Facebook Status Update Sparks Discussion: MoMA’s Fourth and Fifth Floor Lack Women

by Art Fag City on June 1, 2009 · 16 comments Events

Leonora Carrington, art fag city
Leonora Carrington. Image via: Paint Large

Thanks to Jerry Saltz, I spent Monday morning combing through 500 plus comments and auxiliary wall posts facebook users posted on his status updates over the weekend. What are people talking about? According to Saltz, “Of the 383 works on the 4th & 5th flrs. of MoMA's perm. coll., only 19 are by women (4%).”

The ensuing discussion is probably the most engaged art conversation taking place on the web (barring the upcoming Venice Biennale), but like many comment threads, also the most tedious. Too frequently, the point of actionable change—that MoMA's exhibition space demands better curation than we're currently seeing—was lost in a sea of familiar gender bias conversation and throwaway statements. The discussion isn't without value, but it does put an unnecessary burden on the facebook reader, particularly when there are multiple conversations occurring at once on the page.

Amongst the more pertinent point made by readers, artist Mia Pearlman spoke to the subject of economics.

Again, follow the money, people. MoMA invests in art and a LOT of people, probably most of its board, think that art by women is a bad investment. Fix the value perception and you fix the problem. One way to do this is to integrate the permanent collection so that works by both are equal in status. The next is filling in the holes in the collection by artists that might be lesser known. The next is giving shows to living, working women and not just hot young ones either.

I doubt MoMA's board members consciously believe this, though I expect donations and acquisitions reflect this bias. Facebook commenters contested the point, though nobody seemed to be aware of Greg Allen's 2005 article for the New York Times, which actually provides specific examples of the how the value of art made by women sold at auction consistently sells for significantly less. Pair this with Jeffrey Deitch's recent observation that because contemporary evening auctions only have time to place about ten artists on the block from each decade, they create a de facto cannon of art, and certainly Perlman's points seem a little less contestable.

Meanwhile, speaking specifically to the issue of MoMA, Jerry Saltz made the following comments:

The Museum of Modern Art practices a form of gender-based apartheid. Of the 383 works currently installed on the 4th and 5th floors of the permanent collection, only 19 are by women; that's 4%. There are 135 different artists installed on these floors; only nine of them are women; that's 6%. MoMA is telling a story of modernism that only it believes. MoMA has declared itself a hostile witness. Why?

The programmatic exclusion of women is partly attributable to the art world’s being a self-replicating organism: It sees that the art that is shown and sold is made mainly by men, and therefore more art made by men is shown and sold. This is how the misidentification, what Adorno called a “negative system,” is perpetuated.

To those who have complained that installing the work of women will mean too much so-called “lesser” work will be on view. You can’t develop what Oscar Wilde called “the critical spirit” if you’re mainly seeing the story as it has always been told. Seeing only what's already been seen doesn’t tell you how good or bad this work may be. As André Malraux wrote, “We can feel only by comparison. The Greek genius is better understood by comparing a Greek statue to an Egyptian or Asiatic one than by acquaintance with a hundred Greek statues.”

Here is a list of 57 women artists already owned by MoMA, none of whom are on exhibit on the 4th & 5th flrs. perm. collection (work before 1970): Alice Neel, Georgia O'Keefe, Florine Stettheimer, Joan Mitchell, Hannah Hoch, Anni Albers, Louise Nevelson, Claude Cahan, Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fine, Dora Maar, Lee Miller, Jo Baer, Elaine de Kooning, Romaine Brooks, Ree Morton, Howardena Pindell, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Alma Thomas, Emma Kunz, Eileen Gray, Clementine Hunter, Adrian Piper, Dorthea Rockburne, Lee Lozano, Vija Celmins, Maria Lassnig, Gego, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Maya Deren, Pat Steir, Hedda Stern, Barbara Hepworth, Gwen John, Jay DeFeo, Jane Freiliecher, Minnie Evans, Merit Oppenheim, Betty Parsons, Bridget Riley, Claire Zeisler, Kay Sage, Grandma Moses, Sister Gertrude, Hilla AfKlimnt, Niki de Saint-Phalle, Dorothea Tanning, Janet Sobel, Atsuko Tanaka, Francoise Gilot, Anne Truitt, Ruth Vollmer, Jane Wilson, Sylvia Sleigh, Paula Rego, Marguerite Zorach.

The point is, when it comes to being artists, women can be as bad as men. The problem is that even now, decades after the onset of women’s liberation, women aren’t being allowed to demonstrate this. I doubt that there’s a conscious effort to keep women from showing, yet the percentage of women exhibiting in museum PERMANENT COLLECTIONS is grievously low.

I'm not sure the “women can be just as bad as men” argument is going to spark change on MoMA's fourth and fifth floors, though certainly the list of artists in the permanent collection not on display makes a more compelling case. Later, in an argument for a chronologically based show, Saltz issued a more powerful contrast to the vanilla curatorial vision. “Imagine seeing an Emma Kunz abstract drawing that was meant to heal Adolf Hitler in the May, 1942 section. Then a Henry Darger drawing of the Vivian Girls, then …the mouth waters.” To add to this, in a different room I'd suggest a Leonora Carrington next to the similarly surreal paintings of MATTA. Though, I'm not sure which works MoMA has in their collection, the Carrington MATTA pairing seems fairly obvious, and particularly relevant to contemporary artists. Certainly the wildly successful Inka Essenhigh must be familiar with both professionals.

These particular solutions were issued in a thread started by New York Times critic Ken Johnson asking which men should be eliminated to create space for women. (Saltz stated elsewhere he felt the answer was simply to move the education and administrative offices away from the main building.) I suppose Johnson's question is reasonable, but it seems likely to lead to responses like, “Pollock space shouldn't be reduced for a Krasner”—the art world equivalent of, “Our wait staff shouldn't have their wage reduced to pay the Mexican cooks fairly.”

In truth, I don't care how either professional world deals with inequality. I just want to see the field leveled.

  • ML

    I would love to see Jerry Saltz step up on behalf of other equally if not more marginalized demographics. Let’s subject Saltz’s record to his own sanctimonious filter – how many times has he reviewed any type of queer art? In the few instances in which he has reviewd a gay or lesbian artist, how many times has he taken the opportunity to relate them to any sort of queer genealogy? A yearly count of the pictures at the MOMA rehashes what the Guerilla Girls told us 20 years ago. Saltz needn’t abandon the cause of representing and championing female artists in his articles but he should acknowledge the relationship between gender-based discrimination and sexuality – the vapid cure-all of “add more women” tends to ignore the alternative expressions of gender or sexuality that are completely sublimated in modernist dialogues (Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhol) or ignored outright (everyone else).

  • ML

    I would love to see Jerry Saltz step up on behalf of other equally if not more marginalized demographics. Let’s subject Saltz’s record to his own sanctimonious filter – how many times has he reviewed any type of queer art? In the few instances in which he has reviewd a gay or lesbian artist, how many times has he taken the opportunity to relate them to any sort of queer genealogy? A yearly count of the pictures at the MOMA rehashes what the Guerilla Girls told us 20 years ago. Saltz needn’t abandon the cause of representing and championing female artists in his articles but he should acknowledge the relationship between gender-based discrimination and sexuality – the vapid cure-all of “add more women” tends to ignore the alternative expressions of gender or sexuality that are completely sublimated in modernist dialogues (Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhol) or ignored outright (everyone else).

  • clafleche

    I haven’t read the facebook messages, so perhaps this was mentioned, but wanted to add my thoughts here…

    One thing that frustrates me about MoMA, and is the main reason that I rarely go there, is that it is essentially a tourist attraction. I of course don’t have any sort of data on this but I imagine that the majority of their visitor income is derived from tourists… with that in mind, it would make some sense for them to exhibit work that is well known and concretized as ‘good,’ so that the tourists paying $20 per head are reasonably pleased with what they get. A shift in the display of their permanent collection might frustrate many who visit the museum expecting Starry Night, etc. Because galleries don’t rely on visitors to make money, they can take risks, show young artists, etc., but MoMA is too shaky financially to make the same kind of leaps. I think a decent example of a show of new, interesting work that could have been great but was ruined by an institution is Younger Than Jesus… although this is getting off topic. I guess the point is that my impression has always been that MoMA is run like a business, not an institution in pursuit of pushing the boundaries of what art can be.

    I recently heard that in 2010 the Centre Pompidou will only be showing female artists from their permanent collection, as a side note. Just goes to show that New York may be the center of the art world economically, but certainly not intellectually.

  • clafleche

    I haven’t read the facebook messages, so perhaps this was mentioned, but wanted to add my thoughts here…

    One thing that frustrates me about MoMA, and is the main reason that I rarely go there, is that it is essentially a tourist attraction. I of course don’t have any sort of data on this but I imagine that the majority of their visitor income is derived from tourists… with that in mind, it would make some sense for them to exhibit work that is well known and concretized as ‘good,’ so that the tourists paying $20 per head are reasonably pleased with what they get. A shift in the display of their permanent collection might frustrate many who visit the museum expecting Starry Night, etc. Because galleries don’t rely on visitors to make money, they can take risks, show young artists, etc., but MoMA is too shaky financially to make the same kind of leaps. I think a decent example of a show of new, interesting work that could have been great but was ruined by an institution is Younger Than Jesus… although this is getting off topic. I guess the point is that my impression has always been that MoMA is run like a business, not an institution in pursuit of pushing the boundaries of what art can be.

    I recently heard that in 2010 the Centre Pompidou will only be showing female artists from their permanent collection, as a side note. Just goes to show that New York may be the center of the art world economically, but certainly not intellectually.

  • Elizabeth L

    To comment on your comment. The majority of museum goes are not artists. Tourists is a fine lable. I really think that today in America 2009, art tourists would be surprised and unhappy if they became aware of the 4% number. 4% women sounds crazy. We know art history, we learned or grew up with this telling of art, but it’s not of the times. I think it’s bad business. If another large business, re Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Fed-Ex, had these types of sexist numbers out there the general public would be angry.

  • Elizabeth L

    To comment on your comment. The majority of museum goes are not artists. Tourists is a fine lable. I really think that today in America 2009, art tourists would be surprised and unhappy if they became aware of the 4% number. 4% women sounds crazy. We know art history, we learned or grew up with this telling of art, but it’s not of the times. I think it’s bad business. If another large business, re Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Fed-Ex, had these types of sexist numbers out there the general public would be angry.

  • carey

    Thank you for raising this debate in such a public and persistent form.

  • carey

    Thank you for raising this debate in such a public and persistent form.

  • Brainstormers

    Hi there AFC,
    I did actually post the link to Greg Allen’s article in my contribution to Jerry’s post. It’s not surprising that it was lost in the midst of the gazillion comments! I also posted a link to the Brainstormers research page…
    http://www.brainstormersreport.net/Reseach.html

    let’s hope somthing good comes of the converstaion!
    Danielle

  • Brainstormers

    Hi there AFC,
    I did actually post the link to Greg Allen’s article in my contribution to Jerry’s post. It’s not surprising that it was lost in the midst of the gazillion comments! I also posted a link to the Brainstormers research page…
    http://www.brainstormersreport.net/Reseach.html

    let’s hope somthing good comes of the converstaion!
    Danielle

  • BLGAMI

    I recognize I am very late to the debate, but what I find most troubling in these conversations is the failure of the analogies employed. “Pollock space shouldn’t be reduced for a Krasner”—the art world equivalent of, “Our wait staff shouldn’t have their wage reduced to pay the Mexican cooks fairly.” These kinds of comments, which are unnecessary in illlustrating your larger point, smack of the very privilge and entitlement one is trying to de-bunk here. Equity and parity in labor is the very same as equity and parity in institutional representation.

  • BLGAMI

    I recognize I am very late to the debate, but what I find most troubling in these conversations is the failure of the analogies employed. “Pollock space shouldn’t be reduced for a Krasner”—the art world equivalent of, “Our wait staff shouldn’t have their wage reduced to pay the Mexican cooks fairly.” These kinds of comments, which are unnecessary in illlustrating your larger point, smack of the very privilge and entitlement one is trying to de-bunk here. Equity and parity in labor is the very same as equity and parity in institutional representation.

  • http://www.sdfineartstorage.com chris

    Thanks for bringing this issue out into the open.

  • http://www.sdfineartstorage.com chris

    Thanks for bringing this issue out into the open.

  • david mcneil

    Hmmm. We have a complaint on behalf of women representation, we have a complaint about queer representation. I have to wonder about non-white males or female representation. Are artists of whatever non-white colour or background being represented? And if not, why the lack of overall diversity not only at MoMA but in the art world in general.

  • david mcneil

    Hmmm. We have a complaint on behalf of women representation, we have a complaint about queer representation. I have to wonder about non-white males or female representation. Are artists of whatever non-white colour or background being represented? And if not, why the lack of overall diversity not only at MoMA but in the art world in general.

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