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How to Become a Great Woman Artist

The art world has always been a male-dominated one, so how can women break in?
October 31, 2015, 4:50pm
Image via Guerrilla Girls

Let's begin with the idea that you aren't born a great woman artist.

You are not born great and you are not born a woman. Those are both traits that you pick up along the way. It will be easier for you to become a woman than it will for you to become great. (Society will constantly remind you that you're becoming a woman, but greatness is going to come from somewhere else.)

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir wrote, "one becomes a genius; and the feminine situation has up to the present rendered this becoming practically impossible." Don't worry—there are ways around this. We'll get to that.


The Second Sex was published in 1949. Twenty years later, Vassar professor Linda Nochlin published an essay titled, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" She calls out the institution, rather than the individual, as the reason. When it came to second wave feminism, she argued, the art world was left behind.

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We tend to think of art as a socially progressive arena to champion liberating ideologies, but there's never been much proof of that. Sure, you can wear whatever you want to art world parties, but that doesn't mean anyone will buy your work or add you to a history book. Don't confuse compliments on your thick eyeliner with freedom. And look around at who's selling expensive art and you'll see suit-and-ties, shirt-and-jeans, and white skin.

There have been, of course, great women artists. There's been Rosa Bonheur, Marietta Robusti, Elizabeth Chéron, and Berthe Morisot. In recent history, Cindy Sherman, Yayoi Kusama, Marlene Dumas, and Cady Noland have become household names, depending on the household. Nochlin calls these examples "token achievers" and maintains that great women artists are rare.

Let's consider that women artists are not capable of greatness. If art is a matter of personal taste, won't the best artists rise to the top?

It's not that simple. When women work, Nochlin argued, they have to "wrestle with inner demons of self-doubt and guilt and outer monsters of ridicule or patronizing encouragement." Neither of those forces is connected to the quality of the artwork: As Nochlin notes, there are shadows lurking behind the defense of subjectivity, and there are societal complexities to art's presumed meritocracy.


Becoming requires a guidebook. You need to be reminded that you have the potential for genius the same way you are reminded that you are a woman (remember, one isn't born great). Last week, at the panel discussion on gender parity in the arts at Washington D.C's National Museum of Women in the Arts, artists and academics presented solutions to the feminine situation. It was a thorough examination of how to achieve equality in the art world, one which can essentially be distilled into these six simple steps to becoming a great woman artist:

One: Stop whining. The panel discussion opened with artist and curator Maura Reilly announcing, "No whining. We've been whining long enough." It was a genuine relief that this talk spared the audience from feeble complaints.

Two: Keep track of the numbers. "Counting is a feminist strategy," Reilly said. It's clear that there's a disparity in gender and minority representation but we need to know how much. We need to know if it's getting better or if it's leveled off. Is this as good as it gets?

The counting began in 1985 with Guerrilla Girls protest art that featured statements like "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?" The gorilla-masked activist-artists came up with the slogan after they discovered that less than 5% of the museum's work was by women artists but 85% of the nudes inside were female bodies.

Recent reports from a variety of sources give updated figures on the art world's gender gap. Brainstormers found that women earn half of the MFAs granted in the US, yet only a quarter of solo exhibitions in New York galleries feature women. That was 2006, twenty years since the Guerrilla Girls first brought gallery representation to the public's attention.

Three: Hold galleries accountable. Artist Micol Hebron said, "If you don't see something, say something." Her Gallery Tally project is a crowd-sourced effort to collect statistics city to city about representation for men, women, queer, disabled, older, and visible minority artists. Museums and galleries will have to address the numbers, she argued—and even not responding to the numbers is a choice in itself.

Four: Self-promote. Senior editor of Hyperallergic Jillian Steinhauer said she has noticed that women don't promote as much as men. Similar to women in any workplace, they tend to be more passive and apologetic, more worried about being annoying. If they email once and don't hear a response, they won't email again, she noted, adding that it's the men who behave like "squeaky wheels" and contact publications or galleries repeatedly. Steinhaur urges women to speak confidently and to never begin with, "Sorry to bug you."

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Five: Write reviews for art shows by other women. When artists get press, they're more likely to be shown in galleries and museums. Then the price of their artwork—and your artwork by gender association—is more likely to increase. Sotheby's senior vice president Gabriela Palmieri said, "More female museum exhibitions will affect change in the marketplace." As an example, she pointed to rising auction prices for artists like Barbara Hepworth, Kay Sage, and Camille Claudel. Write and read reviews, go see the shows. If women artists aren't in your immediate field of vision, adjust your eyes.

Six: Consider not becoming a woman. Hebron said, "Binary is sexist." It serves capitalism to ignore the full spectrum of our culture. Will women become assimilated into the art world if their work is only viewed in special exhibitions, isolated from the other shows as if it's done something wrong? Consider drawing attention to women artists without pushing them further into being the Other. In fluidity, as opposed to binary, there's more space for greatness. Invite men to the conversation. They should consider not becoming men artists, too.