The staggering lack of female artists in America’s museums

Women are the muses of art in our museums, but rarely the creators.

Why is this important: The work of women artists is only a fraction of what is on display in museums, but that’s not due to a lack of women in art.

By the numbers: A recent analysis of major US art museums by researchers at Williams College found that only 13% of artists featured in these collections were women. But about 55% of working artists are women, according to data from career platform Zippia.

The big picture: Kelema Moses, an art history expert and professor at the University of California, San Diego, points to a centuries-old pattern of exclusion of women from the art world.

  • “Let’s think back to the rebirth,” she says. “Women were kept out of art schools and institutions, so they couldn’t become artists with a capital ‘A’.”

Now, women make up the majority of art students and working artists, but they are still catching up with this long history of exclusion.

  • And museum directors or those in charge of art conservation are mostly men, notes Moses.
  • “It’s a bit cliché to say that representation matters, but it really does. Seeing yourself, or at least part of your identity, represented in museum spaces is essential because it can act as a vehicle for social change,” says Moses.

What to watch: Change is coming, albeit gradually.

Data: Topaz, et al., 2019, "Diversity of artists in major American museums";  Note: Artist's year of birth is rounded to the nearest multiple of 10 to determine decade, using 6,136 unique artists born after 1596 with known gender from the original sample;  Graphic: Nicki Camberg and Victoria Ellis/Axios
Data: Topaz, et al., 2019, “Diversity of artists in major US museums”; Note: Artist’s year of birth is rounded to the nearest multiple of 10 to determine decade, using 6,136 unique artists born after 1596 with known gender from the original sample; Graphic: Nicki Camberg and Victoria Ellis/Axios

Details: The Williams College analysis found that the overall split between male and female artists in US museums is close to 87% and 13%, largely due to the overwhelming dominance of male artists from the 19th century and earlier.

  • If we consider only artists born in 1946 or later, the male-female split is closer to 74-26.

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