Major galleries finally sign the women artists of the Venice Biennale

For the first time in nearly 130 years of history, female artists are overwhelmingly outweighing men at this year’s Venice Biennale (until November 27). Among them, Sonia Boyce, who won the Golden Lion for her presentation at the British pavilion; Zineb Sedira, who received rave reviews for transforming the French pavilion into a cinematic installation; and social activist Acaye Kerunen, who represents Uganda with Collin Sekajugo.

The impact on the market was almost immediate. As the Biennale approached and since, these women have all been signed to major galleries, some for the first time in their long and distinguished careers.

Simon Lee is giving Boyce his first solo show with the gallery during Frieze this week; the London dealer announced his representation of the artist in May 2021, telling The arts journal at the time: “We look forward to amplifying Sonia’s vital and urgent voice, to building a legacy for her practice internationally.” (Boyce continues to be represented by Apalazzo Gallery in Italy.)

In 1987, when she was just 25, Boyce became the first black artist to enter the Tate’s collection when the museum purchased her drawing. Missionary position II (1985), for an undisclosed sum. At this time, she moved from drawing to a more performative social practice, which has arguably been more difficult to collect, especially for private buyers. The gallery declined to comment on the awards, but a spokesperson said Boyce’s solo show “has been extremely well received, both critically and commercially.”

the Sonia Boyce show, Just for information, at the Simon Lee Gallery; the exhibition is the artist’s first with the gallery, which she joined last year Photo: Ben Westoby; Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery

Like Boyce, Sedira’s practice leans towards the archival and community. Last month, the Franco-Algerian artist joined the Goodman Gallery, which has spaces in South Africa and London. (She is also represented by Kamel Mennour in Paris.) Surprisingly for someone who has lived in the British capital for more than 30 years, Sedira says she has never been approached by a London gallery – perhaps, suggests she says, “because my work focuses on French rather than British imperialism.” She adds: “I am in this strange space; I am Arab and African. I’m too white to be black and too dark to be white.

Agency contribution

The Goodman Gallery, meanwhile, expressed interest after seeing its pavilion in Venice. Sedira is now scheduled to exhibit in the gallery space in Cape Town in November, while an “institutional exhibition in London is in the works”. Its prices range from $20,000 to $100,000.

Pace Gallery, which now represents Kerunen with Blum & Poe and Galerie Kandlhofer, signed the artist last month after seeing his work in Venice. The deal was overseen by Belgian agency, which has managed Kerunen since 2021. “They make sure all my galleries tell a cohesive story about myself, my work and Africa,” says the artist. “Galleries tend to tell a story that serves their best interests rather than those of their artists.”

Galleries tend to tell a story that best serves their interests rather than those of their artists.

Acaye Kerunen, artist

Representation and context are key, says Kerunen: “As you walk through Frieze London, how many works in these great galleries do you see by an African using indigenous practices?” Equally crucial are the terms of her signing, which include clear rules she established to “protect her sanity,” such as a limit on her rate of production. “It’s quite unusual in these galleries. It’s a new language we’re creating,” she says. Pace features a large wall sculpture by Kerunen created from banana fibers, raffia, reeds and palm fronds. Priced at $90,000, it is currently reserved for a museum.

Older female artists who have not been represented in galleries are also found on other platforms, including via Instagram. Anne Rothenstein, who recently joined the Stephen Friedman Gallery, was discovered on Instagram by art historian and host Katy Hessel, who introduced her to the gallery. Rothenstein’s personal exhibition at the gallery is sold out. (Prices range from £40,000 to £75,000.)

Rothenstein, now 70, has been a painter all her life but only started her career five years ago, according to gallery director Jon Horrocks. “Before that, she gave her life to being a mother and a wife,” he says.

Installation views of Caroline Coon: the love of the place at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, 2022 Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London; Photo: Mark Blower

Another recent recruit is on view in Stephen Friedman’s other London space: Caroline Coon, activist, journalist and former manager of rock band The Clash, also 70 years old. For a time, Coon supported her artistic practice as a sex worker. Horrocks says: “She wanted to work with galleries, but they didn’t want to touch her with a bargepole. When she studied at Central St Martins [in the mid-1960s]the extra wasn’t popular, plus she’s a staunch feminist, which maybe wasn’t so acceptable.

As a result, the majority of Coon’s works have never been seen before – all but one of the paintings on display in London have been hidden away in his studio, some of them since the late 1990s. Priced at £75,000 each, the canvases, of daily life in West London, have all found refuge, mainly with American collectors.

While such additions to dealer listings help correct longstanding market imbalances, which are challenged by movements such as #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter, there are still huge gaps between the majority of galleries, both in terms of performance than price. .

Of the 47 artists listed on Simon Lee’s site, 16 are women. Of the 48 artists in the Goodman Gallery, 16 are women. Pace represents 123 artists, including 33 women; while at Stephen Friedman, 13 out of 35 artists are women.

Constantly devalued

The price difference is more difficult to assess on the primary market, even if, anecdotally, the art of women is systematically devalued compared to that of men. A recent survey of secondary market auction prices found that for every pound a male artist earns for his work, a female earns just 10 pence.

Of the Stephen Friedman Gallery awards, Horrocks says gender is never a consideration; rather, they examine “the quality and scarcity of value.” Regarding Rothenstein and Coon, he adds, “We try to give them the recognition and respect they deserve.”

Kerunen’s labor pricing, meanwhile, is moving into new territory. Marc Glimcher, president and CEO of Pace, says the artist “plays an active role in everything,” including the awards. “It’s all about sustainability and the pressure you put on production,” he says, adding, “Representing artists is more complicated than it’s ever been. We’ve seen a lot of artist agencies pop up over the past year, operating as managers and agents.

However, not everyone is convinced by the emerging model. Ellie Pennick, the founder of the Guts Gallery in London, which advocates for underrepresented voices, says: “You can reform the industry from within, but to what extent I’m not sure.

Meanwhile, KJ Freeman, owner of HOUSING Gallery in New York, describes Pace’s portrayal of Kerunen as an “example of neoliberalism.” She points to the inherent contradictions of a top-notch gallery working with politically engaged artists. “I think it may be impossible for mega-galleries to embody a pure activist spirit – that would be at odds with their practice and the very clients they have,” she says.

Nonetheless, she concedes, “There’s nothing wrong with what Pace is doing, because it’s a multi-million dollar gallery that empowers Acaye. That alone should be where their activism begins and ends. To expect more from them would be to transform the very nature of a top notch gallery.

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