What's the Point of an All-Woman Art Show, Anyway?

As the Saatchi Gallery opens "Champagne Life," its first all-female exhibition, it joins a host of other shows that curate work by the fairer sex. But when a big hitter like Charles Saatchi wades in, what's the net gain for women artists?

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Jan 15 2016, 2:05pm

A woman looks at Soheila Sokhanvari's "Moje Sabz" (2011). Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London © Stephen White, 2015

"In terms of why women and why now, we've been supporting contemporary art made by women for thirty years," explains Nigel Hurst, the Saatchi Gallery's CEO, over the phone. "We gave the likes of Tracey Emin, Rebecca Warren, and Cindy Sherman their first exhibitions in the UK."

Only now however, has Charles Saatchi's operation launched its first all female group show. Titled Champagne Life (borrowed from the 2010 Ne-Yo song by participating artist Julia Wachtel and reappropriated by the gallery for the purposes of the show), the London exhibition marries the work of 14 women artists with nothing in common but their gender identity.

"Really," continues Hurst, "we just wanted to carry on that work, but obviously in terms of an-all women exhibition, we felt it was a timely opportunity to celebrate the important contribution that women make to contemporary art worldwide. We're not saying by holding this exhibition, it's 'a women's art exhibition', it's a contemporary art exhibition with the work made by women artists—which is a different thing, and the whole point really is not to ghettoize them."

Open to the public since Wednesday, Guardian art critic Adrian Searle has already sniffed at the show's pretence, exclaiming that "an all-female lineup is intrinsically no more interesting than an all-male roster of swinging dicks, especially when it has no larger thematic purpose."

The Saatchi show is the latest in an ever growing line-up of woman focused spectacles, from IRL exhibitions such as Black British Girlhood and Female Matters, to digital art collectives and industry discussions like Feminist Practices in Dialogue and Fast Forward: Women in Photography, hosted by the ICA and Tate Modern respectively. Here however, the mindset is not explicitly feminist and the artists not amateurs; likewise the spotlight is greater and the works of a mightier financial value.

Alice Anderson, "Bound" (2011) and "181 Kilometers" (2015). All images courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London © Stephen White, 2015

"I try not to be too critical when ideas like this infiltrate the mainstream," says Ione Gamble, the co-curator of Female Matters and editor-in-chief of the indie zine Polyester. "Young girls who might not have access to other feminist resources or an awareness of the underground art world could easily be inspired by this stuff."

While a 2015 survey of the previous year's museum attendance named Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama as the world's most popular artist, her title as the living female artist for whom the highest price has been fetched at auction ($7.1m) is pales in comparison to her male counterpart Jeff Koons ($58.4m). Elsewhere, the $142.4m paid for a Francis Bacon piece after his death grossly outweighs the $44.4m paid for a Georgia O'Keefe painting.

Not exactly the progressive industry the Guerrilla Girls dreamed of when they formed the rebellious art collective in 1985, but sadly the reason all-female art shows may still be a necessary thing in 2016.

Virgile Ittah, "Echoué au seuil de la raison" (2014) and Jelena Bulajic, "Ljubica" (2012) and "Alise Lange" (2013).

"I think the show is really exciting and I'm delighted to be a part of a strong female artist group," says Iranian artist Soheila Sokhanvari, whose piece "Moje Sabz"—a taxidermy donkey lying on a brightly colored balloon—has been one of the key visuals in the lead up to the show. "You know, to participate in a show and call it all-female, what would that be if it was an all-male show? It wouldn't have a label on it at all; everyone would say that's just a show."

"When I made [Moje Sabz] and it was presented at Goldsmiths for my final year show, a lot of people either didn't realize that my name was a female name—or they didn't see me—so they contributed the art to a male artist. They congratulated my husband, and after they realized it was me, they asked me if it was fabricated," she says, echoing themes of the Frida Kahlo newspaper headline from the 1930s, highlighted at the artist's Detroit retrospective last year: "Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art."

There's so much money in the art world, and women have nowhere achieved those benchmark levels. It's shocking, [the] huge gap between the two.

"One of the issues you've got is that the secondary market [in which existing art is resold] isn't going to drive collectors' confidence in women's art," claims Hurst of the industry's gender imbalance. "It's going to be the fact that more and more women are having museum-scale shows."

Wachtel, who has been active in the industry since the early 80s, agrees: "Is doing a show of all women artists the end-all corrective to the situation? No. The difference between men and women artists is more exposed because the discussion of, say, how much value an individual work has, is something that's now widely discussed. There's so much money in the art world, and women have nowhere achieved those benchmark levels. It's shocking, [the] huge gap between the two.

"Buying art to some is a trophy kind of acquisition, and men still have much more power. When you are spending a million dollars or whatever, I think a lot of collectors feel more reassured in buying the work of men."

Stephanie Quayle, "Two Cows" (2013).

Away from the high end environment, at a DIY level, the visibility of all-female shows has flourished in the past 12 months. "I think they provide a safe space for conversation, support and enquiry," offers Antonia Marsh, founder of the residency program Girls Only NYC, who put on several international group shows in 2015. "Young women come into their own in spaces like this, without feeling self-conscious about their work, and this helps them build their voice as an artist. The sole aim [of GONYC] is to foster the production of more opportunities for female artists in an attempt to level the playing field and the disparity between genders that still remains."

Both Hurst and Sokhanvari are wary of an educational blindspot too. "Most of the artists in college are female," the latter states, "and then you look at the art market or the artists that are signed and they're mainly men. I don't know what happens between graduating and being represented."

The nonprofit arena of DIY shows has long offered a prominent space for women artists, but the financial gap between shows put on by independent organizations like Girls Only NYC and Champagne Life is vast. Economic stability is nonexistent; as a lesser-funded platform it can only acquire so much prominence, while in terms of a career it can never truly be more than a independent project—a stepping stone towards something greater—for any artist.

"At the end of the day," reckons Gamble, "the names in the Saatchi show are huge, established people, and that's great, but with cuts to arts funding, I don't think it'll have a huge impact on how young people function as creatives."

And for those in the higher tier? Hopping onto the zeitgeist can only help so much before attitudes need to be rearranged, though the encouragement of a suitably affluent party does no harm. Like so many other practices, all-female group shows may have to be a necessity until equilibrium has been achieved.