The Gallery's Glass Ceiling: Sexism Persists in Art World

By Ulrike Knöfel

The art world is typically seen as open and progressive, even radical. But artists and curators in Germany say that, despite slow progress, the art scene is still plagued by widespread sexism and a conservative, macho culture.

In her white protective suit, Katharina Grosse looks more like a crime scene investigator than an artist. In a moment, she'll retreat behind an enormous plastic sheet here in the middle of the museum, take up her hardhat and paint gun, and set to work. Grosse says she prefers to be alone when she does this: "It startles me when I'm working and someone walks through my picture."

When she's finished, though, the public will be able to do just that -- walk through the abstract, brightly colored installations she creates. Grosse considers herself a painter, but she has moved beyond painting as an art form limited to canvases. Instead, she paints walls, floors, ceilings, entire exhibition rooms, massive clumps of earth, giant balls manufactured just for her work, and enormous chunks of laminated Styrofoam made to look like boulders. Grosse's art shows what happens when the power of imagination meets the surfaces of everyday life. "No one else in the world does what I do," she says.

The De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art in Tilburg, the Netherlands, is putting on Grosse's current exhibition, running until June 9 and titled "Two Younger Women Come In And Pull Out A Table." Before Grosse, world famous artist Anish Kapoor had a show here. Pictures by Gerhard Richter, a contemporary artist feted as few others have been, hang in the museum's permanent collection. Grosse, too, is one of the art world's big names -- at least abroad, where her name is known from Paris to Chicago. Her success allows her to employ an entire team of assistants and to afford the construction of an enormous studio space in Berlin.

"The energy in Grosse's works is simultaneously audacious and optimistic -- it's fascinating," says Hendrik Driessen, director of the museum in Tilburg. Grosse is certainly respected in Germany, where she holds a professorship at the prestigious Düsseldorf Art Academy. Yet she doesn't receive the same attention she would if she were a male artist. Grosse describes the German art world as "extremely conservative."

A Particularly Extreme Case

When it comes to art, isn't it inconsequential whether the person who created a particular work is female or male? Yet all is not equal in the art world. For evidence of this, one need only look at the results of art auctions. For years, only one woman has ranked among the top sellers internationally -- American artist Cindy Sherman.

In other words, in a milieu that has always considered itself nonconformist, unconventional, even radical and certainly progressive -- a world in which feminism is part of the general discourse -- women seem to be at a distinct disadvantage.

Germany is a particularly extreme case, lagging behind many other Western countries. When artist Georg Baselitz recently expressed his opinion in a SPIEGEL interview that women don't paint as well as men, the comment sparked a debate on American art blogs, as well as in Austria and in the United Kingdom. People in Germany, though, simply accepted it.

Gender inequality in the art world is not just a subjective impression. Female artists' works are displayed considerably less often -- and art needs an audience, a chance to prove itself.

Take the example of Berlin's New National Gallery, the German capital's most important state-run museum for modern art. Over the last two years, the museum has organized 12 shows based on the work of specific individual artists, and only one of those was a woman, an American. The New National Gallery also awards a prize for young artists. Grosse was among the artists nominated in 2000, the prize's inaugural year, but ultimately that year's prize went a man, a painter working in a more conventional style.

Or take the Pinakothek der Moderne, in Munich, an institution with which the federal state of Bavaria seeks to distinguish itself as a place of arts and culture. Since its opening in 2002, the museum's exhibition titles have included the names of 66 male artists and 18 female ones. In 2012, the museum held a show entitled "Women" -- but the works shown were by three men, who took the female form as their subject.

All the same, Klaus Schrenk, director general of the Bavarian State Painting Collections, the organization which supervises several state-run museums throughout Bavaria, believes female artists have it better in his museums than in many others. He also says the same thing many other men within the German art scene say -- that the situation has improved.

This is true. The 2012 edition of Documenta, an exhibition held in the German city of Kassel once every five years, was directed by a woman for the second time in its history. And indeed, she selected roughly as many female as male artists -- causing a sensation. There are also more women teaching at Düsseldorf's legendary Art Academy than ever before, with Grosse being one of them. Still, women hold only five of the academy's 27 professorships.

"It's a false assumption to think the art world is open and modern, per se," Grosse says, describing it as a place "of old bones." But at the same time, she adds, "There is so much there that positively sparkles with newness; there is immense diversity and more potential than we can possibly imagine -- and it's simply more fun when everything is a fifty-fifty mix."

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