Gendered pricing gap keeps women artists earning less and putting in more unpaid labor

Artist Rachel Joanis, photographed at Mararamiro Home + Studio in Toronto, says she often underpriced her work early in her career.Courtesy of Scarlett O’Neil

As a freelance graphic designer and illustrator, Rachel Joanis found it challenging to price her work, especially as she was getting her career started after graduating in 2015.

“I would naturally undersell myself,” says the Toronto-based artist. “I’d end up putting tons of hours into work for different projects and get very little money at the end of it.”

It was a chance encounter through Instagram that changed things for Ms. Joanis. One of her followers, the founder of a PR company in New York City, commissioned work from her and introduced to other companies looking for illustrators.

“When she would refer me to clients, she would say, ‘You should charge this for this project,’” Ms. Joanis explains. The rates her mentor suggested were often double the amount Ms. Joanis originally had in mind.

Underpriced and undervalued

In creative industries, women artists often underprice their work. It’s something that freelance illustrator Nuria Madrenas encountered in her day job in marketing and communications.

“I was gathering quotes for live illustrators in Toronto for a client,” says Ms. Madrenas. “A female artist quoted me $200 for a three-long-hour live event. And a male artist had quoted me $2,000.” She says that the artists were comparable in experience and style.

Nuria Madrenas founded online gallery and art consultancy Tacit to provide women artists with a platform to sell their work and ‘achieve discoverability.’Courtesy of Sztella Muzslai

Encounters like this prompted Ms. Madrenas to start Tacit, an online gallery for women artists. “It really transpired from this disparity between women and men in the art world,” she says.

A 2021 analysis of price differences for male and female artists found that artworks produced by female artists account for less than 4 per cent of art auction sales. And data from the National Endowment of the Arts in the US indicates that “women fine artists, art directors, animators and women photographers earn $0.74 for every dollar that men visual artists and photographers earn.”

When new artists join Tacit, Ms. Madrenas often coaches them on how to price their art appropriately, which usually means increasing their value.

“Whatever price she may have in her head, I always recommend doubling that,” she says.

Ms. Madrenas believes that women artists who undervalue themselves are doing “a disservice to your fellow female artists, who now feel as though they can’t price themselves according to what they believe that they’re worth.” Accurate pricing is what helps women create a lasting and sustainable career from their art, she says.

Doing the ‘invisible unpaid labor’

Recognizing the disparity that exists between male and female, Annie Briard logged artists countless volunteer hours early in her career as a board member, art festival organizer and by running a bilingual arts magazine.

“It was very clear that there was less room for women artists in the art world, particularly within the media art section,” says Ms. Briard, a photographer, digital media artist and instructor at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Doing community work was a way to make herself stand out – something that she says men don’t feel as compelled to do, or don’t need to do as often to succeed.

Ms. Briard says that board seats are “overwhelmingly filled with women-identified artists” in the art organizations she is involved with. “There’s a lot of invisible unpaid labor that is fulfilled by women within the arts.”

After about six years of doing community work developing her own projects as a photographer, Ms. Briard caught the eye of a gallerist at Joyce Yahouda Gallery in Montreal, where Ms. Briard began her art career.

“I don’t know that I would have been able to get to that place, had I not been doing all of this other work in service of other artists,” she says.

Historic gender barriers to the profession of art can account for some of why this discrepancy still exists. But there are reasons to be hopeful. Ms. Briard says that galleries are artists looking for more diversity in the they represent, as are museums.

At the 2019 Venice Biennale, 53 per cent of artists taking part in the global art exhibition were female, compared to 33 per cent in 2015. And a 2018 survey of US art museum demographics by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that 61 per cent of museum staff were female. However, the most senior leadership position at a museum is most likely to be held by a man.

Using dollars to drive change

Changing how art by women is valued, and how much women earn compared to men, is artists no small feat. “The art world is a very exaggerated mirror of society,” says Ms. Briard. She believes that major social issues would need to be addressed in order for gender gaps in art to close.

But there are things that fans of art can do to help. When buying artwork, no matter how large or small your budget is, “Use your dollars to speak in terms of what kinds of practices you want to support and what you’d like to see more of,” says Ms. Briard. Show support by attending shows, galleries and organizations that that showcase art by women.

“[Organizations] are keeping a close watch on numbers: how many people are coming, how many people are getting engaged,” she says. Sharing the works of emerging artists on Instagram or other social media platforms is also a valuable act. “It’s free, easy to do and is much more impactful than people think.”

Lastly, if you see a gallery or museum that is lacking in representation of women, let them know that you’re concerned about it.

“Send an email or write in their comment book,” says Ms. Briard. “Just pose that question: ‘Hey, why were there no women artists in that show?”

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