Arun Kakar and Casey Lesser
Perhaps the most constant, dependable element of the art market to date has been the dominance of white male artists.
Year after year, the splashiest headline-making sales have surrounded works by a few famous men, and historically, galleries have represented far more white men than any other group combined. But over the past decade, private and institutional collections have made commitments to show and acquire more works by female-identifying, non-Western, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, and BIPOC artists, suggesting that a change may come in the market too.
Inspired by those promising signs, this new Women Artists Market Report delves into the current state of the art market for women artists through independent research, auction results from the Artsy Price Database, and other Artsy data.
In this first of three articles, we offer an overview and key data insights from the previous year and the past decade, to give a sense of where women artists stand in the art market, particularly in comparison to their male peers.
While other research projects, such as the Burns Halperin Report, investigate aspects of the art world such as museum collections and exhibitions, the majority of the data for this report is derived from auction results, and, it should be noted, only reflects a part of the overall picture as it pertains to the place of women artists in the art world at large.
What we found, in short, is a mixed picture. While women artists have undoubtedly made progress in commanding top price tags in the art market, from rising stars to late artists earning overdue acclaim, there is still a strikingly long way to go before parity is achieved.
Let’s dive into the data.
Where women artists stand in the auction market today
Despite the frequency with which gender equality is discussed in art publications, exhibitions, and the art world today, the auction market as a whole fails to reflect anything near gender parity.
In 2022, a stunning $11 billion worth of artwork was sold at auction. Of that number, male artists’ works made up $9.7 billion, while women artists’ works accounted for just over $1 billion: just 9.3% of the overall total.
A number of comparisons bring this disparity into sharp contrast. Of the 500 most expensive works that sold at auction last year, 50 were by women artists. Of the top 100 works, just two were by women artists: Georgia O’Keeffe and Louise Bourgeois. Of the top 50 most expensive works at auction last year, zero were by women artists.
The sum total of the 50 most expensive works by women artists sold in auctions in 2022 was $332.4 million. That figure wouldn’t allow you to purchase the two most expensive works by male artists: Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn (1964) and Georges Seurat’s Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) (1888), which sold for a combined total of $344.3 million.
In fact, the price achieved for Warhol’s work (the most expensive artwork at auction in 2022) was $195 million. That’s more than seven times the top 2022 auction result for the most expensive work by a woman artist: $10.5 million for Georgia O’Keeffe’s White Rose with Larkspur No. I (1972).
Georgia O’Keeffe, White Rose with Larkspur No. I, 1927. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Limited.
Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 1996-1997. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Limited.
When we widen this pool to the top 1,000 artist auction records set in 2022, things don’t look much better: Just 229 women artists make that list. The combined sum of these works amounts to $122.7 million, which pales in comparison to some of the top record-breaking works sold last year, including Seurat’s Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) and Paul Cézanne’s La Montagne Sainte-Victoire (1888), which hammered for $149.2 million and $137.8 million, respectively.
Still, despite these figures, 2022 represents a better picture than that of the past decade. In the period from 2012 to 2022, women artists represented an even smaller portion of the market: 6% at auction. Over that time, male artists’ works sold for $102 billion, while women artists lag far behind at just $6.7 billion.
To place this disparity into context, take the most expensive artwork sold at auction between 2012 and 2022: Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (ca. 1490–1510), which hammered for an all-time record of $450.3 million at Christie’s in 2017. Of the top 500 most expensive artworks sold from 2012 to 2022, just seven works are by women artists. The combined total of those works is $217.1 million, less than half of the price realized for the Leonardo.
Salvator Mundi, in fairness, is the most expensive work by quite some distance from the past decade. But take, for example, the second- and third-most expensive works of that decade—$195 million for Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn last year and $179.4 million for Pablo Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) (1955), which sold in 2015. The price for these two works, $374.4 million, is more than $150 million higher than the combined total for all works by women artists in the top 500.
The top auction result for a work by a woman artist at auction in the past decade is Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1936), which sold for $44.4 million at Sotheby’s in 2014. That total ranks it as the 154th-most expensive work of that decade.
With this context in mind, it might come as a surprise that 2022 was a record year for women artists at auction. In fact, the total price of women artists’ works sold at auction has risen by 194% between 2012 and 2022, from $350.6 million to $1.03 billion.
The above chart shows the gulf between the sales for men and women artists’ works each year from 2012 to 2022. But it also shows the gradual growth that we’ve witnessed over the course of the decade. In the past three years especially, that growth can be attributed, in part, to the increasing interest in the works of ultra-contemporary artists (those born in or after 1975). As we explore in the third section of this report, there is more gender parity in prices paid for works in the ultra-contemporary sector. In fact, in a smaller subset of that market focused on younger artists, women artists are dominating.
Key artists at the forefront
A key metric for the growing success of artists is their follower counts on Artsy. These totals demonstrate public interest, as well as collector interest—by following artists on Artsy, users can be notified whenever new works by that artist become available.
Unsurprisingly, one of today’s most popular living artists tops the list: Yayoi Kusama, with just under 68,000 followers as of this writing. Kusama’s high number of fans is easily attributed to the artist’s consistent stream of blockbuster shows worldwide over the past decade, and her renown beyond the art world—due in no small part to the endless appeal of the Instagram- and selfie-friendly “Infinity Rooms,” as well as a number of high-profile collaborations with popular brands such as Louis Vuitton.
That said, Kusama is also a serious player when it comes to the market. The artist’s auction record was set last year when Untitled (Nets) (1959) sold at Phillips for $10.49 million, more than twice its low estimate. That work was the eighth-most expensive work by a woman artist sold at auction last year, and the 148th-most expensive work sold at auction overall.
Kusama also tops the list when we look at the women artists with the most number of works sold at auction in the past decade, by a significant margin, with over 2,800 lots. Correspondingly, Kusama also has the highest total sales between 2012 and 2022: a combined total of $726.5 million.
Yet when it comes to the volume of lots in 2022, Kusama ranks third. Dora Maar was the artist with the most lots at auction in 2022 with 342 works under the hammer. However, the total price achieved for her works at auction places her 121st on the list for the total price achieved, with $861,228. Kusama tops the list for total price with a total of $132.9 million.
The next most followed female artists on Artsy lag behind Kusama significantly, yet the names are not surprising, offering a mix of market heavyweights and artists that, like Kusama, have mainstream cultural clout: Cindy Sherman, Helen Frankenthaler, Agnes Martin, and Barbara Kruger.
When we narrow our focus to solely living artists’ follow counts on Artsy, we can see a growth of interest in women artists in recent years. The number of women artists in the top 100 most followed artists on Artsy has grown by 31.8% between 2019 and 2022, from 22 to 29.
While the most expensive work by a women artist of the past decade is Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, Joan Mitchell’s works appear five times, the most of any women artist, followed by O’Keeffe and Louise Bourgeois, with four works each, and Tamara de Lempicka with three.
Of the 20 most expensive artworks by female artists in 2022, four artists appear three times: O’Keeffe, Kusama, and Agnes Martin. Though she’s not on this list, Amy Sherald has the highest median price at $2.1 million, from the seven lots sold in 2022.
A number of significant female artists set auction records under the hammer in 2022, including Barbara Hepworth ($8.6 million), Mary Cassatt ($7.5 million), Avery Singer ($5.3 million), Njideka Akunyili Crosby ($4.7 million), Christina Quarles ($4.5 million), Flora Yukhnovich ($3.6 million), and Leonora Carrington ($3.3 million).
This group of artists—featuring some of the most sought-after ultra-contemporary artists and late women artists experiencing a revival in interest—define the next two sections of this report.
Explore The Women Artists Market Report 2023.
Arun Kakar is Artsy’s Art Market Editor.
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.