Sep 10, 2022 - Science

The staggering lack of female artists in America's museums

Illustration of paintings of the Mona Lisa making pottery, the Girl with the Pearl Earring painting, and Madonna Granduca chiseling stone.
Illustration: Victoria Ellis/Axios

Women are the muses of the art in our museums, but rarely the creators.

Why it matters: Female artists' work is a fraction of what's displayed in museums, but that's not due to a lack of women in art.

By the numbers: A recent analysis of major U.S. art museums by researchers at Williams College found that just 13% of artists featured in those collections were women. But some 55% of working artists are women, per data from the career platform Zippia.

Data: Topaz, et al., 2019, "Diversity of artists in major U.S. museums"; Chart: Nicki Camberg and Victoria Ellis/Axios
Data: Topaz, et al., 2019, "Diversity of artists in major U.S. museums"; Chart: Nicki Camberg and Victoria Ellis/Axios

The big picture: Kelema Moses, an art history expert and professor at the University of California, San Diego, points to a centuries-old pattern of women being left out of the art world.

  • “Let’s think back to the renaissance,” she says. “Women were kept out of art schools and institutions, and therefore could not become artists with a capital ‘A’.”

Now, women make up the majority of art students and working artists, but they're still catching up to that long history of exclusion.

  • And museum directors or those in charge of curating the art are majority male, Moses notes.
  • “It’s sort of cliche to say that representation matters, but it really does. To see yourself, or at least a portion of your identity represented in museum spaces is critical because it can act as a vector for social change,” Moses says.

What to watch: Change is coming — albeit gradually.

Data: Topaz, et al., 2019, "Diversity of artists in major U.S. museums"; Note: Artist birth year rounded to the nearest multiple of 10 to determine decade, using 6,136 unique artists born after 1596 with a known gender from the original sample; Chart: Nicki Camberg and Victoria Ellis/Axios
Data: Topaz, et al., 2019, "Diversity of artists in major U.S. museums"; Note: Artist birth year rounded to the nearest multiple of 10 to determine decade, using 6,136 unique artists born after 1596 with a known gender from the original sample; Chart: Nicki Camberg and Victoria Ellis/Axios

Details: The Williams College analysis found that the overall split between male and female artists in America's museums is close to 87% and 13%, largely due to the overwhelming dominance of male artists from the 19th century and earlier.

  • When considering just artists born in 1946 or later, the male-female split is closer to 74-26.
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