Photograph of the Carnegie Museum of Art featuring the water pool

Women in the Art World

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Reading it for the first time, I find it eye opening. Friedan’s critique focused on the educated middle-class woman who married, moved to the suburbs after World War II, and didn’t work. She became a cultural icon of the postwar period, the focus of women’s magazines, and idealized in television shows such as Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver. But suburban life was, for some, unbearably stifling. Friedan’s carefully researched volume exposes the myth behind this ideal, in the process providing a history of the Suffragettes, examining the way Freud’s prejudice against women permeated popular culture, and much more.

All this was on my mind on March 20, when the Guerrilla Girls performed in the Carnegie Lecture Hall. For 28 years, this anonymous artists’ collaborative has challenged the place of women and minorities in the art world and beyond. Members take the names of dead women artists and appear in public in gorilla masks. The group’s inception was at a protest at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984, where few women were represented in an international survey of contemporary art at the museum. On the picket line myself, I recall an artist friend proclaiming that our tactics weren’t working, and there had to be new, more effective ways of voicing opposition. Some months later, the first of the Guerrilla Girls’ posters appeared in Soho, then the center of the New York art world, and caused a sensation. Among them was a “Report Card” on New York’s most prominent galleries, citing the numbers of women artists they represented. One poster asked, “How Many Women Had One Person Exhibitions at New York Museums Last Year? Guggenheim 0, Met 0, Modern 1, Whitney 0.” The Guerrilla Girls combined statistics with humor. The poster titled “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist” begins “Working without the pressure of success.” The combination of tough politics, humor, and good graphics proved highly effective.

The standard, if often unacknowledged, argument justifying the underrepresentation of women in exhibitions and collections was that they were simply not good enough. As with all notions of quality, what “good” means and who defines it is crucial. Men had dominated the scene as curators, critics, and artists for generations, and in the 1980s their values still predominated.

So, how is the art world treating women today? Following the Guerrilla Girls’ performance, an audience member asked how many women were represented in past Carnegie International exhibitions. The answer is that, since 1995, the Internationals have averaged about 30% women. The good news is that, in the iteration opening this October, nearly half of those represented will be women. Another question, “What is the Carnegie doing for women artists?” stopped me cold. The answer is nothing—consciously—yet I know we are collecting their work. When I checked later, I found that, of our post-1945 art objects (acquired anytime in the last 68 years), only 12.4% are by women; but of the objects acquired since 2009, when I began working on the collection with Dan Byers, CMA’s curator of contemporary art, 45% are by women. That we accomplished this without conscious effort indicates that, over the last few decades, women artists—especially younger ones—have achieved unheard-of levels of acceptance. They have also made significant cultural contributions, which are impossible for major institutions to ignore.

As for exhibitions, in 2012 a third to half of the solo exhibitions at the three big New York Museums, were by women—a big jump from the mid-1980s. In 2012, Carnegie Museum of Art was at 33.3%. For our exhibitions, we often reach back into history, so they don’t necessarily mirror the current situation. The same is true of our collection installations. We haven’t achieved equal representation yet, but we’ll get there.

Until next month,


Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world. For past installments, please visit the archive.