artists to be in a cross-generational setting,” Smith-Stewart said. “They want to understand the heritage. They want to be part of this story.
Creating a new context for older female artists is one way to reinvigorate their markets. At TEFAF in New York in May, Heilmann’s painting from 1996 Bad Boujeloud was on display amidst works by Alberto Giacometti, Henry Moore and Josef Albers at the premier gallery stand Eykyn Maclean. The asking price was $450,000 and the work sold, according to Thatcher, who knew the seller.
In September, the avant-garde gallery Karma will present a collective exhibition of 30 older female artists, including Heilmann, Murray, Ringgold and Rothenberg.
“There are a lot of female artists who haven’t gotten the attention they deserve,” said Ivy Shapiro, curator of the exhibit and daughter of sculptor Joel Shapiro, who grew up around many of these women. . “Why are we only watching Faith Ringgold now?” Elizabeth Murray’s market is not where it should have been. Susan Rothenberg’s horses have a certain market value, but the work goes far beyond that.
Ellie Rines, co-owner of 56 Henry gallery in New York, mixes emerging and older female artists in its programming. While the gallery offered Weyant her first solo exhibition in 2019, she also works with painter Joanne Greenbaum (b. 1953) and sculptor Jessica Stockholder (b. 1959). In November, Rines will present a solo exhibition of works by influential artist Laurie Simmons (b. 1949). (Simmons, for the record, has about the same bid total over the past five years as Ivy Haldeman [b. 1985]—about $500,000.)
“If I was collecting art right now, I’d probably be interested in looking at established female artists,” Rines said. “There’s so much emphasis on young people now, but I’m much more interested in someone who has developed their language over 30 to 40 years. They are artists for good reason.
Simmons, whose photo-based installations and films are rooted in issues of gender and feminism, said she and her friends didn’t become artists to make money. When they entered the art world, their career path began with exhibitions in alternative spaces, which eventually led to gallery representation.
“What we were moving towards was critical positioning and an opportunity to show our work, to be in museum collections, to be written about,” Simmons said. “There was no pot waiting for anyone. ”
Heilmann, who came to New York in 1968 from San Francisco, worked in day care centers, as a substitute teacher, and then at the School of Visual Arts. Describing herself as “an old hippie”, she said she never thought about the financial aspect of the art world. Until she was 40, “when I sold paintings, I was paid in cash and I hid it in a little box in my closet”.
These days, his new paintings sell for between $75,000 and $175,000, according to Thatcher — a fraction of, say, a $300,000 new canvas by Shara Hughes (b. 1981).
Money is still not something Heilmann thinks about much. “I think about it mostly theoretically,” she said. “Do not enter [the art world] for this reason and now I look at the big picture and realize how culturally important it is that the value is worth considering in terms of investment.
When she wants or needs something, she asks her studio manager, “Can I afford it?”
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