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Photo Gallery: 'Things Are Not Fine'

Foto: Rolf Vennenbernd/ picture alliance / dpa

The Gallery's Glass Ceiling Sexism Persists in Art World

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."

'Testosterone Is Seen as Normal'

Nicolaus Schafhausen is well aware that the art world hasn't yet gotten that far. Originally from Germany, Schafhausen is director of Vienna's world-renowned Kunsthalle and one of his generation's most famous curators. He points out that the organizations within the art world that make strategic decisions are mainly run by men -- and for them, male art is simply art, period. "Testosterone is seen as normal, not worth mentioning," he explains, while art by women is always viewed as something different, as "female" or "feminist."

Both of those adjectives, it happens, are often taken as grounds for exclusion from art circles.

In 2007, the German government selected Schafhausen to curate the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Schafhausen in turn decided to feature the artist Isa Genzken. This was something of a historic moment, and a little math is all that's needed to see why: Since 1948, Germany has been represented at the Biennale by 90 men and nine women. These totals don't even include two additional exhibitions that focused on historical art movements that were primarily male.

And how did the art world react to Genzken's work? "I'm still waiting for the day when someone writes about Isa Genzken as an artist, instead of about her as Gerhard Richter's ex-wife," Schafhausen says.

German Art Scene Stuck in the 1950s

For the next Biennale this coming summer, current curator Susanne Gaensheimer has selected four artists, only one of them a woman. As many female artists point out, when in doubt even female curators in this male-dominated world prefer to bank on male artists as a surer path to success.

This approach doesn't fit at all with the usual understanding of art. No artist should want things to be made easy. Or, at least, modern art has a reputation for always being a few steps ahead of the rest of society.

Over the last several decades, the way art is understood and appreciated has changed in another significant way -- by becoming a business worth billions. And this trend is expected to continue. Gallery owners, collectors and museums prefer art by men, because they are seen as a surer bet financially speaking. And its their exposure in museums and galleries that makes those male artists so famous and thus so expensive. It's a self-perpetuating system.

Ninety percent of works purchased by German museums are by men and 10 percent by women, estimates Anne-Marie Bonnet, a professor who teaches art history in Bonn. Bonnet, who is French, describes the German art scene as stuck in the 1950s when it comes to matters of gender equality. Most museum directorships, she says, are still given to men, and when women are offered such positions, as has started happening over the last decade, "there's immediate outcry throughout the art world."

For the last five years, Bonnet has been part of a commission that purchases contemporary art for the German government, and she herself has a considerable reputation. But Bonnet says she's also well aware of the comments her students have to listen to daily in their seminars even today. "Sexism is a part of daily life, and even female university professors are often treated with an attitude of, 'Oh, our girl here will take care of that,'" she says. Bonnet says she has the impression that interactions between younger professors have become more equal and that things are getting better, but so far she's allowing herself only limited optimism.

A few sexist comments may sound like trifles not worth getting worked up about, but the fact is that there are large-scale injustices at work, some of which are holding back women from advancing their careers.

The media share a portion of this responsibility, says curator Schafhausen. Düsseldorf-based artist Katharina Fritsch agrees. Fritsch has been honored by such museums as London's Tate Modern and New York's MoMA, yet it seems to her that her exhibitions receive surprisingly little attention in Germany. "Please update your very outdated image of women as unsuccessful artists," Fritsch says. "Make us visible."

Is Money to Blame?

Mathilde ter Heijne, a Dutchwoman in Berlin, is likewise both an artist and a professor. "Things are not fine," she says, adding that this holds for both her generation and that of her students. "It's difficult to successfully resist these attempts at marginalization when they come from an entire system. That's true of the system of society as a whole and of course just as much of the art system."

What, ter Heijne asks, is art about these days? Her answer is money and power. People will use any method necessary to fight over these things, she says, but this battle is not conducted openly. Instead it's obscured behind theatricality, with art transformed into a new religion and some curators taking up the role of high priests. Ter Heijne believes male artists are afraid of losing their importance within this world and that "a great deal gets lost along the way -- substance, and ultimately also the existence of a true avant-garde."

There are certainly women in the art world who feel they are taken seriously -- and those women tend to be gallery owners. Monika Sprüth, for instance, runs one of the world's most influential galleries together with her business partner Philomene Magers. With locations in Berlin and London, Sprüth Magers represents, among others, artists Rosemarie Trockel, Cindy Sherman and Andreas Gursky, as well as the legendary electronic music group Kraftwerk.

No, Sprüth says, of course it's not possible to talk of gender equality -- that doesn't exist anywhere, including in the art world. And she says it is often men who only consider art successful if it sells for the highest possible price. But, Sprüth says, when it comes to questions of power -- of establishing the career of a truly talented and important artist, whether male or female -- "you will often find a female gallery owner behind the scenes." Sprüth wonders whether female artists might not be better served by taking a different path. Rather than debating and lamenting over discrimination, she suggests women should take notice of their own strengths, and bring these qualities to the fore.

One more perspective on this topic comes from Josephine Meckseper, a German artist living in New York. Meckseper has created what could be called an aesthetic of coolness, yet her works -- collage, photography and film -- also employ modern art's critical eye toward the present. She approaches American society primarily through its own self-portraits and self-celebration, in advertisements, protest culture and the cult surrounding war veterans.

Theoretically, Meckseper says, all doors are open to both sexes, but only theoretically -- in practice, everyone's focus is on male art. This sexism in art exists in the United States as well, she says, although it is subtler there than in Germany, and thus also more difficult to combat. "Sexism in Germany is more heavy-handed, more direct. A culture of macho behavior still dominates, which is definitely annoying, but is also easier to latch onto and thus easier to address," Meckseper explains. She says there is a pattern of behavior in Germany that has "become defensive" and "won't be able to hold up much longer."

Then Meckseper uses the same term that has come to sound almost old-fashioned: "gender equality." Even more old-fashioned, though, is the fact that gender equality still doesn't exist.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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