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Why do we still define female artists as wives, friends and muses?

By Katy Hessel

20 Feb 2023 · 3 min read

Katy Hessel is a British art historian and author of the book ‘The Story of Art Without Men’. Writing for The Guardian, she looks at the imbalances still present in the way we value art today.

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When only 1% of the National Gallery’s collection is made up of art by women; when a work by a woman goes for just 10% of that by a man; when the 2022 Burns Halperin report found that 11% of acquisitions and 14.9% of exhibitions at 31 US museums between 2008 and 2020 were of work by female-identifying artists (and 2.2% were of work by Black American artists), while the volume of acquisitions of work by women peaked in 2009; what does this say about the state of art today? The imbalance in art acts as a microcosm for the way we place value on genders in society. And it highlights the amount of work that needs to be done.

So did it surprise me that when visiting Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940–70 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, that five of the 86 brief 50-word labels made reference to male artists, including the husbands of Elaine de Kooning, Anna-Eva Bergman and Lilian Holt. Though this was a small proportion, it made me think that exhibitions still contextualise female artists in relation to the men they knew, and wonder whether this narrative can ever change.

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