Would Pablo Picasso's paintings be just as highly valued if he were a she?
Cultural biases that influence economic decisions are one of the reasons there is a gender pay gap, bestowing a lifetime of financial disadvantage on women.
For anyone trying to improve economic outcomes for women, the challenge is to disentangle culture from biology – to identify contexts in which culture, not biology, leads to worse outcomes for women.
This is where art comes in. A team of researchers including Renée Adams, a professor and Commonwealth Bank chair in finance at UNSW Business School, has been studying the global art market where auction prices of works by female artists are significantly lower than those for male artists.
"From looking at a painting you can't tell if it is painted by a man or a woman," says Adams.
Also on the project is Marco Navone, a senior lecturer in the Finance Discipline Group at UTS Business School, along with Roman Kräussl from the University of Luxembourg and Patrick Verwijmeren from the University of Rotterdam. Navone says the team has sought to find answers to the price discrepancy.
"Can you demonstrate that an X chromosome makes you a worse painter? We do not really know, but it seems unlikely. So why should paintings by female artists sell for less than male artists?" asks Navone.
The researchers turned to the Blouin Art Sales Index (BASI), which provides data on artworks sold at more than 350 auction houses worldwide. They limited their sample study to artists born after 1850 and those whose art has traded on at least 20 occasions. Top-tier sales of more than $1m were also ruled out as they could skew the results.
Women artists made up 8.39% of their sample, and they calculated the average gender price gap to be 17%.
The gender trap
Where auction price differences between male and female artists appeared most acute tended to be in countries where cultural bias against women also measured highly. This was determined by factors that included low levels of labour participation, tertiary education enrolment ratio, and the percentage of women in parliament.
"As art prices cannot be attributed to biology, we were able to identify a 'pure' effect of culture on economic outcomes for women," says Adams.
The good news is that the gender price gap is decreasing over time and, remarkably, if you had invested in women painters during the past 40 years, you would have made a bigger profit than if you had invested in male painters, producing an average annual return of 6.35% as opposed to 4.83%.
"We think, but can't be certain, that cultural gender bias plays a role in the price gap, but it has been decreasing in the past 40 years in the US and Western Europe. Although on average, the price of artworks by female artists is still lower than male artists' work, nevertheless prices have been growing closer," says Navone.
'From looking at a painting you can't tell if it is painted by a man or a woman'– renee adams
'Prove themselves exceptional'
Amy Cappellazzo, an art advisor and former head of post-war and contemporary art at Christie's, believes the market is "steadily improving for women at a faster clip in the past five years than in the previous 50 years".
And while there are many more women contemporary artists who are 'household names', even the few superstars such as Tracey Emin or Cindy Sherman, whose works sell for millions, say that sexism is rife and that the gender gap still exists.
In an interview in 2015, the notoriously reticent Sherman said: "Women artists have to prove themselves exceptional in order to get their foot in the door, to be considered for something, whereas many, many mediocre men artists easily get by."
Emin agrees, complaining about the sexism in the art world and commenting that, "Louise Bourgeois has the highest female sales price at auction, but it's so far below her male counterparts, it's unbelievable. Were she a man it would be 10 times more."
The facts support their argument. Only last year, Christie's sold Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust for a world record price of US$106.5 million. Compare that with the highest price paid for a female artist, which was Georgia O'Keeffe's Jimson Weed, White Flower No.1, sold at Sotheby's in 2014 for a mere US$44.4 million.
Perhaps the reason for the huge difference in price was articulated by O'Keeffe's famous quote: "The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I'm one of the best painters."
And last year, the highest price paid for a work by a female artist fell back to US$25 million for Spider, a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, who was the only woman to make it into the top 100 lots sold at auction.
So, returning to the researchers' attempts to unpick biology from culture, what is it about the context of the art world that has led to women being so disadvantaged?
According to Maura Reilly, a US-based art commentator, sexism is so insidiously woven into the institutional fabric, language, and logic of the art world that it often goes undetected. The data, wherever you draw from, be it the number of solo shows featuring women artists at museums, or the number of column inches in the press, supports her view.
Take the Venice Biennale, one of the most famous annual showcase events for contemporary art and artists. In 2009, a fairly healthy 43% of works represented were by women. That figure dropped to 26% in 2013, rising to 33% in 2015.
"Discrimination against women at the top trickles down into every aspect of the art world – gallery representation, auction price differentials, press coverage, and inclusion in permanent-collection displays and solo-exhibition programs," Reilly says in ARTnews.
Women artists get significantly less coverage than men in magazines and other periodicals. Covers of art magazines and ads also feature mostly male artists. Articles and reviews dedicated to solo exhibitions focus on males rather than females with Reilly citing her own publication, the past December issue of ARTnews, where out of 29 reviews, 17 were devoted to solo shows of male artists and only four to solo shows of women artists.
US artist and curator, Micol Hebron, compiled some stats for her Gallery Tally project in 2013 that show in the major artistic centres of London, New York and LA, around 30% of artists shown in commercial galleries were women.
"There is still a real problem with who's getting opportunities, who's getting shown, who's getting collected, who's getting promoted, and who's getting written about," Hebron says.
'The men linked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I'm one of the best painters'– georgia o'keeffe
Prestige and power
Interestingly, Australia is home to an influential initiative to bring about gender equality in art education, art practice and contemporary art culture. Called The Countess Report and set up by art blogger Elvis Richardson, it is a benchmarking project and online resource on gender equality in the Australian contemporary art sector.
While other, international research has collected data about gender representation in visual art, The Countess Report expands the field to include data on education, prizes, funding, art media, organisational makeup, and exhibitions of various kinds across a wide range of galleries including national and state, regional, commercial, ARIs (artist run galleries) and CAOs (contemporary art spaces).
Since the report launched in 2008, gender representation has improved significantly in Australia and in 2014, the Biennales, ARIs and prize-winners categories all included more women than men. Commercial galleries showing 40% female artists and state museums showing 34% female artists tell a different story, however.
Says Richardson: "The closer an artist gets to money, prestige and power, the more likely they are to be male. These results are not surprising as they mirror those in almost all other areas of creative production as well as in almost all spheres of power and influence."