Just Another Boys Club: Is New Technology Fueling The Gender Gap In Art?
You may have come across a news story about someone paying hundreds of dollars for a digital picture of a bored ape, made famous by the BoredApes collective.
Why would you pay for something that any one of us could copy, paste and download onto our computers - an endless number of times?
Very briefly, NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are unique digital assets that live on blockchain technology.
They are often used in the art world to represent original ownership of digital artworks , allow artists to monetize their work and collectors to invest in and own digital art.
While you can also download a famous Picasso painting off the internet, or even have someone paint an exact replica, there are always experts who can authenticate the original.
What this means for NFTs in simple terms is that millions of people can have the “same” digital picture, but with its provenance tracked on the blockchain, we can always tell who currently owns the original. And it’s always the original that carries a historical value.
Is Gender A Prerequisite for Artistic Success?
Putting aside the many weird, wonderful and sometimes dodgy reasons people buy expensive art (like tax evasion or money laundering), the trading of art has been around for thousands of years.
NFTs are just the most recent version of this very old phenomenon and a very profitable one too. Just in 2020 alone, NFT sales totaled an amount of $41 Billion dollars.
The NFT market sits at the intersection of the visual art and cryptocurrency industries. Both of these industries have historically been dominated by white men.
Sadly this comes at no surprise, as the real-world art market has also been historically exclusive, with the top 18 museums in the US owning collections that are 87% male and 85% white.
A study by Artnet and In Other Words found that between 2008 and 2018, artwork by women made up only 2% of global art auction sales.
Now, the same trend follows into the new world of digital art, with women and POC also heavily underrepresented in the digital art world.
A recent report from ArtTactic found that only 16% of NFT artists are women, and they account for just 5% of NFT sales.
Additionally, 73% of NFT sales are made by artists from the US, UK, and Canada, while artists from Africa and Latin America only make up 3.6% of total sales.
Charlotte Kent, Assistant Professor of Visual Culture at Montclair State University, notes that although NFTs promise an inclusive space, the bias in favor of white male art in the mainstream contemporary art market means their art is also sold for higher prices and collected more by museums.
The musician Grimes is the only woman to crack the top 10 NFT artists based on primary and secondary market sales via the marketplace Nifty Gateway over the last 21 months. While she has made $8.9 million to date, Mike Winkleman (also known as Beeple) sold a single piece for $69.3 million dollars. The most expensive NFT ever sold to one sole owner.
It’s said that this systemic bias is due to the dominant belief that the white male gaze is the “neutral” or normal position.
This view and exclusivity of the art world has long been criticized by women artists.
Famously in 1989, a female art collective called Guerilla Girls made this poster asking, “Do Women have to be naked to get into the Met?”
At the time, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had less than 5% female artists, while 85% of the nudes were female.
For more on the gender gap in the art world as an old problem
Investing in Future Equality
This lack of diversity in the NFT market is a problem for several reasons, but one of the main issues is that women and minorities are at risk of being left behind in the creation of wealth at the early stages of a new asset class.
This has previously been observed in traditional securities, angel investing, and private market investing, where men tend to start sooner and execute at a higher frequency than women.
This issue is even more pronounced when considering race; in 2020, only 29.5% of angel investors were women, while only 5.3% were minorities.
But this disparity is not for lack of interest on women’s behalf.
The Australian exchange BTC Markets also reported a 175% increase in women users over the last year.
And while women make up only 26% of crypto holders, they are the majority (53%) when it comes to people who are "crypto curious" - those about to invest in web3 projects for the first time.
Mistresses Of The Art World
Despite being the minority, women and non-binary folks are working to create a more inclusive and diverse NFT space. Initiatives such as Women Rise, and Twitter communities like @crypto_chicks, bring together female and queer NFT artists and collectors and support education for minority artists.
World of Women (WoW) is one of these women-led web3 initiatives in the NFT space. WoW's vision is to build an inclusive web3 community through its collection. WoW is on a mission to create opportunities for anyone around the world to be owners, creators, and contributors in this new era of the web.
They want to create a space where diversity is celebrated and encouraged and where women and non-binary individuals can thrive.
Another such initiative is Boss Beauties, which launched a collection of digital portraits featuring diverse and empowered women. The collection was created by asking the Boss Beauties community of Gen Z change-makers to imagine a collection of digital portraits capturing the women they want to see and be in the world.
The results were beautiful, and the collection sold out in an hour after launching in eight weeks and was the first NFT collection to be featured in the New York Stock Exchange.
In addition to initiatives like WoW or Boss Beauties, there are also individual women making waves in the NFT space, such as Maliha Abidi, a Pakistani artist who has been featured in various mainstream outlets including the BBC, and the Guardian.
Web3 is championed as a democratization of the internet. In many ways, it does present us with the opportunity for a more open and inclusive web, and by extension, society at large.
However, we need to proactively support diversity and gender equality in new artistic and technological spaces, otherwise, we may just repeat history again - to our own detriment.