a new book sparks debate about how women gallerists promote avant-garde art

Peer behind the curtain of any major artistic career or movement of the 20th century and you will find a female art dealer directing advertising, exhibition design, sales, and the production of knowledge in the form of catalogs, books, articles, and events. Bertha Weil (1865-1951) with the School of Paris, Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) with Abstract Expressionism and Virginia Duane (1931-2022) with Land Art and Minimalism are three examples out of hundreds of others.

In the last five years, commercial galleries and institutions have spearheaded the exploration of this history through exhibition programming (e.g. Edith Halpert and the Rise of American ArtJewish Museum, New York, 2019-20) and symposia (e.g Restoring the legacy of womenFrick Art Reference Library, 2021) that make a noticeable dent in the armor of art market studies.

Women Art Dealers is the first to explore the ways in which women have promoted contemporary (often avant-garde) art in different places and periods from 1940 to 1990, with a focus on Europe, the USA and South Africa. Chronological in approach, each of the 17 main chapters is a case study highlighting the dealer’s influence on their immediate location and the wider history of art, from Simone Cahn Collin’s support of Surrealism in Paris in the 1940s to Lia Ruma’s collaboration with Anselm Kiefer and Thomas Ruff in recent years.

The cultural contribution of these dealers is the subject, not collector competition, record auction prices and sales machinations

The accounts foreground the cultural contributions (rather than commercial speculation) of these dealers; approach, in contrast to comparable publications about male-led turn-of-the-century dealers distributing Old Masters (e.g. Brill’s series Studies in the History of Collecting and Art Markets), where collector competition, record auction prices, taste formation and sales machinations are the criteria for worthiness.

This publication shares with its predecessors an emphasis on transatlantic cooperation and networking between dealerships, as well as the myths of the visionary, exceptional and individualistic dealer. Given that gender (essentialism) is the organizing framework, the research can be expected to push the boundaries and subvert these aforementioned criteria. However, with the exception of Carlotta Castellani’s study of Mary Boone, there is scant analysis of the interrelationship between gender and the art trade, and none on the related roles of women in the arts as curators, writers, historians, teachers or secretaries, etc.

How and why

Women Art Dealers is important for starting a conversation about how and why women were dedicated to promoting innovative art and artists, although several setbacks occurred. For example, Véronique Chagnon-Burke, Elena Korowin and Doris Wintgens generously refer to and reinforce the ideological and gendered giant of the art ‘canon’ which, perhaps, in terms of feminism can be dismantled and questioned. Likewise, while the publication acknowledges that biographies and case studies are dominant models in art market studies, the mode is never abandoned, nor are its problems explored (eg, hagiography).

The personal was also political for a number of women who used their professional status to oppose oppression

The breadth of activity of these dealers is beyond doubt; vigorously researched and contextualized in digestible, informative chapters. The word “dealer,” as Sofia Ponte’s chapter on Etheline Rosas makes clear, can be confusing, given that these individuals often held different functions in their careers. Rosas, as explained, was also a conservator, trader and museologist. Particularly notable are the ways in which these women historicize art in their publications, recordings, commissions, events, and donations. Bertha Schaefer, for example, donated her collection to the University of Nebraska’s Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery. The personal was also political for a number of women who used their professional status to oppose oppression. Federico Freschi and Lara Kosseff’s chapter on South African dealer Linda Given explains that Given’s “persistence in creating a non-racial gallery was like a radical act of defiance; the presentation of solo exhibitions by black artists gave their work a platform to be seen on its own terms’.

Until the end of Women Art Dealers, readers traced the history of the professionalization of the art dealer in the 20th century. Cultural capital and a concern for formal innovation rather than sales led these women to create markets for their artists. Agnes Widlund’s 1961 statement, recounted by Kristina Brandberg – “I hate all those small traders without passion” – becomes a nostalgic counterpoint to Boone’s study, which unapologetically embraces the culture of traders and excessive sales prices in the 1980s. Questions about gender, art, and business practices remain, although this book is a strong start to addressing the gender imbalance in an emerging field of art history; a peer of peers behind the curtain.

Women Art Dealers: Creating Markets for Modern Art, 1940-1990,
by Véronique Chagnon-Burke and Caterina Toschi (eds.). Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 272 pp, 86 b&w illustrations, £90 (hb), published 11 January 2024.

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