It took 400 years for art historians to finally give credit where credit was due.
The captivating painting of an apprehensive 9-year-old nobleman, his rigid posture contrasting with the utterly relaxed dog sleeping at his feet, has been a visitor favorite since the Walters Art Museum opened in 1934. But for centuries, the unsigned artwork was misattributed to the 16th-century portrait painter Giovanni Battista Moroni.
It wasn’t until 1972 that the Italian art historian Federico Zeri concluded that the actual artist was 22-year-old Sofonisba Anguissola, an aristocrat’s daughter. Zeri suggested in his published findings that the oversight was understandable as “the quality [of the painting] is somewhat higher than usual.”
Nearly half a century later, the insinuation that female artists are inferior to men leaves Walters director Julia Marciari-Alexander fuming.
“The whole notion is that if it was painted by a woman, it must not be very good," she said. “The problem isn’t that there haven’t been great female artists throughout the centuries. The problem is that female artists have been systematically erased.”
Anguissola is far from the only woman at risk of vanishing from art history.
According to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts, women made up 47.8% of the visual artists, architects, designers and photographers in the U.S. between 2012 and 2016. Yet women accounted for just 12.6% of the artists whose work is included in the permanent collections of the nation’s 18 largest museums, according to a study released in March by the Public Library of Science.
Female artists likely fare even worse in Baltimore than they do nationwide. Of the approximately 137,000 artworks owned by the city’s four art museums, roughly 4% have been attributed to female painters, sculptors and ceramicists.
“It’s well known that women are under-represented in the art world,” said Jennifer P. Kingsley, director of the Program in Museums and Society for Johns Hopkins University. “That’s a problem, because the collections that a museum has dictates the stories it can tell.”
Baltimore’s cultural leaders agree that the historic imbalance is worrisome. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easily fixed.
The BMA made international headlines last month when it publicly committed to taking a step toward remedying the inequity. Director Christopher Bedford announced that every work of art the museum purchases next year will have been created by a woman. All 22 of the exhibitions it will mount will have a female-centric focus.
“The lack of diversity at the BMA may not be our fault,” he said. “But it is our problem.”
The initiative, however laudable, is just the tip of the iceberg. If the museum buys 100 artworks created by women next year, that will increase its holdings by female artists by less than 1%.
Baltimore has four museums that display art, but that’s where the similarities stop. These institutions differ widely in their size and scope, their missions and challenges. So, any discussion as to why Baltimore doesn’t have more works by female painters and sculptors requires not just one set of answers, but four. Below is a summary of the obstacles to diversity facing each of the city’s art institutions:
Baltimore Museum of Art
As a museum of modern and contemporary art founded in 1914, the BMA aims to showcase today those artists who will be big names in art history tomorrow. But just 3,800 of the 95,000 artworks that the museum owns, or 4%, have been attributed to female artists.
John Waters, the visual artist and filmmaker, has irreverently compared the contemporary art world to a biker gang with its own uniform, coded language, initiation rites and clubhouse.
He’s not wrong. Artists gain access to the “clubhouse” by rising through a system as exclusive as that of any Ivy League university.
As the BMA’s chief curator, Asma Naaem, puts it: “There’s a pipeline to success, and it privileges male artists.”
Curators research the art market before deciding which contemporary artists to feature in upcoming exhibits. Museum officials meet with gallery owners and private collectors to identify rising stars. So for artists, securing representation by the right gallery and admission into the right fairs (such as Art Basel in Miami Beach) vastly increases the likelihood that curators will come calling.
A 2015 study conducted by The Art Newspaper found that just five galleries of the thousands nationwide are particularly plugged into the art museum pipeline. These galleries — four in New York and one in Los Angeles — represented artists who received 30% of the 590 solo shows mounted by 68 U.S. museums between 2007 and 2013.
Landing a solo show in a museum is widely recognized as a milestone in an artist’s career. These exhibits burnish the artist’s reputation and increase the value of his or her work. After a “one-man” show, the odds rise that an artist’s prints and photographs will be acquired by museums and possibly preserved for posterity.
A check of the five galleries’ websites in mid-November revealed that about one-quarter of the artists on their rosters were women. Not surprisingly, that’s about the same gender breakdown for the artists receiving solo museum shows (73% male and 27% female, the Art Newspaper found.)
“The system is skewed,” said Mickalene Thomas, a female multimedia artist and luminary on the contemporary gallery scene. (Her solo exhibition at the BMA runs through May 2021.) “It’s a battle that you’re continually confronted with. You can never assume that it’s a problem that you’ve overcome and that you’ll never be faced with it again.”
The BMA’s collection is a result of that pipeline — and that’s what its new policy is attempting however slowly to change.
“We recognize the blind spots we have had in the past," Bedford said, “and we’re taking the initiative to do something about them.”
Walters Art Museum
The Walters, founded in 1934, is an “encyclopedic” museum that displays artworks that cross eras and cultures, from Egyptian mummies to medieval suits of armor.
A museum like the Walters that spans 26 centuries will typically own fewer works by named female artists than its contemporary counterparts, since the identities of many old masters and mistresses have been lost to time.
That’s why Marciari-Alexander said “it would be impossible to come up with the number" of how many female artists are included in the Walters’ 36,000-object collection, which dates to the 5th century B.C.
Moreover, for most of art history, the watercolors, carved figurines and pottery created by women weren’t considered art, even when they were of as good — or better — than those created by men.
The Italian writer Giorgio Vasari has been credited with kickstarting the field of art history in 1568 with the publication of “The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects." The book contains about 160 of Vasari’s gossipy and insightful mini-profiles of his contemporaries and predecessors. But just four short biographies are of women.
Four-and-a-half centuries later, that canon of great artworks has changed startlingly little.
“'Anonymous' very often was a woman," Marciari-Alexander said, paraphrasing the famous assertion by the writer Virginia Woolf. “We spend an awful lot of time creating categories and taxonomies that allow us to obfuscate and hide female artists’ identities.”
Compounding the problem, more than 60 percent (about 22,000 artworks) of the Walters’ collection were donated by the museum’s founders, the 19th-century liquor, banking and railroad magnate William T. Walters and his son, Henry. They snapped up the art that was hot at the time: art made almost exclusively by white men.
The remaining 14,000 artifacts were added later. But the value of in-demand works on the international art market has skyrocketed during the past three decades at a rate far faster than museums’ budgets have grown. Public institutions are increasingly dependent on the kindness of strangers — and on those strangers’ tastes.
For the past five years, 85% of acquisitions by the Walters have been gifts, a spokeswoman said, and 15% have been purchased. (The proportion of contributed artworks is slightly higher than the U.S. average; during the same period, about 74% of total art acquisitions nationally were donations or bequests, according to a 2018 report by the Association of Art Museum Directors.)
Collectors often are passionate about fine art and purchase works they love. But they also want their investments to rise in value, and historically that has meant buying works created by men.
“There is no culture and no time and place on earth in the history of humanity in which women have had equity,” Marciari-Alexander said. “Until we acknowledge that the system is rigged, it’s going to be hard to fix it.”
American Visionary Art Museum
Perhaps because of its focus on outsider painters and sculptors, AVAM is the only art museum in Baltimore to come close to achieving gender parity.
AVAM showcases the talents of artists who were often mentally ill, incarcerated or homeless, and when it opened in 1995, there was no other institution quite like it.
Because outsider painters and sculptors tend to exist on the fringes of society, they rarely enter the establishment pipeline leading to art world success. Though sales of outsider art have climbed in recent years, these works haven’t been subject to the same price inflation experienced by the mainstream market. As a result, works by both male and female self-taught artists can be bought for relative pennies.
The record price for a piece of outsider art is $785,000, set in 2016 for William Edmondson’s sculpture “Boxer." That’s less than 1 percent of the most expensive artwork ever sold — “Salvator Mundi,” a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, which fetched $450.3 million at auction in 2017.
Of the 4,000 artworks in AVAM’s permanent collection, 40%, were created by female artists, according to museum founder Rebecca Albin Hoffberger.
In addition, operating outside the mainstream has allowed AVAM’s director to bypass some cumbersome procedures that ensnare her colleagues at more traditional institutions.
For example, before most museums agree to obtain an artwork, it has to pass through a series of internal reviews and be approved by an acquisitions committee. As many as two dozen curators, donors, board members and independent scholars may weigh in on the merits of each proposed addition to an institution’s collection.
It’s a time-consuming process. Though a straightforward purchase might be approved in as little as two or three months, a large bequest can involve decades of delicate negotiations in which the museum must secure internal approval while wooing potential donors and fending off competition from rival institutions.
In contrast, if Hoffberger finds an artwork that’s ideal for AVAM, she doesn’t have to consult anyone other than herself. Once she comes to an agreement with the artwork’s owner, AVAM can promptly obtain such visitor favorites as Emily Duffy’s 1,800-pound ball made of brassieres, or Mars Tokyo’s haunting dollhouse-like Theaters of the 13th Dimension.
If large sums were at stake, AVAM’s board of directors might ask Hoffberger to jump through more hoops. But AVAM has no acquisitions budget. Nearly every object it owns was a gift.
Nonetheless, Hoffberger said she didn’t intentionally set out to diversify AVAM’s collection and doesn’t take artists’ gender into consideration when deciding whether to acquire or display their work.
“I will never do a show under my watch that is organized by a particular ethnicity or gender,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to be selected for a show just because I have a vagina. You elevate human beings by sharing their work when they have something important to say."
Reginald F. Lewis of Maryland African American History & Culture
Displaying art is only part of the mission of Maryland’s premier African American museum — a relatively small part.
Of the 10,000 objects in the Lewis’ permanent collection, 2,100 are works of art. Just 3% of those artworks (or about 60 total) were created by women, according to executive director Jackie Copeland.
As one of the handful of cultural groups in Maryland that are quasi-state agencies, the museum has had a major educational mandate since it opened in 2005.
In addition, the Lewis (like AVAM), lacks a sizable fund designated for purchases.
“If we had a more robust acquisitions budget, we’d acquire a lot more work by women artists,” Copeland said.
Instead, the museum depends entirely on gifts from donors. And since the history of African American art is barely 200 years old, those donors have of necessity been fishing from a small pond.
America doubtless had been home to black artists since the first slave ship docked on these shores in the 17th century -- but the works that enslaved people created weren’t recognized as art, and almost none have survived.
It wasn’t until the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s that museum curators became willing to give gallery space to black artists. According to the California-based art historian Bridget R. Cooks, African Americans didn’t exhibit in a mainstream museum in the U.S. until 1927.
But if black male artists had it hard, black female artists had it even worse. They were doubly erased.
As women, these painters and sculptors were largely excluded from the Black Arts Movement that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. As African Americans, they were ignored by the burgeoning women’s liberation movement that continued into the 1980s.
“It’s only been in the past 20 or 30 years that the art establishment has begun paying attention to black artists who are women,” Copeland said.
“The #MeToo movement is helping to shift the conversation. We’ve started looking at these artists now through a different lens.”
Four Not-to-Miss Exhibits by Female Artists
“Mickalene Thomas: A Moment’s Pleasure”
Thomas has transformed the facade of the BMA’s Visitors Entrance to resemble three Baltimore rowhouses fronted by marble stoops. Inside, she has redecorated the two-story lobby and atrium into “Baltimore’s living room” with joyously tacky furniture, wallpaper and decor inspired by the 1970s, when the Black Power movement was at its height. A siding-clad container off the second floor contains paintings and videos created by 10 artists with local ties — all selected by Thomas. There’s even a wet bar that serves drinks.
Through May, 2021 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Free. artbma.org
“Betty Cooke: The Circle and the Line”
The first major museum retrospective of the much-admired Baltimore jewelry maker Betty Cooke will include her earliest designs from the 1940s and ’50s and culminate with more recent pieces. The Walters exhibit will feature about 160 objects, many inspired by birds and animals and that incorporate materials as different as metal tubing, enamel, wood and gemstones. According to a museum press release, the artist’s strong sense of composition is based on her credo that with “a circle and a line, you can make anything.”
Sept. 6, 2020 through Jan. 3, 2021 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Free. thewalters.org
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Thirty-six haunting embroidered tapestries by Esther Nisenthal Krinitz depict how the 14-year-old girl and her younger sister escaped from the Nazis. The oversized fabric panels (embroidered with brightly colored yarns and depicting flowers alongside guns) follow the teens’ escape into the woods In 1942, their work in nearby towns where they posed as farm girls and Poland’s liberation by Russian troops In 1944. Krinitz, who immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Frederick, died in 2001.
Through March 3, 2024 at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway. $9.95-$15.95. avam.org
“Elizabeth Catlett: Artist as Activist”
The late Catlett (she died in 2012) is widely considered one of the most important African American artists of the 20th century. On view are 20 of her prints and 14 sculptures, plus a print by her husband, the Mexican artist Francisco Mora. The artworks on display, from the famous rendition of a female sharecropper wearing a broad-brimmed hat to an exquisite bronze sculpture of a mother and child, celebrate the strength and dignity of African American women.