Women Artists Are Catching Up, but Equality Will Still Take a While

This article is part of our Museums special section about how institutions are striving to offer their visitors more to see, do and feel.

Late one night a few years ago, the multidisciplinary artist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya was finishing up a sprawling public installation she had created in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. A couple walked by, she recalled, and, clearly impressed, remarked to Phingbodhipakkiya: “We love this. Please tell the artist his work is amazing. You must feel so lucky just to get to clean this space.”

Shocked by their blatant sexism and racism, Phingbodhipakkiya found herself speechless. “This is the reality for many of us,” she said in a recent interview, adding that although she is hopeful that things are shifting for women in the arts, “barriers still exist.”

Only 11 women were among the 100 top-selling artists at auction globally in 2023, according to the 2024 Artnet Intelligence Report. And between 2008 and 2020, only about 11 percent of acquisitions and 15 percent of exhibitions at museums in the United States featured the work of women (those exhibitions were all women or largely by women), according to the most recent Burns Halperin Report, which investigated representation in American museums.

The situation is starting to improve, as demonstrated with recent exhibitions by the German painter, printmaker and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz at MoMA in New York, the Ukrainian American Abstract Expressionist painter Janet Sobel at the city’s Ukrainian Museum, and the painter Christina Ramberg at the Art Institute of Chicago. But there is still a long way to go toward gender equity in art museums.

Equity is essential, said Katy Hessel, an art historian and the author of the book, “The Story of Art Without Men,” because “if we aren’t seeing artwork by a wide range of people, curated by a wide range of people, then we are not seeing art — or society, culture and history — as a whole.”

Hence the significance and urgency of museum exhibitions like “New Worlds: Women to Watch 2024” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. The exhibition, a roughly triennial, global survey of work by emerging and underrepresented women artists, runs through Aug. 11. The museum, founded in 1987, is widely recognized as the first in the world dedicated solely to women. Its collection includes more than 6,000 works of art from the 16th century through today.

“New Worlds” highlights a work from each of 28 women (including transgender women and those identifying as nonbinary) that reflects upon the current moment in history, said Virginia Treanor, senior curator at the museum and co-curator of this exhibition with the museum’s associate curator, Orin Zahra.

“When we were planning the theme for Women to Watch 2024 it was the middle of 2020, and we wanted to come up with a theme that would touch upon all that was happening in the world and in the U.S. particularly — calls for racial justice and social reform, income inequality, the climate crisis. All that was fermenting in the moment,” Treanor said. “Four years later, it feels spot on.”

Although many of the women included are considered emerging artists, they are not all early in their careers. “It is very intergenerational,” Treanor said. “Some of the artists are in their 50s and 60s and have been working consistently but really haven’t had exposure outside of their regional market. Our hope is that having exposure at the national and international level is beneficial for them.”

It should be, Hessel said. “If we look at the art market and those who have museum exhibitions, their art goes up in value. It’s a stamp of approval,” she said.

“New Worlds” showcases a wide variety of work that explores alternative representations of the past, present and future, informed by ideas about gender fluidity, displacement, belonging, technology, and social and environmental justice.

It includes Marina Vargas’s depiction, via classical sculpture, of the aftermath of her treatment for breast cancer; Ana María Hernando’s mass installation of brightly colored tulle, celebrating all that is feminine; and a self-portrait of Meryl McMaster in a green landscape wearing a basket on her back and a pointed hat with birds resting on it as she gazes into the distance. She wrote in the catalog for the exhibition that this work was inspired by the stars in the night sky “and the stories attached to them, which help guide us.”

Phingbodhipakkiya describes her installation, which resembles a robotics project, as a “postapocalyptic embodied A.I., cobbled together from remnants of human life and different generations of electronics.” Among its many components are televisions from the 1960s and ’70s, a security monitor from the 1990s, ropes, wires, circuit boards, casts of human hands, fabric and plastic tubing. “I wanted to open a portal between reckonings of the past and possibilities of tomorrow,” said Phingbodhipakkiya, 35, who lives in Brooklyn. Visitors can engage with the work using their phones. After scanning a QR code they are taken through a series of questions that explore the ethics of biological and technical advances and humanity’s complicated relationship with technology.

The title for the piece, “the primitive sign of wanting,” comes from a quote by the philosopher Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe. “She argued that ethical living involves evaluation of both intention and outcome,” Phingbodhipakkiya said. “And as biological and technical advances proliferate, this thinking feels newly urgent.”

A very different piece comes from the Texas painter Arely Morales, 33, who emigrated with her family to the United States from Jalisco, Mexico, when she was 14. The work is a large-scale painting — nearly 8 feet high and 6 feet wide — of three women, titled “Una por Una” (One by One). It shows the women taking a break from their work as house cleaners, holding a mop, rags, cleaning supplies and a stepladder. Morales was a graduate student living in Seattle when she became friends with the woman at the center of the portrait, Rosa, and began watching her and two other women as they worked; in 2019 she painted them. Morales often creates large-scale portraits of immigrant laborers to draw attention to those who are marginalized, to make “visible the invisible,” she said.

Knowing that throughout history people of importance commissioned large portraits of themselves, Morales felt inspired to do the same for members of her community. When visitors to the museum stand before her portrait, she hopes they will see what she sees in these women: “So much beauty and strength and powerful stories.”

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