The Other Half
Despite their often trailblazing contributions to the art world, female gallerists have historically been under-recognised. A new book seeks to make amends
The list of books devoted to, or written by, women in the gallery-owning or art-collecting business is a short one. Peggy Guggenheim’s unbridled Confessions of an Art Addict (1946) is there, of course, but in the six decades since its initial publication it has kept company with, well, virtually nothing. Denise René, the diminutive Parisian dynamo who proselytized for Geometric Abstraction against much resistance (in 1957 she showed 40 works by Piet Mondrian; none of them sold) is supposedly working on an autobiography, but she’s pushing 90. The memoirs of Antonina Gmurzynska, whose exhibitions at her Cologne gallery from 1967 onwards decisively spotlighted East European avant-gardism, remain unpublished. ‘Hardly any women gallerists who ride the increasingly hectic, progressively accelerating art-market carousel have time to write their stories or record their experiences’, writes the Hamburg-based art journalist Claudia Herstatt in Women Gallerists in the 20th and 21st Centuries (2008), whose interview-laced profiles of 30 women gallerists (or female dealing partnerships) avowedly aims to begin doing for women gallerists what memoirs and biographies of everyone from Paul Durand-Ruel to E.L.T. Mesens have done for their male counterparts.
Obviously the ‘increasingly hectic, progressively accelerating’ characterization no longer applies, but in other ways Herstatt’s timing appears reasonably propitious. In 2008, to use the author’s own justificatory example, of the 31 gallerists presenting work in the Art Statements section of Art Basel (which showcases younger art), 16 were women. Numbers, for better or worse, tell only half of the story. One virtue of Herstatt’s book is the temporal and spatial ground it covers: its subjects range from dyed-in-the-wool Modernists such as the late Annely Juda to the young Glaswegian dealer Sorcha Dallas, engaging en route with women dealers in Moscow, Brazil, South Korea, Belgium, the USA and elsewhere. Another is the case it makes for re-reading the trajectory of art (and art history) since World War II as extensively determined by the audacity and resolve of female gallerists.
Accordingly, we’re asked to consider not only the reasons why, say, Ileana Sonnabend was christened ‘The Mom of Pop’ (not to mention her prescient patronage of Gilbert & George and Jeff Koons) but also the repeated phenomenon of women dealers as trailblazers in inhospitable climes. The details differ, naturally, but the narrative arc repeatedly reveals bold intransigence – whether it be Juda’s stubborn evangelism for non-objective art in abstraction-averse England, Nina Menocal in Mexico City, Elena Selina in Moscow and Ilona Anhava in Helsinki opening galleries where contemporary art wasn’t shown, or Atsuko Koyanagi setting up in mid-1990s’ Tokyo in the wake of a collapsed art market. (Or the late Pat Hearn in lower Manhattan; sadly absent from this book’s roll-call, the former firebrand performance artist not only gave exposure to then nascent talents such as George Condo and Philip Taaffe but also extended New York’s gallery web into the East Village and helped found the Armory Show art fair.) Women Gallerists is not a book to turn to for sumptuous prose or spotless editing; in the section devoted to Maureen Paley – to single out a particularly egregious passage, although admittedly Herstatt’s English is far better than my German – the author writes that ‘since the 2004 [sic] and the founding of the Frieze Art Fair in Regents Park at the latest, art-addicts from all over the world have flocked to the warehouse and factory buildings converted into galleries in the former “no-go area”.’ But the point is well made that a woman, Paley (a former Russian-trained ballet dancer, it’s interesting to learn), was again there first, in 1984, exhibiting in the wasteland of Bethnal Green.
Like many of the younger dealers in the book, Paley is identifiable more with a geographical movement – with an eastward expansion – than with defending a particular artistic one: the battles now, one might say, are geographical rather than aesthetic. If this is one factor that Herstatt infers without comment, there are others. Consider, in the light of the impression of equality that a visit to Art Statements (or a perusal of Women Gallerists) might deliver, ArtReview’s Power 100 in 2008. Here none of the four dealers listed in the top ten was female – the highest-ranked was Marian Goodman, at no. 17 – and, as the magazine’s own Laura Allsop lamented in its pages, only three of the 30 artists included were female, and they were placed in the list’s lower half. Overall, women comprised less than a third of the list. (That last split, incidentally, also reflects the gender imbalance in the lists of represented artists in – to consider just London – galleries such as Sadie Coles HQ, Victoria Miro and Maureen Paley.) Women artists are still priced lower than male ones and only break auction records in competition with other women artists. ‘While so much contemporary art is sold by women, it tends to be bought by men’, noted Alice Rawsthorn in a Guardian article from 2006 that saw the success of women dealers as a function of the art world’s unregulated nature giving women the freedom to succeed. Where Women Gallerists celebrates parity, it implicitly applauds women gallerists’ ability, now as before, to sell the male artists whom the market favours just as well as, if not better than, male gallerists do.
If the historical narrative isn’t quite so circumscribed, neither does the idea that women dealers should exclusively show women artists appear to have much traction. Historically, nevertheless, work that doesn’t sell so easily naturally comes forward in recessions, and a network of dealerships with women at the helm may spring some surprises. In which case, the examples are there on the pages. Consider Monika Sprüth, who, in 1982, in a Cologne overrun by male artists, set up a gallery to show women artists – particularly a quartet near the outset of their careers: Barbara Kruger, Rosemarie Trockel, Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer, all of whom she helped bring to international attention, and who still show with her in the galleries she co-runs with Philomene Magers. One can’t quite imagine Sprüth embarking today on a publishing venture such as Eau de Cologne – her effervescent, shape-shifting magazine, featuring almost exclusively women artists and art practitioners – which she published, with accompanying exhibitions, three times between 1985 and 1993. But in any case, it’s someone else’s turn; Sprüth has already fought her battles. And, as the carousel decelerates, maybe she’ll find time to write about them.
Martin Herbert is a writer living in Tunbridge Wells, UK.
frieze is now accepting letters to the editors for possible publication at firstname.lastname@example.org.