Is the Art Market Fair to Women?
Women’s art appears less frequently than men’s at auctions and in galleries. But does the lack of representation stem from institutional barriers that hold back female artists’ careers, or from bias among buyers? A study of Yale Art School graduates over 120 years, co-authored by William Goetzmann of Yale SOM, suggests that institutions pose a bigger obstacle than market participants.
Attend an art auction, or wander through a gallery or museum, and the majority of artwork is likely to be by men. One study found that men’s work made up 96% of art sold at auctions around the world from 2000 to 2017, for instance. The yawning gender gap could stem from multiple sources. Buyers, curators, or museum managers might be biased against women’s work. Institutional barriers also could prevent or discourage female artists from pursuing their careers and entering the market.
In a recent study, a team at Yale SOM sought to untangle the causes by examining data on about 4,000 graduates of the Yale School of Art over more than a century. They divided the data into two major time periods: before 1983, when male students outnumbered female students, and after 1983, when the gender ratio roughly equalized.
The researchers found that before 1983, the fraction of artists who sold work at auction was lower among women than men. But female graduates who did sell their work ranked higher on average auction prices than their male peers.
To William Goetzmann, Edwin J. Beinecke Professor of Finance and Management Studies, that suggests that “the market is fair, but the institutions are not.” In other words, because women faced more institutional obstacles, they may have had to produce higher-quality work to reach the art market. But once they did, their talent appeared to be rewarded with more money. Goetzmann worked with Laurie Cameron ’16, then a student in Yale SOM’s MBA for Executives program, and Milad Nozari, then the research coordinator of Yale SOM’s International Center for Finance, on the study.
The gender difference in auction access and price rankings wasn’t significant after 1983, suggesting that some barriers had weakened. But even after classes reached gender parity, women’s names were much less likely to be mentioned in books, likely translating to lower awareness of their work.
That means that curators may need to work harder to find female artists who have been left out of the spotlight. But events such as the 2022 Venice Biennale, where women’s work dominated, show that “with really thoughtful curation, it’s possible to highlight artists whose work has not gotten the recognition it deserves,” Goetzmann says.
Cameron, Goetzmann, and Nozari set out to gather quantitative evidence for the causes of the gender gap. They focused on Yale graduates, reasoning that these artists were likely starting with a similar intent to enter the art profession.
The team assembled data on 4,433 graduates from 1891 to 2014. Then they obtained auction records for about 10,000 works by 524 of those artists, sold around the world from 1922 to 2016.
Before 1983, representation at auctions was lopsided: 14% of the men sold at least one work, while only 7% of women did so. After 1983, these figures evened out to about 8-9% and were no longer significantly different.
The researchers also scoured Google Books for the names of artists who had sold at least one piece at auction. Then they calculated the gender ratio of book citations for each class, controlling for the class’s gender ratio. Before 1983, men were mentioned 3 to 14 times more often than women. After 1983, male artists’ citations were still two to three times more frequent.
Even after the Yale School of Art reached gender parity, says Prof. William Goetzmann, male graduates received far more book citations: “Women received less recognition. In economic terms, they’re not getting as much free advertising.”
“That was really damning,” Goetzmann says. “There’s a big institutional bias.” Book citations are essentially a way to proclaim an artist’s importance. “Women received less recognition,” he says. “In economic terms, they’re not getting as much free advertising.”
Did the artist’s gender ultimately affect how much they were paid? The team looked at each artist’s auction sales and calculated how much higher or lower their prices were, on average, compared to the group. They controlled for factors such as the auction house, country of sale, year, size of the work, and the medium (print, acrylic, oil, watercolor, and so on). Women’s work sold for an average of 35% more than work with similar characteristics by men, they found.
One possibility was that a few “superstar” female artists were skewing the results. Indeed, when the team examined the maximum auction price for each artist, they found a huge drop-off from the most highly compensated woman to the second-highest, then third-highest, and so on. This drop-off was even steeper than it was among men.
To reduce the skewing effect of superstar artists, the researchers analyzed the data in a different way. First, they ranked the artists by the average price paid for their work. Then they compared women’s average rank to men’s, controlling for factors such as the size and type of art. Again, they found that women ranked higher on pricing.
But this pattern held true only before 1983. After that year, women’s average price rankings were no longer higher than men’s. The result “really is tied to the pre-equality period,” Goetzmann says.
One explanation is that, before 1983, women faced more barriers to entering the art market. When their work did reach auction, it was higher quality on average than men’s work, and buyers recognized that quality.
But other explanations are possible too. Perhaps men produced more pieces of lesser quality, while women tended to make fewer pieces of higher quality. And the results might be specific to Yale graduates.
International studies with bigger data sets have come to conflicting conclusions. One analysis of 2.6 million auction transactions from 2000 to 2017 suggested that women’s art sold for 4% more than men’s. But another team, who studied 1.9 million auction records from 1970 to 2016, reported that the average price for female artists’ paintings was 42% lower than for male artists.
And the lingering gap in book citations, found by Goetzmann’s team, suggests that women still aren’t given as much recognition, likely contributing to lower representation in galleries, museums, and exhibitions.
“There’s no question, we document bias,” he says.