At a recent panel discussion hosted by the Frick Collection’s Center for the History of Collecting, LACMA director Michael Govan said, “History and the market are out of sync as often as they’re in sync.” He pointed to the market’s treatment of the work of women artists, which, he said, “will get reevaluated strongly.”
At Art Basel Miami Beach this week, there are signs that such a commercial re-evaluation is already underway. The fair’s film and video program—organized by David Gryn, the director of Daata Editions and London’s Artprojx—is all-female, including works by Catherine Sullivan, Sue de Beer, and Rineke Dijkstra. On the sales floor, blue-chip galleries including Pace have devoted their booths exclusively to female artists and exhibitors not exactly known for rosters full of women are making some big statements (in the case of Helly Nahmad, with a giant Nikki de Saint-Phalle sculpture at the fair’s entrance.) Satellite events include an Alex Bag solo at the ICA Miami, a women-only art fair called “Littlest Sister,” and a panel on “Women of Influence in the Business of Art” moderated by W editor-in-chief Stefano Tonchi. There’s also an Instagram imperative to #discoverwomenartists "during Art Basel week."
The biggest gesture, however—and the most effortless one—is the Rubell Family Collection show “No Man’s Land”—a show of more than 100 artists from the collection, all of them female. Women have been a reliably strong presence at the RFC over the years—Cady Noland’s installation of Bud cans, flags, and scaffolding is a permanent fixture—and if you’ve seen previous collection installations, you’ll be struck by how well this one meshes with the others. That may not be progress, exactly, but it’s something.
On the first floor, sprawling and pendulous sculptures of fabric, clay, hair, and leather by the Brazilian artist Solange Pessoa rival the grandiosity of earlier installations by Urs Fischer and Sterling Ruby. Upstairs, there’s lots of stimulating painting—abstract and figurative, robustly expressive and intellectually provocative—by artists including Katherine Bernhardt, Rosemarie Trockel, R.H. Quaytman, Marlene Dumas, and Lucy Dodd.
There are some discoveries as well. A coterie of Brazilian artists of various generations encourages detours from the New York-London-Berlin circuit (Pessoa is joined by the Post-Minimalist Sonia Gomes, who makes spiderweb-like hanging pieces of macramé, fabric and rope, and the younger artist Maria Nepomuceno, whose sculpture of braided straw, ropes, and beads resembles a giant Venus fly-trap). And there's an entire room devoted to the ascetic-looking portraiture of the British artist Celia Paul, who studied with Lucian Freud at the Slade and who paints female saints and sometimes her own image in an eerie greenish light.
Shows from the RFC have a way of landing in public institutions—“30 Americans,” from 2008, is still making the rounds (it's currently at the Detroit Institute of Arts)—and this one is no exception. Tanya Selvaratnam, the RFC’s Communications and Special Projects Officer, told Artspace that “No Man’s Land” will be moving on to at least one other venue (yet to be disclosed) and that a longer tour is likely.
How else can we make sure that this week’s celebration of art by women isn’t a transient, feel-good spectacle, like so much of ABMB? The power, as ever in this city, is with the collectors. While shopping the fairs this week, they should ask themselves: “Is there balance within my holdings? Am I supporting not just emerging female artists and older “rediscovered” ones, but the many talented women in mid-career? And how can I work with institutions to make sure there’s parity within their collections and their exhibition programs?”
Another suggestion: an even more eye-opening statement than “No Man’s Land” would be for the Rubells, or other influential collectors, to disclose the prices they have paid, over the years, for works by the female artists in their collection—and to see how they stack up to those of male artists. That, of course, is unlikely to happen. But perhaps we’ll see, as sales reports from the week’s fairs trickle in, whether the market is really championing gender equality or just whispering to value-conscious buyers, “Here’s your chance to snap up the next Cindy Sherman—on the cheap.”