The Art Market in the Age of #MeToo

By Margaret Bussiere

The Art Market in the Age of #MeToo

We are now one year from the beginning of the cultural ground shift that is widely known as #me too. What began in the third quarter of 2017 with the Harvey Weinstein scandal has made the issues of conduct and consent part of public discourse. So how has this cultural movement affected the art market?

Museums and galleries are the intellectual centers of the visual arts and they engage their audiences in art that tackles the issues of our time. In the past year there have been a number of documented instances of museums and galleries taking strong positions.

The Manchester Art Gallery removed a Victorian painting by John William Waterhouse called “Hylas and Nymphs” in January because the image of naked nymphs tempting the doomed Hylas was considered to be unsuitable and offensive in light of our current conversations.

In order to fund acquisitions by artists of more diverse backgrounds, the Baltimore Museum of Art decided to deaccession seven significant works of art in their collection. Pieces were sold that are widely considered to be “blue chip” contemporary masterpieces by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Franz Kline, among others. The sale realized approximately $10 million for investment in cutting edge contemporary art, specifically by women and artists color.

In May of this year, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC cancelled a planned exhibition of Chuck Close due to allegations of sexual misconduct. This was the first time the museum had cancelled a show due to claims of this nature. The cancellation came months after a New York Times report of Mr. Close making explicit comments to and commanding women to undress during visits to his studio. The decision to cancel the show brought museum curators to a reckoning – can they, and should they separate the artist from his art? And if the answer is “yes” (which still has yet to be determined), how far back should this revisionism reach? Living artists only? Do dead artists get a pass?

Bearing in mind this conversation in the intellectual circles, what kind of fallout, if any, are we seeing in the financial sector of the art market? If collectors are increasingly viewing art collecting as an asset class, are their investments in blue chip artists safe?  Is it time to sell the Picassos?

The art market does not always respond the same way that movements in curatorial circles do. There is no evidence thus far that the canon of established artists (mostly white males) is depreciating en masse. So, no, do not sell off the Picassos just yet. That being said, if you are looking to buy art that is currently undervalued many would argue that buying works by female artists is a good bet. A quick google search brings some impressive numbers:

  • In May, a work by Cecily Brown sold for $6.8 million, double her prior record.
  • In October, a Jenny Saville painting sold for $12.4M at Sotheby’s London, the highest price paid for a work by a living female artist.
  • The spring 2018 auctions shattered records for the works of 15 female artists including Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan.

The fact that these records have all been broken during 2018 is no mere coincidence, but reflects a sharp increase in demand for these female artists as a byproduct of the larger conversation of gender and opportunity.

The #me too movement does not show signs of slowing down or reversing course any time soon, but neither does demand and pricing for works in the traditional canon. It remains to be seen if that will ever happen. Within the context of an ever growing globalized art market, perhaps it can best be explained as this: it’s not that women artists are getting a larger piece of the pie but that the pie itself is getting bigger.