International New York Times: Where Art is a Woman’s World

LONDON — When Pearl Lam returned to Hong Kong in 1992 after her education in the United States and Britain, her father hit the roof when she told him she wanted to open a gallery for contemporary art.

“‘I did not send you away to school for 11 years for you to return to be a shopkeeper,” Ms. Lam recalled him saying. “‘And I am not going to finance you to buy all those things to stick onto the wall or all those things that no one can understand. Absolutely not.”’

But Ms. Lam stuck to her guns and struck a deal with her father: She would work in the family’s property development business. But she kept her foot in the art world, organizing pop-up shows and helping to finance art exhibitions.

Today Ms. Lam is an important player in the contemporary art scene. She owns several galleries in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore. Her newest gallery, Lam Galleries Hong Kong SOHO, opens this month.

 Ms. Lam is far from alone. Around Asia and across other parts of the non-Western world, women are at the helm of many public and privately funded art institutions, fairs and initiatives. They run major art galleries, are some of the top collectors of contemporary art in their regions, and are curating some of the non-Western world’s most important collections.


Visitors at this year’s India Art Fair.  The two private contemporary art museums in the country were founded by women. CreditManoj Kesharwani/India Art Fair 


In many respects it is the opposite of the West, where contemporary art has long been dominated by men. A report last year found that only five of the 33 most important art museums in North America were headed by women and that women museum directors made a third less than their male counterparts. The ranks of top Western gallery owners and art advisers are similarly male-dominated.

According to Antonia Carver, director of the Art Dubai fair, 75 percent of the galleries from the Middle East and North Africa that take part in the annual event are run by women. Touria El Glaoui, who founded the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London, said that most of the African-based galleries that attend have women at the helm.

On the Indian subcontinent, many major fairs are headed by women — from the India Art Fair to the Colombo Art Biennale, the Dhaka Art Summit, the Kathmandu International Art Festival and the yet-to-be-organized Lahore Biennale.

In Warsaw, the four most important public arts institutions — the National Museum, the Center for Contemporary Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Zacheta National Gallery of Art — have women directors.

At the auction house Christie’s, which along with its rival Sotheby’s is a key market-maker in art, two Asian divisions are headed by women: Jinqing Cai in China and Rebecca Wei for Asia.

Neha Kirpal, who founded the India Art Fair in 2008, noted that in her country the two private contemporary art museums were both founded by women: the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, chaired by Ms. Nadar, and the Devi Art Foundation, co-founded by Lekha Poddar.

In the Middle East, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani is chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority, and Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi is president and director of the United Arab Emirates’ Sharjah Art Foundation. Ms. Qasimi is also curating the U.A.E. pavilion at this year’s Venice Art Biennale — the oldest, and oldest-school, international art event in the world.

“I have come into contact with so many different clients on so many different levels,” said Cheyenne Westphal, the co-head of contemporary art worldwide for Sotheby’s. “In a lot of areas it really is the women who are making things happen.”


Sandra Nedvetskaia, the co-director of the Cosmoscow International Contemporary Art Fair in Moscow.CreditCosmoscow 


There are several reasons for this. Partly it is to do with history, said Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern in London. “When you think of Eastern Europe, for instance the former Yugoslavia, and the same goes for Poland and Romania, many of the radical avant-garde artists of the ’60s and ’70s were strong women,” he said. “When you think of the Middle East, many of the older artists and many of the younger artists are women; and when you think about Latin America, modernity started off with very strong women.”

The artistic movements in these countries, he added, “have been formed by a feminine language and a feminist position, and consciously or unconsciously these things get reflected.”

In many of these regions — which only started to become players on the international contemporary art scene at the turn of the millennium — art was traditionally seen as a domain for women, an aesthetic folly focused mostly on decorating the home or their husbands’ or fathers’ businesses.

“At the beginning, women in the Middle East were getting involved because it was the safe thing to do,” said Alia Al-Senussi, a Libyan-American academic and consultant who does V.I.P. relations for the Middle East for Art Basel. “It was something their fathers or husbands would say, ‘Oh, art is so pretty and that is a nice thing for a girl to do,’ in a patronizing way, not realizing that art is incredibly powerful.”

Ironically, the image of art as “women’s work” may have helped women in non-Western countries rise quickly in a field that is anything but soft, said Maria Baibakova, the founder of Baibakov Art Projects, which helps fund and promote Russian contemporary art.

“You have to be business savvy, you have to be a skilled negotiator, you have to be a talented manager, an able administrator, have credentials and knowledge,” she said. “You are constantly fighting for resources, access and funding. But I do think that stereotype enabled women to make progress in the art world in these countries because it was sort of seen as a let-live space.”

Education also played a role, especially in Latin America and the Gulf, where growth in higher education for women in the 1990s and early 2000s coincided with rising interest in the cultural life of cities in the region.

As women have moved higher in the art world, the next generation found role models and mentors to help them start a career in art — women like the São Paulo gallerist Luisa Strina; Bisi Silva, founder of the Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Nigeria; Agnes Lin from Hong Kong’s Osage Gallery, and Dasha Zhukova, who founded Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.


Neha Kirpal, left, founder of the India Art Fair, and Feroze Gujral, an art collector, at this year’s fair. CreditManoj Kesharwani/India Art Fair 


Sandra Nedvetskaia, the co-director of the Cosmoscow International Contemporary Art Fair in Moscow, said that young women in Russia were very interested in pursuing careers in contemporary art these days. “There is definitely this new generation of women who set out to be professional art advisers, curators and gallerists,” she said.

Ms. Baibakova, who earned a master’s degree in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and sits on the acquisitions committee for Russia and Eastern Europe at the Tate Modern, agreed: “There are women in their mid-20s, post-college who are entering the art world in a very serious way.”

Women are also becoming more active and visible collectors. At Christie’s, Ms. Wei, the president for Asia, said that in the last few years one-third of their “hammer,” or buying decisions, have been made by women.

Women tend to collect differently from men. In China, which has more self-made billionairesses than any other country, female collectors are increasingly interested in Chinese contemporary art, with women like Wang Wei, co-founder of the Long Museum in Shanghai, leading the way.

“That is the phenomenon,” said Ms. Cai of Christie’s, adding that men tended to be more focused on Chinese antiquities.

Arshiya Lokhandwala, who runs the Lakeeren Gallery in Mumbai, said all of her collectors were women. They tend to be more risk takers, she said, buying less for investment and more because of their interest in the concepts and issues behind the works.

Sunny Rahbar, the co-director of the Third Line gallery in Dubai, agreed. “From my experience, women I have worked with just spend more time understanding the work, are more curious about the artist,” she said. “Women are a little bit more daring, willing to take a risk on a younger artist and more open to discovering a new artist.”

In another reversal of the typical pattern in the West, a market developed by women may soon face an influx of competition from men.

“In India in 20 years there are going to be a lot more men in the art world,” said Ms. Kirpal of the India Art Fair.

She estimated that 80 percent of people who have become involved in the arts in her country over the last decade — from gallerists and curators to critics and art managers — were women. Men are not players, she said, because “they did not bother to look at it as a very viable business stream. But it is only a matter of time.”

The Modern Indian art historian and director of Art Dubai, Savita Apte, agreed. “As this space becomes more visible, we will sort of be pushed out by the men because it has been validated as a business and no longer a feminine thing to do.”