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Female Talent Shines in the Latest Society of Women Artists Exhibition

Updated: Oct 2, 2019

So why are women still so under-represented in global auctions and institutions?

As a woman and somebody who loves art by female artists, it is no surprise that many of my blog posts have a slightly feminist slant to them. Last year, I charted Jenny Saville's rise to become the most expensive female British artist, and more recently, Dames Barbara Hepworth and Elisabeth Frink dominating the sculpture aspect of March's Modern British Art auctions. And this week I set out to review the latest Society of Women Artists exhibition - something I look forward to every year. However, I was sidetracked by a recent report that states that just 2% of global art auction spending is on works by women. And even more shockingly, only 11% of works purchased by leading institutions was created by females. So this got me thinking: why is this still the case when the standard of art by women artists is so high?

This month's Society of Women Artists Annual exhibition (above) was the best of its kind so far. While society shows can sometimes be a tad stuffy or samey, the SWA show is certainly not so. At the beautiful Mall Galleries in London, a diverse range of artworks showcases the very best in emerging and mid career artists from the UK and beyond. Alongside the 150 society members are the best up-and-coming talents in painting, sculpture and printmaking, including a whole section aimed at nurturing young talent. On the opening morning, hundreds of artists and art lovers flocked to see HRH Princess Michael of Kent - the society's patron - officially open the show and award some very well-deserved prizes.

'Magic Light' by Anastasia Shimshilashvili, the winner of the Young Artist Prize

The pieces on show this year were more varied than ever. There were some stunning portraits: 'The Attenborough Effect' by Vanessa Jayne SWA; the fabulous actress Fiona Shaw CBE painted by Sarah Hope and 'Woman at Ankor Wat' by Anna Judge. Amanda Watt and Rebecca Fontaine-Wolf SWA showed an array of beautiful nudes, while my favourite sculpture was a tiny replica of a Rolo by Jane Morgan, made of bronze, 9 carat gold and hand-painted, displayed in a bell jar - good enough to eat!

So it is extremely frustrating, then, to read the recent report assembled by In Other Words and Artnet News that states that women artists only make up 2% of global annual auction spend. Within this, one artist - Yayoi Kusama - makes up for a quarter of the total spend on female artists, and just five artists make up over 40% of the spend. And while we women of the art world though these figures were improving, it seems there has been little measurable change.

But why, when female artists seem to be better represented in shows and institutions than ever, is this the case? Well, according to the report, female artists still only make up 11% of the collections in key global institutions. And just 14% of the top solo and group exhibitions heavily feature women. So while this has grown over the last few years, it is still nowhere near good enough, especially as 51% of professional artists are women.

Yayoi Kusama's 'White No. 28' (1960) sold at Christie's New York in 2014 for an artist record of $7.1 million

So where do we go from here? I can't help but think it is these large institutions that need to be leading the way. Many collectors, afterall, desire those artists that reside in the top museums and collections. If the institutions - for reasons unknown - fail to recognise the quality of work created by female artists, it follows that collectors will too. And if the demand is not there, works by female artists will not command the desired prices at auction, and subsequently commercial galleries will not stock the works. And so the vicious cycle begins again.

So for those of us not in charge of acquisitions for leading institutions, what can we do to help? Whether an art consultant, a collector, or just an art lover, my advice is to support key organisations such as the Society of Women Artists. Go into galleries, and ask to see paintings by women. Support group and solo shows by women artists, and only then - when the demand is there - will the institutions and key collectors truly recognise the real value of female artists.

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