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Gender Bias Reveals Consequences For Female Artists


How many famous female artists can you name? No, not Beyonce or Rihanna, but fine artists like Frida Kahlo and Mary Cassatt. If you're having trouble thinking of more than a handful, you may be onto a major problem in the art world. Women artists are routinely left out of museum exhibits, and their work is on average valued much less than that of their male peers.

Sally Herships and Cardiff Garcia from our daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money have that story.


SALLY HERSHIPS: There was this artist named Joan Mitchell. She was an abstract expressionist. She died in the 1990s, but she painted a lot.

CARDIFF GARCIA: Yeah. Joan Mitchell was hugely successful. And to art world insiders, she's a big deal. But if you're thinking, well, I've never heard of her, you would not be alone.

Christa Blatchford is CEO of the Joan Mitchell Foundation.

CHRISTA BLATCHFORD: She's doing remarkably well at auction. The prices are very high. But are they high in - relative to Jackson Pollock? No way. Are they high relative to de Kooning?

GARCIA: Nope. Paintings by de Kooning and Pollock have gone for $60 million to $160 million. Christa says there is no record of Joan Mitchell getting anywhere close to that kind of money for her work, which brings us to a big part of the reason that people have trouble naming famous women artists. Artwork by women and men is just valued differently.

HERSHIPS: Renee Adams teaches finance at Oxford, and she and some of her colleagues did an experiment. They picked paintings at random, and they showed them to viewers and asked them to guess if the artist was a man or a woman.

RENEE ADAMS: On average, the experiment subjects couldn't guess it was painted by a man or a woman.

GARCIA: Renee says it is practically impossible to look at a painting and figure out the gender of the artist. But she says...

ADAMS: If these subjects guessed that the painting was painted by a woman, then they liked the painting less.

HERSHIPS: Renee looked at millions of records from auction sales, and she found out that, on average, work by women artists sells for 40% less than work by male artists. And because art by women is valued for less, museums buy less of it. And that is how less artwork by women ends up on display in museums.

At the Baltimore Museum of Art, only 4% of the collection is by women artists. The problem is the same at major museums around the country. Christopher Bedford is the museum's director. He says that's why next year, any new artwork the museum buys will be by women.

CHRISTOPHER BEDFORD: The various different filters that we put in place to consider acquisitions and have always had in place to consider acquisitions and that system comes together in various different forms specific to the museum to filter the history of art and to include or exclude.

HERSHIPS: Unfortunately, in the case of women artists, often, museums have been excluding. Christa says anyone who's buying art, museums included, has to be careful of what's called the superstar effect. Sales of female artists represent just the tiniest slice - just 2% of the market. But...

BLATCHFORD: Of that 2%, 40% is five women.

GARCIA: That's what can happen with the superstar effect. A tiny number of artists become like tokens or symbols. And art buyers or museums or individuals feel like they've bought something by a lady, and so they feel like they don't have to do anything else.

BLATCHFORD: But then museums can essentially say, OK, I've done my female show. We'll move back to our normal.

HERSHIPS: Sally Herships.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News.


Cardiff Garcia is a co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money podcast, along with Stacey Vanek Smith. He joined NPR in November 2017.
Sally Herships