The Anna Weyant Media Circus Is A Window Into Art World Sexism And Power

Painter Anna Weyant’s story sounds like a modern-day art fairytale,” writes Smithsonian Magazine about the 27-year-old artist whose work sold for $400 three years ago, but now fetches $1.6 million at auction. Called a “millennial Botticelli” by both the Wall Street Journal and the South China Morning Post, Weyant makes paintings of women and girls that evoke, according to the New York Times, “sentimental erotica.”

Weyant is the youngest artist to be represented by the Gagosian gallery empire, a move that almost certainly influenced her high prices at auction. But, as the Journal notes in their recent profile, “it’s complicated.” Because, for the past year, she has been supposedly dating her dealer, 77-year-old Larry Gagosian.

What emerges from these depictions in the press is a portrait of Weyant as an innocent: blonde and beautiful, she hails from a small town in Canada, signs her paintings with heart emojis, and bakes chocolate chip cookies for studio guests. She is painted as a bystander to her own success, with Smithsonian Magazine  suggesting she “didn’t aspire all her life to be a world-renowned artist; it just sort of happened.” Gagosian told the Journal that Weyant  “doesn’t speak all the art lingo” and that he’s “just trying to protect her from the big bad wolves,” a phrase the publication used as a bolded section heading and that conjures an image of Weyant as Little Red Riding Hood walking unguarded through the mean art world forest. 

This depiction of Weyant has prompted a backlash. Commenters on the Journal article call her gross and calculating for sleeping with the 77-year-old man, more wicked witch than fairy princess. “Moral of the story—,” says one commenter, “be hot and sleep with Gagosian and thou shalt be successful.”  Says another: “This lady one-upped some of those housewife women – only a 50-year age difference. LOL Interesting how money can make what most would consider gross – appealing.” Even the South China Morning Post expresses disbelief, ending their article’s title with the question, “— but is she really dating a 77-year-old gallery founder?” Not addressed in any of these articles is Gagosian’s own participation in a system that elevated artists’ prices to an unsustainable level such that their markets topped out.

Stories like Weyant’s, as it is told in the press, reinforce the belief that the best way for a woman to have a seat at the table of money and power is through the trading of youth and beauty for the attention of a powerful older man. Adding to this picture is the one of Weyant as a woman over whom men get in spats, with Artnet reporting that Tim Blum of Blum & Poe, her dealers before Gagosian, was the consignor of her 2020 painting Falling Woman, which made her auction record of $1.6 million in May, and that “some tongues are whispering ‘revenge consignment.” (Weyant confirmed to the Journal that Blum was the consignor and said that she and the gallery had fallen out.)

Again, back to one of the commenters: “All of those men wanting to protect her – I thought we were past that but apparently not if you are young, blonde and pretty and ambitious.”

Falling Woman by Anna Weyant on display at Sotheby’s as part of “The New York Sales” art auctions held in New York, NY on May 6, 2022.

The reality of Weyant and Gagosian’s relationship lies beyond the knowledge of the best-placed reporter. Perhaps, the two are soulmates and will live happily ever after. The far more common scenario with women who enter power-imbalanced relationships with powerful men in their industry, it that it ends up being damaging for those women, the more so the bigger the power disparity. I learned that lesson the hard way in my years as a 20-something-year-old art dealer and the co-owner of Night Gallery. Influential men can open doors to success, manipulating prices and getting one’s name in the press, but it is a temporary, delicate relationship. So often, once the attention of the man is lost, so goes the “success.”

Historically, such relationships can be a way of working within a sexist system — one solution to the problem that the Guerrilla Girls, longtime protestors for gender parity in the art world, laid out in The Guardian in 2020: “There’s so few people who pull the strings [in the art world]…It’s a smaller place than you imagine when you climb that ladder.” It remains the case that most of those who pull the strings are men. The problem is that so many women believe there is no alternative. They believe they need the alliances of such men, however conditional and temporary, because there simply is no other viable route to financial or professional success, both in the art world and the world at large. 

 Weyant’s story comes along at a complicated time for women in the art world. Even as many women artists are achieving meteoric success, wider developments, like the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade, remind women that their bodies and life trajectories are not their own. Even after #metoo brought a comeuppance for Harvey Weinstein and his ilk, the Amber Heard v. Johnny Depp trial, with its internet-viral vilification of Heard, threatens a step back for women coming forward about abuse.

The depictions of Weyant rife through the mainstream press emphasize a dynamic in which women need the protection of men, however fleeting, because they do not have the power to protect themselves or be their own best advocate.

In the Journal article, Ellie Rines, the art dealer who gave Weyant her first show in 2019, says that anyone who factors the artist’s dating life into her odds of success is being misogynist. But what if we do factor it in, but in a different way. What if these very depictions prompted us to remember that we live in, and are indoctrinated by, a fundamentally sexist world? What if we acknowledged that in the art world, which continues to suffer from gender imbalances, a woman attaching herself to a powerful man is not gross, but one simply adhering to the terms of a sexist system? 

We need to do better. We need to talk openly about how sudden success is not the same thing as power. We need to discuss the reasons—both systemic and personal—that women settle for the muscle of men as a proxy for real strength. We need to create powerful networks that remind women that they—and no one else—are their own best advocates, their own best protectors, and that there are other sustainable avenues to success.

We need to change the system, but first we need to talk about it.

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