Over the past decade, there has been a sense in the art world that gender equity was on the horizon: Emerging female artists were landing high-profile solo shows, museums were staging women-themed exhibitions, grants were being awarded to boost female artists, and long-neglected artists were being given overdue recognition.
This assumption of progress is being sharply challenged by new data showing that between 2008 and 2018, only 11 percent of art acquired by the country’s top museums for their permanent collections was by women. And contrary to any hope that acquisitions of artworks by women are inching upward, the percentage remained relatively stagnant, according to the data, released on Thursday.
The new analysis was by Artnet, an art market information company, and “In Other Words,” a weekly podcast and newsletter produced by Art Agency, Partners, an art advisory firm that was acquired by Sotheby’s.
“The perception of change was more than the reality,” said Julia Halperin, the executive editor of Artnet News and one of two lead authors on the report. “The shows for women were getting more attention, but the numbers actually weren’t changing.”
Over the past decade, just 29,247 works by female artists were acquired by 26 top museums in the United States, out of 260,470 total works. The barometer of achievement for female artists, experts agree, is not the number of solo and group exhibitions they are given, which are often less expensive and easier to mount, but direct purchases by the museum for their permanent collections, as well as donations.
The report, which included more than 40 interviews with curators, artists, collectors and dealers, suggests several reasons for the gender imbalance, including museum committees tasked with acquiring work that were often preoccupied with name recognition and wary of spending money on a female artist who didn’t have a recorded reputation for selling at auctions. The bias of the collectors who donate works to museums is also at issue, as well as a longstanding bias toward male dominance in art history books.
“It’s the idea of women artists being more of a risk, which seems to speak to a sort of institutional timidity,” said Charlotte Burns, the executive editor of “In Other Words.”
Of the roughly 5,800 female artists whose works were acquired, 190 women — or just 3 percent — were African-American.
The museums that provided data for the survey included the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The researchers declined to release complete data including each museum’s record on acquiring art by women.
According to the researchers’ data set, the number of acquisitions of artwork by women peaked in 2009 at 3,462.
“We assume that, given the commonly held belief that women artists are amazing, that there had been much more growth,” said Naima J. Keith, the vice president of education and public programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and a curator. “This should be the wake-up call. Maybe we haven’t done enough.”
The researchers also asked museums to report the gender parity in their exhibitions. From 2008 to 2018, according to their data, 14 percent of all exhibitions were either solo shows featuring female artists or group exhibitions in which the majority of artists were female. The number of exhibitions featuring female artists gradually climbed over the decade, more than doubling from 49 exhibitions in 2008 to 104 exhibitions in 2018. The research does not differentiate between large and small exhibitions, leaving open the possibility that the climbing number is not necessarily an indicator of significant change.
There is general agreement that women artists are in a far better position today than in 1971, when Linda Nochlin wrote her landmark essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in ARTnews magazine. Ms. Burns said that in recent years, with greater awareness of gender inequity in all fields, there had been a rush of press about art museums’ efforts to increase the representation of female artists. But when Ms. Burns and Ms. Halperin reached out to museums for their institution’s data on gender parity, they found that few — if any — of the institutions had kept track.
Museums are much more likely to highlight exhibitions and acquisitions that look good in a news release, Ms. Halperin added.
“No museum is going to say, ‘Our fall program is majority male artists,’” she said. “But they would say, ‘Our program is majority female artists.’”
According to the data that the researchers gathered through Artnet’s Price Database, acquisitions of women-made art stagnated even as the auction market for work by women more than doubled between 2008 and 2018. The global market grew from $230 million to $595 million over that 10-year period, according to the data.
However, the sale of women’s artwork in the global auction market comprises only 2 percent of the total market share, according to the researchers. And of that share, five female artists dominate the market, comprising nearly 41 percent of the total. Those top-earning female artists include Yayoi Kusama, Joan Mitchell, Louise Bourgeois, Georgia O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin. (Only Ms. Kusama is living.)
In doing this research, Ms. Burns and Ms. Halperin reasoned that some critics might argue that women are simply outnumbered by men in the fine art world. According to a Yale University study from 2017, however, the Yale School of Art reached gender parity in 1983, indicating that a gender divide in the field of art in general was not the likely source of current inequities.
Reaching gender parity in acquired work is likely to be more difficult at encyclopedic museums, which aim to represent art across history and geography. Those museums, which include the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, have a mandate to collect across eras — not necessarily from certain demographics.
At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, only 4 percent of the art acquired between 2008 to 2018 was by women, or 3,788 out of 90,215 works acquired by the museum.
“Why, as a woman who has been working in this field for 20 years, is this shocking me so much?” said Nonie Gadsden, a senior curator at the museum.
Ms. Gadsden said that part of the problem is that only a fraction of their acquisitions are purchased by the museum; much is donated by collectors, and so relies on their personal purchases.
Ms. Gadsden said the museum is making a concerted effort to focus on art by women. This month, the museum cleared out the entire third floor of its Art of the Americas Wing and filled it with works by female artists dated between 1920 and 2020. The exhibition, called “Women Take the Floor,” features about 100 female artists. (Most of the art was already part of their permanent collection.)
At one point in her career, Ms. Gadsden said she was skeptical about women-themed exhibitions because she feared that they tokenized female artists. Later she said she came to understand that these types of exhibitions could highlight overlooked artists whose important work was boxed out by dominant men. That is particularly true of female action painters like Helen Frankenthaler and Elaine de Kooning, who have a gallery in the new exhibition.
“By putting the women out there, we can bring attention to them without the known names sucking the air out of the room,” she said. “If they were in a room with Jackson Pollock, everyone in the room would go to the Jackson Pollocks.”
Among the museums that took part in the survey, smaller institutions tended to have made better progress toward gender parity, the researchers said. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, for example, collected 21 works by women in 2008. In 2018, they collected 288 works by women. That museum, Ms. Burns pointed out, made an explicit commitment to increasing representation of female artists.
In 2013, the museum sold from its collection a painting by Edward Hopper to start a fund focused on buying contemporary art by women and artists of color, who were underrepresented in their collection. The Hopper, “East Wind Over Weehawken,” sold for $36 million.
Brooke Davis Anderson, the director of the museum at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, said although the process of selling art from a collection, called deaccessioning, can be controversial, the museum continues to do it to make room for acquisitions — especially those by female artists.
“When an art museum deaccessions work, the proceeds go right back into the collection,” she said. “It makes it so evident to our community that we’re a museum committed to artists working today.”