Why Topical Cream’s Benefit Auction Matters

By Margaret Carrigan

Artists Juliana Huxtable, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Korakrit Arunanondchai, and Paul Sepuya have donated work to Sotheby’s Contemporary Art online sale to benefit Topical Cream and our work to promote women, femmes, and gender-nonconforming individuals working in contemporary art. While it marks our organization’s third benefit auction, the sale of these works is notable for more than just its charitable cause.

The art market is often bemoaned as “opaque”, as if the value of a work of art is unequivocally hard to see. The limited published prices that are out there, however, arguably make the market’s valuation system as plain as day.

Jamian Juliano-Villani, West End Girls, acrylic on canvas 60 by 72 inch

The art market’s notorious inscrutability is a function of its patriarchy. Just as in other labor markets, the inflated prices for work by white men is a product of promoting the work of white men, all while undervaluing and undermining the work of women and people of color to limit equal and fair compensation.

Consider that the highest price paid at auction for a living female artist’s work was when Jenny Saville’s Propped sold for $12.5 million at Sotheby’s London in October 2018. That is less than a quarter of what Jeff Koons fetched to claim the title of the most expensive living (not to mention male) artist last November at Christie’s New York.

Korakrit Arunanondchai, United Nations, clay, resin, wood and cardboard 36¼ by 49¼ by 32½ inch

Compared to works of art by men, works by female artists are rarely glimpsed at auction—one of the few opportunities to see prices openly published within this shadowy trade. Just two works by women have ever broken into the top 100 auction sales for paintings, despite women being the subject matter for approximately half of the top 25, according to the 2019 UBS Art Market Report. The same study shows that when it comes to the price of a painting on the auction market, there is a gender discount of nearly 50%.

Juliana Huxtable, Interfertily Industrial Complex I, installation with button and inkjet print on diabond, 24 printed wallpaper sheets 39⅞ by 26⅝ inch

We make excuses for this price discrepancy by blaming the sins on our forebearers — sociohistorical factors kept the large majority of women from education and employment in art up until the last half a century, thus limiting the supply of works by women. Yet despite an increased awareness (albeit as of yet slim rectification) of gender imbalance in museums and galleries over the last decade, even less progress has been realized when it comes to female representation on the secondary market—just 2% of global art auction spending is on work by women, according to a 2019 report by In Other Words and Artnet.

Speaking of representation: of the top five best-selling women at auction over the past ten years, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is top, but the other four are white and dead, perpetuating the same problematic age and race issues that skew the male-dominated statistics available on prices thus far.

Paul Sepuya, Mirror Study (0X5A7385), archival pigment printSheet: 17¾ by 12¾ inch

It is within this remarkably regressive context that work by Huxtable makes its auction debut in Sotheby’s Contemporary Art online sale, providing a valuable new data point, increasing the visibility of women, femmes, gnc and POC artists within the market. It is one of a handful of works in the sale offered by the four contributing artists, all of whom are committed to supporting Topical Cream’s cause, which with an advertising-free model, relies on the generosity of the artistic community to continue its necessary work promoting parity in art.

Margaret Carrigan is the senior editor, Americas and deputy art market editor of The Art Newspaper.