Originally from Istanbul, Turkey, Gizem Saka is an artist and Professor of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Her academic interests are in Behavioral Economics (why people make mistakes in judgment) and Art Markets (how do we decide how much to pay for art). Saka had more than 15 national and international exhibitions, including New York, Chicago, Boston, Montreal and Istanbul. She is the recipient of two Turkish Cultural Foundation Awards and is a reviewer for the Journal of Cultural Economics. She also received the Ernest Liu Family Teaching Award while at Cornell University, where she completed her PhD in economics in 2007. Her website is gizemsaka.com.
Interviewed by Bryn Friedenberg
Edited by Linda Lin
Can you tell us the style of your works, what your inspirations are, and the messages you want to convey with your art?
I paint figurative and abstract works on canvas. Most of my work can be categorized as primitive. My inspirations have changed throughout the years. An ongoing “Women” collection is inspired by the many women I had in my family growing up in Istanbul, where I mainly witnessed feminine joys and sorrows. Later on, I depicted the city’s landscapes in paintings, as well as historical Ottoman miniature figures such as sailing ships. I use primary colors and am not afraid to use color.
My latest collection is entitled “INK”, where I write long passages from novels and stories on canvas. I love forming bridges between different disciplines. My hope with this collection is to collaborate with authors and solicit original stories from them.
Since you are an expert on the art market, how is the performance of contemporary female artists now? How has it changed over time? What are some trends you've noticed and how do you see the future of the sales of works by female artists?
There are no female artists at the top, no matter how we define “top.” Women’s labor force participation in the art world is equal to men’s, but when it comes to income distribution, women are much behind. We usually get 1 or 2 female artists mentioned in a batch of 25 artists. The trend is also historically consistent. Auction data show that major female artists (such as Cassatt, Kahlo, O’Keeffe) are behind male counterparts in terms of sale prices and frequencies. Similarly, contemporary female artists are behind males. So, no matter which period in history we focus on, we find a discrepancy.
Who is involved in and what determines the market price for contemporary artworks? Who are the stakeholders? What makes an artwork sell well, reaching prices of millions of dollars?
There are a handful of players in the art world, mainly museums, art critics, auction houses, gallerists and dealers. In pricing decisions of contemporary work, the ability of the dealer to promote the artist seems to go a long way. Contemporary artists have not yet historically proven their worth, and we rely on immense speculation and marketing in pricing. Interestingly (and unfortunately), academic and critical approaches do not affect art prices. Impressionists and modern works are more predictable because we have repeat auction data. If you want to buy a Picasso, a few determinants are period, size, provenance (museum pedigrees, ownership by important families), and to a lesser degree, city of sale.
Even though there are a lot of female art professionals working in galleries and auction houses who might want to try and promote more women artists, most of the time they have to follow what the market indicates and what people are buying (which tends to be male-artist dominated). How do you think we can work to improve this?
This is an excellent question. When I look at artwork that sells, women are still the objects of art, and men are the creators. As a society we still value women for their beauty, which is okay, but nothing equivalent to Michelangelo’s David or Giacometti’s Diego’s are on the market anymore, and not from female artists. How can we work to improve the situation? By believing that women are able to initiate both private and public discourse.
Who are some of your biggest role models or influences, artistic or otherwise?
Women artists who came before me are big influences. I love reading their biographies, primarily to witness how much struggle they had to go through before coming into their own. I love looking at/reading their work. Creators across all genres inspire me, from Margot Fonteyn to Alice Munro, from Donna Tartt to Fahrelnissa Zeid.
You have an very interesting combination of economics and art throughout your career. Did one passion come before the other? Do you value one more than the other? How do you balance teaching with creating art?
Somehow I don’t see the pursuit of art and economics as separate. Arts and Sciences do go together. In both, you need a dose of creativity, but also a persistence that should last years. Therefore the practices are similar and how much you need to commit yourself is similar. In both, there is no end to learning and improvement—this endlessness is assuring.
Do you have any tips for aspiring female artists?
The fact that the labor market is imbalanced against females shouldn’t detract women from entering the field of art. Do what you like and do not serve the market. If the art is valuable, the market will eventually find its way towards you (the economists in me speaking!).