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Over the past decade, only 11 percent of art acquired by America’s top museums for their permanent collections was by women, according to a recent survey.
One museum is now taking a bold step to shift this persistent trend.
Next year, the Baltimore Museum of Art will only acquire works for its permanent collection that are created by women, chief curator Asma Naeem said.
The push is an attempt by the museum to “truly be radical and emphasize to the arts communities that we are taking this initiative quite seriously,” and “re-correcting the canon,” Naeem said.
It’s part of a year-long series of exhibitions and programs focused on female artists, coinciding with the 100th anniversary next year of the ratification of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women in the U.S. the right to vote.
The initiative comes as many museums across the country prepare commemorative exhibits around the 100th anniversary. It is also part of a growing effort to expand works by women in art collections across the country, amid growing awareness of the gender disparities in museums and galleries.
But Naeem said she was not aware of any other museum pursuing such a”comprehensive, sweeping” change to its programming and art collection. She called it a “bold statement.”
“If you think about the word ‘artist’ there’s a tacit assumption that it’s a male genius who is in fact the artist,” Naeem said. “That can be seen in the fact that we even call these ‘women artists.’ They’re not women artists. They’re artists.”
A recent survey of 26 of America’s top art museums found that even as the industry has signaled a desire to elevate the work of women, the art world has made minimal progress in the past decade.
Between 2008 and 2018, only 11 percent of all acquisitions and 14 percent of exhibitions at the prominent museums were of work by female artists, according to an investigation by Artnet, an art market information company, and “In Other Words,” a podcast and newsletter.
Of the 260,470 works of art that have been added to the museums’ permanent collections since 2008, only 29,247 were by women, the survey found.
The researchers found that in order to truly correct the canon, curators will need to rethink not just their exhibitions but their permanent collections.
“Curators say they struggle to convince their acquisition committees to pay up for work, particularly by older, overlooked female artists, who frequently lack an auction history that might be used to validate the asking price,” the report stated.
The Baltimore Museum of Art hopes its own commitment to reshaping its permanent collection will encourage other museums to do the same, Naeem said.
“The challenges are systemic and widespread, because many of the works in local donors, local patrons’ collections are traditionally made by male artists,” Naeem said. “There are these various subtle but consistent, pervasive markers of what is considered creative achievement, and we are trying to reset all of those markers.”
The “2020 Vision” initiative will include at least 13 solo exhibitions and seven themed shows over the course of the next year. The series begins this fall, with an exhibition on American women modernists, featuring works by Elizabeth Catlett, Maria Martinez, Georgia O’Keeffe, and other artists of the 20th century.
On November 24, it plans to open a large installation in the museum’s two-story East Lobby designed by the artist Mickalene Thomas. Later exhibitions next year include the video works of South African-born artist Candice Breitz and a comprehensive survey of paintings and works by Joan Mitchell.
The Baltimore Museum of Art, which is adjacent to the main campus of Johns Hopkins University, offers free general admission.