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Where are the Women?

How women artists are underrepresented (and how that might be changing)


The oldest, most prestigious museum collections in the world are populated with the work of old white male artists. And that’s no coincidence, three of the most-visited museums in the world—The Louvre, The British Museum, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art—have never had a female director, despite the fact that the museum field in the second half of the 20th century became a pink collar workforce. Even though the field is filled with women now, representation in museums is still lagging: 14% of all exhibitions at 26 prominent American museums over the past decade were the work of female artists.

In 1971, the prominent art historian Linda Nochlin wrote the seminal text “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

The answer to Nochlin's question was and remains brilliant: there were no great women artists because for several centuries in Europe and then later in America women were not allowed to go to art school. And even when they were allowed to attend art school, they weren’t allowed to study live drawing, which means they were not allowed to be in a room where there was a naked model and learn how to draw the body. And at the time—really up until cubism in the early 20th century—one's ability to draw a naked body was in fact both the keystone of how to become a great artist and a measure of one’s skill.

The conversation about representation in the arts must start here: for centuries, women were systematically excluded. (And that means the modern, inclusive woman: women of color, indigenous women, Asian American women, trans women, Latin American women, white women.) After all, if you're not allowed into the club, how can you become great in the clubhouse? And so that remains a central stumbling block for thinking about women artists, and it's an obstacle that the encyclopedic museums have yet to overcome. But incremental change is happening, both for artists and the curators who run the world’s museums.

This white paper explores the history of how women are underrepresented in the arts; and how the Hostetler/Wrigley Foundation is working to improve parity through grants and advocacy.

Museums and their boards are still a playground for white men

The oldest, most prestigious museum collections in the world are populated with the work of old white male artists. And that’s no coincidence, three of the most-visited museums in the world—The Louvre, The British Museum, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art—have never had a female director, despite the fact that the museum field in the second half of the 20th century became a pink collar workforce. Even though the field is filled with women now, representation in museums is still lagging: 14% of all exhibitions at 26 prominent American museums over the past decade were the work of female artists.

Is this disparity a reflection of long-held board makeup and structures? Even though it is a largely pink collar workforce, the structure of leadership in the field is—and has been—predominantly white men. And while there are more female museum directors than there were a generation ago, they are disproportionately at smaller museums: the majority of museums with budgets less than $15 million are run by a woman rather than a man. Over $15 million budget? The reverse.

As a result, historically, the tastes and interests of a small group of very affluent white men has tended to dictate what we see in museums.

Out of 3,050 galleries in the Artsy database
48%25% or fewer women artists25% or fewer women artists10%Represent no women artists at allRepresent no women artists at all8%Represent more women than menRepresent more women than men



In 2020, the Hostetler/Wrigley foundation funded the National Museum of Women in the Arts NMWA’s #5WomenArtists social media campaign and qualitative Gender Equity Survey Initiative. The campaign and survey—and the stark numbers discovered—have helped shine a light on the underrepresentation of women in the arts and are a central part of the mission of the Hostetler/Wrigley Foundation.


The market still says the work of men is worth more.

The market continues to favor male artists, radically so. “Men make much more, so the highest-priced female artists don't come anywhere close to the highest-priced male artist,” American curator Helen Molesworth says. “Men who buy art and men who work in museums tend to think that Gerhard Richter is universal, but Cindy Sherman deals with women. Women are always seen to be dealing with women's issues, whereas men are seen to be dealing with the issues of the world.”

The result? A playing field heavily tilted towards men. The numbers tell the story: 11% of acquisitions and 24% of exhibitions at 26 major American museums over the past decade was the work of female artists. The numbers are even more stark when it comes to women of color who, per an ArtNet study, account for just 3.3% of the total number of female artists collected by American museums. There is no gender parity when it comes to acquisitions; male artists have disproportionately been collected over female artists, and male artists received more prominent placement within the institutions. Just 24% of the 27,000 artists shown at art fairs in 2018 were women, where sales totaled $16.5 billion. And when it comes to the top of the market, where 41% of the profit is, there are virtually no women. In fact, 96% of the artworks sold at auction are men. But the most damning statistic is the earning potential, despite making up 46% of virtual artists in the U.S., women earn 74 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Representation in Collections of major U.S. art museums:
75.5%White menWhite men10.8%White womenWhite women7.5%Asian menAsian men2.6%Latinx menLatinx menall other demographic groups, each less than 1%all other demographic groups, each less than 1%

[Source: Public Library of Science]

In an effort to lift up the work of women artists, the Hostetler/Wrigley Foundation created The Hostetler/Wrigley Award, a bi-annual award given to a mid-career woman artist to create an outdoor work of art. The work will reside in the plaza between the existing museum and the Rem Koolhaas-designed expansion, allowing the general public to experience work free of charge.

In addition to celebrating an artist, the award will help continue the vital conversion about parity for women in the art. Works made by women represented just 11 percent of the art acquired by top American museums between 2008 and 2018.


Simone Leigh is a beacon: give women the same opportunities men have historically had

The numbers and history of women’s underrepresentation in the arts speaks for itself. But we remain hopeful for change. In the fall of 2020, The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston announced Simone Leigh will be the U.S. Representative at the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale Di Venezia 2022. In 2016, Brick House, her public installation on the High Line, was met to rave reviews. When women are given the platform and time and resources men have been afforded for centuries, they too can flourish.

“One of the things we see is that when we offer our audiences a diverse and inclusive program, they respond,” Molesworth says. “Ten years ago, Simone Leigh would not have been commissioned for a big piece of public art. We saw her given all of the resources that her male counterparts had historically been given. And then we watched Brick House go up on the High Line. And it was unbelievably good. It was just extremely excellent. And I think that excellence just shone out.”


The future is bright, according to Molesworth: “I’m trying to point to moments of huge success and ask people not to treat those as anomalies, but rather ask the field to just start treating those things as proof of concept that if you make a program where 50% of the participants are women, don't think of that as bean counting. Think of that as expanding our capacity to engage with human feeling and expression, which is what art is supposed to be helping us do. Half the planet are women. It's just a no-brainer.”