The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Artnet News Pro that lifts the curtain For real going on in the art market.
Two female artists made their debut at high-stakes evening auctions in New York in May: One was an 82-year veteran with a long history of solo exhibitions, museum acquisitions and rave reviews. The other was a 27-year-old newbie.
Who do you think sold for more?
Mary Heilmann’s abstract canvas, The passenger (1983), inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s film of the same name, raised $945,000 in the Thomas and Doris Ammann sale at Christie’s on May 9, tripling the artist’s previous auction amount. The next night, Anna Weyant’s Summer time (2020) sold for $1.5 million.
This summarizes the state of affairs for female artists in the current investment-driven art market. While women have made strides in recent years amid calls for greater equality, the older generation remains undervalued and generally overlooked by the market compared to the younger generation. Even as auction houses broadcast more inclusivity – a new trend is to stack the front of evening sales with works by female artists – the gender gap remains, well, gaping.
According to the Artnet Price Database, work by older female artists accounted for just 5.3 percent of the $16.7 billion in global auction sales over the past five years. Supporters worry that their prizes will never catch up with their male colleagues.
“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 an ageism.” The prospects get even more challenging along racial lines — of the 25 best-selling female artists at auction born between 1930 and 1975, only four are non-white†
Since 2017, we have collected auction data 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 doesn’t deserve success, but because of how undervalued their predecessors are.
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 resume is 59 pages long and her artworks are in more than 40 museums. Her art has grossed a total of $3.8 million at auction — just ahead of Allison Zuckerman (1990), who has never had a major museum exhibition ($3.4 million).
Recall that Jamian Juliano-Villani (1987) raised about twice as much money ($1.9 million) at auction as Ringgold ($1 million), who just had a retrospective career at the New Museum. Or that Loie Hollowell’s (b. 1983) total of $18.8 million exceeded Steir’s $18.3 million. Weyant’s $5.2 million gross at auction (in just one year!) is just behind the $5.9 million generated by Eva Hesse (1936-70), the subject of a new show at the Guggenheim. Paintings by Issy Wood (1993) brought in $5.2 million, while Rothenberg, who was just the subject of a mini-survey at the Museum of Modern Art, took in $4 million.
Of course, prices and demand in the primary market can tell a different story. But collectors entering the market — not to mention museums considering purchases — often use auction prices as a benchmark for determining how much to pay, which only serves to perpetuate the divide.
“The younger female generations generally don’t face the same problem, thankfully,” Thatcher said.
Women also lag behind men in the more equitable state-of-the-art sector, taking about 23 percent of the segment’s $1.7 billion in auction revenue since 2017, according to the Artnet Price Database.
But younger women also experience significantly more momentum. Total women’s sales in the ultramodern segment have increased by more than 800 percent since 2017. For those born between 1930 and 1974, sales increased by only 65 percent.
“I heard female artists in their 50s and 60s say, ‘I think I’d have to be nearly dead to make it,’” said Smith-Stewart, whose new exhibition, “52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone† is a tribute to the 1971 survey of 26 female artists, many of whom are only rediscovered five decades later. The new rendition adds a younger cohort, including Hollowell and Anna Park, to explore the evolution of feminist art practices.
“It’s exciting for artists to be in an intergenerational context,” Smith-Stewart said. “They want to understand the legacy. They want to be part of that history.”
Creating a new context for older female artists is a way of reviving their markets. At TEFAF New York in May, Heilmann’s 1996 painting Bad Boujeloud was exhibited among works by Alberto Giacometti, Henry Moore and Josef Albers on the stand of the blue-chip gallery Eykyn Maclean. The asking price was $450,000 and the work found a buyer, according to Thatcher, who knew the seller.
In September, the leading Karma gallery presents a group exhibition of 30 older female artists, including Heilmann, Murray, Ringgold and Rothenberg.
“There are a lot of female artists who didn’t get the attention they deserved,” said Ivy Shapiro, the show’s curator and the daughter of sculptor Joel Shapiro, who grew up with many of these women. “Why are we only looking at Faith Ringgold now? Elizabeth Murray’s market is not where it should have been. Susan Rothenberg’s horses are getting quite a bit of value in the market, but the work goes way beyond that.”
Ellie Rines, co-owner of 56 Henry Gallery in New York, mixes emerging and older female artists in her program. While the gallery Weyant gave its first solo exhibition in 2019, she also collaborates with the painter Joanne Greenbaum (°1953) and sculptor Jessica Stockholder (°1959). In November Rines will give a solo exhibition with work by the influential artist Laurie Simmons (1949). (Simmons, for the record, has had about the same auction total as Ivy Haldeman for the past five years) [b. 1985]-about $500,000.)
“If I were collecting artwork now, I’d probably be interested in looking at established women artists,” Rines said. “There’s so much emphasis on youth now, but I’m much more interested in someone who has developed their language over the course of 30-40 years. They are artists for the right 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. As they entered the art world, career paths began with showing in alternative spaces, eventually leading to gallery representation.
“What we were heading for was critical positioning and an opportunity to showcase our work, to be in museum collections, to write about,” Simmons said. “There was no one waiting for a pot of money. †
Heilmann, who came to New York from San Francisco in 1968, worked in daycare centers, as a substitute teacher, and later at the School of Visual Arts. Describing herself as “an old hippie,” she said she had never thought about the financial aspect of the art world. Until she turned 40: “When I sold paintings, I was paid in cash and I hid it in a box in my closet.”
Today, her new paintings sell for $75,000 to $175,000, according to Thatcher — a fraction of, say, a $300,000 new canvas from Shara Hughes (b. 1981).
Money is still not something Heilmann thinks much about. “I mainly think about it theoretically,” she says. †don’t come in [the art world] for that reason and now I look at the whole 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 that?”
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