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Pay Equality in the Arts Industry

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

Co-written by Morgan Udoh and Helena Williams


Artemisia Gentileschi's “Judith Beheading Holofernes”

The term "historic artist" often conjures up names like Da Vinci, Dali, and Van Gogh, while female artists like Kahlo, O'Keefe, and Catlett are often overlooked. Similarly, in the modern era, artists like Banksy, Koons, and Wiley are more well-known than artists like Butler, Kusama, and Golden.


–– Want to get to know more historic women artists? Start your journey here ––


Surprisingly to that fact, though, art has never had a gender bias when selecting who inherited skill or talent. If anything, art is perpetuated in the hands of those wanting to express something intangible, not if those hands also had the correct chromosomal makeup.


As far back as ancient history, women have been record-keeping alongside men. Even the first cave paintings were done by women, a fact that had to be forensically proven to be acknowledged because social dogma dismisses most contributions by women.


Being able to rattle off a list of current or past acclaimed women artists is left mainly to die-hard art fans. And that’s no societal mistake, women have been historically neglected for their accomplishments, even in a community like the arts where expression and talent cause boundaries to cease.


Some historical trivia hunters may know that many times women chose to release their work under pseudonyms or anonymously to disguise their gender. Notably, in literary works, women writers chose to publish anonymously or with male or gender-neutral names, even as recently as the Harry Potter book series where Joanne Rowling became J.K. Rowling.


‘I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.' – Virginia Woolf

In a world where acclaim and name recognition are the way to receive stable work, how would disassociation from a female-identifying feature, like a name, ramify into the future? Well, it comes off in the way many patriarchal structures treat any non-cis white men, in the economic worth of their contributions.


Currently, there is a $192 billion gender gap in the art industry, with only 2% of art made by women being sold at auction between 2008 and 2019, at a 47.6% discount for women's art comparatively. This bias is not limited to established auction houses but also affects emerging artists on platforms like Etsy and Instagram.


The issue of gender bias in the art industry is further evidenced by the fact that, although nearly half of visual artists in the US are women, they earn only 74-81 cents for every dollar made by male artists. Museums and exhibitions also exhibit a significant gender disparity, with collections from 18 major museums being 87% male and only one-third of public and commercial exhibitions featuring women artists.


The roots of this bias can be traced back to a history of women being excluded from formal art training, particularly in sculpture and painting. Despite women now earning 70% of bachelor of fine arts and 65-75% of master of fine arts degrees, they make up only 46% of working artists across all disciplines. This disparity is not due to technical or degree differences but is instead a result of gender bias.


One of the significant factors that contribute to the gender pay gap in the visual art industry is the historic underrepresentation of women. Additionally, women are often discouraged from negotiating their salaries due to the perception of artists as "starving" who should be grateful for any opportunity.


So, how do we fight a problem that is largely manufactured by our own collective gender bias? To address the gender pay gap in the visual art industry, it is essential to take a multi-faceted approach. This includes systematically increasing the representation of women and other marginalized genders in the industry, providing mentorship and networking opportunities, and implementing policies and practices that promote pay equity. It also means challenging the biases and assumptions that underpin the industry and creating a culture of inclusivity and respect.


As general values of women’s contributions equalize, we think, too, that the valuations of art produced by women will similarly follow. Until then, the importance of specifically seeking out and uplifting women artists is beyond crucial to their contributions and expressions continuing to elevate our society.


Interested in continuing this conversation? Join OneRouge as we continue to talk about the 9 Drivers of Poverty, which includes Equal Pay for All.


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