Being a working artist is demanding. Most artists hold other jobs to support themselves, which limits their studio time.
“It’s a cycle. You don’t have the time to create the work, so you can’t create enough work to sell to support yourself financially, so you need to have the job, which takes up your time. It’s hard to get out of that loop,” says Rhode Island artist Kathy Hodge. Hodge is an award-winning artist with many exhibitions and shows to her name who also served as the Artist in Residence at multiple U.S. national parks. Because the gender gap is still prevalent in the art world, as in many sectors and professions, women artists like Hodge are in particular need of support.
Gender Disparity in the Arts
In 2019, the Freelands Foundation in England released its report, “Representation of Female Artists in Britain During 2018.” It’s the fourth study of its kind from the arts-focused charity that focuses on “the lack of sufficient support for female and emerging artists,” among other issues. The report’s author, Kate McMillan, an artist and fellow at King’s College, London, found while progress has been made, the “slow pace mirrors what is happening in other sectors across the world.” She cites “The Global Gender Gap Report 2018” from the World Economic Forum, which estimates it will take 108 years to achieve gender parity at current rates of change.
The commercial sector of art in Britain was found to be especially inequitable. Out of a group of 28 leading London galleries in 2018, 32% of the artists were women — up from 28% in 2017. And 88% of contemporary artworks sold at Sotheby’s in 2018 were by male artists. The sector of non-commercial galleries and public museums has made more progress; 55% of solo shows at these types of organizations were by women, and female artists won the past three Turner Prizes. McMillan notes that “significant changes in the museum and not-for-profit sectors may, in time, affect the results in the commercial and secondary market.” However, she also writes that collectors and auction houses need to better understand and embrace their “significant role in achieving comprehensive gender equality in the sector. It is not acceptable to simply allow the market to determine the legacy of female artists.”
This imbalance also persists in the U.S. Out of 590 major exhibitions between 2007 and 2013, 27% focused on women artists. ArtReview’s 2018 Power 100 list included 48 women. In 2017, it was 38, and back in 2002, it was 17. While 51% of visual artists in the U.S. are women, they make, on average, 81 cents for every dollar made by male artists. And in 2017, out of the top 20 most popular exhibitions worldwide, only one was headlined by a woman: Yayoi Kusama, in Tokyo. Again, progress is slow, and could use a push.
How to Support Women Artists
Women artists need buyers to purchase their work. “Ultimately, people need to sell their work in order to survive,” Hodge says. When this happens, she says, “it gives me encouragement to keep going, helps me buy supplies and just supports creating the work itself.” Hodge also notes that donors with ties to corporations could encourage them to add local women artists to their collections.
Aside from purchasing work, philanthropists can directly fund artists’ studio time and creative processes. One way to do this is through unrestricted funding, such as that offered by Anonymous Was a Woman (AWAW), which provides no-strings-attached grants of $25,000 to 10 female artists over age 40 each year. It’s backer and founder was anonymous until 2018, when 77-year-old artist Susan Unterberg revealed herself.
AWAW only asks one thing from artists; that they write a letter about the award. Unterberg told RobbReport:
[It] can be however long they want it, and how they used the grant or whatever, but if they use it for child care, that’s OK. If they use it for maybe giving them a year without having to teach, whatever.
Many other funders have supported women in arts, including the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, Ms. Foundation for Women, Swartz Foundation, Joan Mitchell Foundation and FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund. The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund backs individual feminist women in the arts. The Women’s Studio Workshop in New York offers funded residencies for women artists. Residencies or college scholarships for women artists provide them with educational and networking opportunities along with them the element that Hodge identified as so crucial: time to work.
Donors could also pay off women artists’ school loans in the spirit of billionaire investor Robert Smith, who pledged to eliminate student debt for the entire 2019 graduating class at Morehouse College. Women made up 58% of U.S. students awarded fine arts bachelor’s degree in 2015, yet they are still in the minority when it comes to major exhibitions and other markers of artistic success. And women owe $929 million—or roughly two-thirds—of the $1.46 trillion in U.S. student debt.
Hodge says, “Not many people can take that first jump… when you get out of school, where they’re not working another job for long enough to create enough work… If you just happen to get lucky and are able to sell your work right away, you can, but that doesn’t happen to many people.”
Freeing women artists from school debt could allow more of them to experience a more continuous creative process.
Hodge also says that being invited to speak about her residencies and work helps her gain exposure. And, she received a helpful and reputation-building grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. Attending art shows and sharing work and news through word-of-mouth and social media are non-monetary ways to have a woman artist’s back.
Hodge has not personally felt that being a woman has affected her career much — she thinks that is more common “at the higher level” of the art world. She does remember one professor who she felt didn’t take her seriously in art school, but overall, she did not feel she experienced much gender bias then. As a successful working artist who still has to have another job (though she is glad to work at the Providence Art Club), she sees a lot of women in similar situations. She says, “There are so many women artists at this level.” While this naturally creates a professional community, she doesn’t feel she has much time to enjoy it, because studio time is her priority. “It’s a sacrifice, but you have to keep going, you just have to put in the studio time. Make it work somehow.”
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