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The Masculinity of Art World Auction Houses

As part of my art gallery management class I’m starting to read Seven Days in the Art World  by Sarah Thornton. The book is sectioned into seven chapters, seven days, detailing very different art world hubs; work seen and written about in magazines, the Venice biennale, the development of the studio visit, and much more.

While reading chapter one, “The Auction”, I noticed a recurring theme; masculine imagery and language as well as an overwhelming feeling of non women-friendly space.

Christie's, New York, 2007

This chapter is about art auction houses, with a focus on Christies in New York. I think that one of the reasons we’re able to sense the male dominance of the auction house is that we’re lucky enough to have a woman’s perspective, Thornton’s; an art historian, sociologist, and writer who has written about the art world for publications such as Artforum, the New Yorker and more.

Throughout the chapter Thornton paints a picture of the auction house as being a somewhat sexual, and almost disturbingly violent experience. We get comparisons to gladiatorial spectacles paired with men likening the thrill of a purchase to sexual conquest, jokes equating the auction house to a whore house. There’s one telling bit where Thornton writes about the auctioneer’s hammer (I don’t want to be that feminist/artist who thinks everything is phallic, but damn. This paragraph was very double entendre-y.) as a passer of judgment and punishment. A carrot dangled in front of the bidders. She writes, “Then, in a blink, he hits everyone but the highest bidder with a stick, as if all the seduction and violence of the art market were represented in the rhythm of a single lot”.

We find a great example in the words of one of Thorntorn’s interviewees, influential art consultant Philippe Ségalot. Ségalot says of his work, “buying is an extremely satisfying, macho act”.

Another interviewee, artist Keith Tyson, says of competitive feel of the auction floor, “The sale is infectious. You feel the thrill of capitalism and you get into a sort of alpha-male mentality”.

The idea of art world buyers as alpha-males is threaded throughout the chapter. Not always explicitly stated, but implied through the language of both Thornton and those she spoke to.

In researching art auction houses, Thornton witnessed the sale of a Marlene Dumas piece for $1.1 million, making Dumas one of the three living women artists (at the time of the sale in 2001, since then several more women have joined the ranks) whose work has been sold for over $1 million. In a footnote Thornton speculates that the gaps in prices between work by male and female artists is due to the largely male dominated field of big-spending collectors undervaluing women’s artwork.

As far as I can tell, this is the piece Thornton was talking about. Titled "Feather Stola" (1953)

Many people think that the art world has attained gender equality. I find that many of my peers think that the art world is actually skewed towards favoring women because of the hugely imbalanced ratio of women to men in art schools. But this is not really the case. While we may have more women going to school pursuing artistic careers we still have a largely male-dominated field in “the real world”. The field of buyers is largely comprised of men, and powerful gallery owners and curators tend to be men as well. So really, the large amounts of women in art schools could be viewed as a bad sign. Because if we’re educating so many women in the arts, why are those same women not able to find work in the field following graduation? 

It’s one of the things that really makes me angry. Most of my classmates are women, but what happens upon graduation? Will I suddenly be working with mainly men? Why? My female classmates are no less qualified or driven than my male classmates, why should they find no purchase in the art world?

And on a more self-centered note, could this happen to me?

I suppose that one could argue that the reason auction houses are dominated by men is because the wealthiest members of our world are largely men, and men are often pushed towards art world jobs with more of a focus on business than creation (All of which is still a ridiculous and unfair situation). But even so, in a close-knit world dominated by men, women’s work is being undervalued and underrepresented. The major players are men, and the field seems fairly unwelcoming to women. I believe that as adults, we should be capable of creating an environment friendly to every point of the gender spectrum.

I’m excited to read the rest of the book. If you’re interested in a career in art this seems like it will be a very helpful read.

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