Art Basel

It’s a man’s (art) world—or is it?

Only around 25% of the dealers at Art Basel are female, but women are giving no quarter as the playing field begins to level out


Perhaps surprisingly, given the advances women have made in the art world over the past decade, the number of female dealers exhibiting at Art Basel in the past ten years has hardly risen at all. In 2003, 24% of the dealers exhibiting in the fair’s main galleries section were women; galleries run by both men and women represented a further 12%. This year, 26% are female dealers and 11% are joint ventures.

In the broader context of the European Union, however, where only 3% of chief executives are female, women do well in the art world. Many of the top museum curators in Europe and the US are female (in 2010, 24 out of 35 curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York were women, although directorships are still largely held by men), and several European countries, including the UK, France and Norway, have female culture ministers. Prices for women artists are also rising: in February, Berthe Morisot’s portrait After Lunch, 1881, sold for $10.9m at Christie’s, a record for a female artist at auction.

Despite the fact that only around a quarter of the dealers at Art Basel this year are women (this figure does not include the countless female directors, sales associates and assistants who work for the galleries), the general consensus is that they make good gallerists (the critic Alice Rawsthorn puts it down to women being able to combine the roles of “curator, entrepreneur and nanny”). History agrees. Since the 1930s, there has been a slew of great female patrons and art dealers: Peggy Guggenheim, who opened her London gallery in 1938, Gertrude Stein, who backed Matisse and Picasso, Ileana Sonnabend (the “mom of Pop”), Antonia Gmurzynska (2.0/D14), Marian Goodman (2.0/B17), Paula Cooper (2.0/E5), Annely Juda (whose gallery, 2.0/B16, is now run by her son), Helga de Alvear (2.1/M8) and Victoria Miro (2.1/N7)—the list goes on.

Add to that Sprüth Magers in Berlin and London (2.0/B19). Co-owned by Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers, the gallery is exhibiting works by Cindy Sherman, Rosemarie Trockel and Barbara Kruger, among others, at Art Basel. Sprüth, who opened her first gallery in 1983 in Cologne, says that female dealers have developed “really powerful and interesting” galleries over the past 30 years, but that a “male attitude” towards power—to do with gallery size and sky-high prices for art—has become prevalent. “Strangely, success isn’t always tied to the best programme,” she says.

Magers, the daughter of a feminist gallerist, who opened her own gallery in 1991, says the playing field—at least for dealers—has levelled. It is the media, she believes, that skews the picture. “If you read the newspapers, men are by far the bigger players because they are making the most money in an aggressive way, openly bidding at auction and entering into this power play,” she says.

Although a few women have branched out—notably Marian Goodman to Paris in 1995 and Sprüth Magers to London in 2007—many more male dealers are expanding their empires. “They are very focused on building their own brands,” says Marianne Boesky (2.1/M2), who opened her New York gallery in 1996 and is showing works by Jay Heikes, Roxy Paine, Kon Trubkovich and Pier Paolo Calzolari, priced between $30,000 and $450,000. “Their female counterparts don’t seem to project the same need for public recognition or world dominance. They quietly dominate in their own way. Perhaps these women dealers remain more interested in the art itself.”

Aside from an attention to detail and a steely determination, there is the belief that women make good gallerists because, it is said, they are more nurturing than men. Although the mothering analogy is problematic, it should be noted that Sprüth and Magers have not lost one artist since they merged their galleries in 1998.

Contrary to the trend for outsized works and hyperbolic prices, Dominique Lévy (2.0/F4) says that her new gallery, which she opened in New York last year, is about “less is more”. Lévy has just begun to represent the estate of Germaine Richier, and is showing two works by the French sculptor at Art Basel: La Spirale, 1957, priced at €430,000, and L’Araignée I, 1946, priced at €110,000. Lévy describes the artist as “a peer of Giacometti whose career never achieved the same heights, mostly because she was a woman”.

It is the growth in stature—and price—of female artists over the past ten or 20 years that most strikes Sprüth, who, when she opened her gallery in 1983, was concerned with bringing commercial success to women artists, who were then still largely sidelined. Among her first exhibitions were solo shows by Trockel and Sherman, and in 1985, Sprüth launched Eau de Cologne, a magazine dedicated to female artists and writers that ran for three issues.

Much has changed since then. In the early 1980s, a photograph by Sherman would sell for around $1,000; in 2011, one sold for a record $3.9m at auction. At Art Basel, Sprüth Magers is exhibiting Untitled Film Still #32, 1979, priced at $800,000. But there is still a long way to go. As Boesky says: “Gender remains a prickly point in business and the art world is not exempt. We just need to keep pushing forward.”