This year’s slate of major shows, books, and panels on feminist art reflects the rise of powerful female curators, art historians, and—notably—patrons, who are working to change art institutions from the inside.
Call this the year of institutional consciousness-raising: three major art centers, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Brooklyn Museum, have scheduled big events devoted to feminism’s impact on art history—past, present, and future. And, not surprisingly, the main initiators of these events are women.The year kicked off with “The Feminist Future: Theory and Practice in the Visual Arts,” a two-day symposium at MoMA on January 26 and 27. Sponsored by the Modern Women’s Fund, founded at the museum by philanthropist Sarah Peter, the symposium was dedicated to feminist activism in the 1960s and ’70s, the backlash and revisionism of the ’80s and ’90s, and where feminism stands in practice and scholarship. The speakers’ list included Lucy Lippard and Linda Nochlin and a panel of international art historians, artists, critics, and curators—as well as two founding members of the Guerrilla Girls (known by their aliases Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz). A book on female artists in MoMA’s permanent collection will be published in 2009.At L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” an international retrospective of 1970s feminist art curated by Cornelia H. Butler, will run from March 4 to July 16, before traveling to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., in September and to New York’s P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in February of next year. The show features work by more than 120 artists, including Chantal Akerman, Judy Chicago, Yayoi Kusama, Ana Mendieta, Lorraine O’Grady, Adrian Piper, Yvonne Rainer, Cindy Sherman, Nancy Spero, and Hannah Wilke. And on March 22, at the Brooklyn Museum, the ribbon will be cut on the world’s first permanent museum space devoted to feminist art: the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, which will at last provide a home for Judy Chicago’s iconic work The Dinner Party (1974–79). The center, whose curator is Maura Reilly, is the inaugural venue for the touring show “Global Feminisms,” curated by Reilly and Nochlin and featuring work by artists from some 50 countries.Along with this convergence of events is an initiative called “The Feminist Art Project” (feministartproject.rutgers.edu), which is being coordinated by Rutgers University and other centers and will commemorate anniversaries of the 1970s feminist art movement.Nor should anyone overlook a significant blip on the art-world radar screen. Several major museum retrospectives of woman artists have recently been on view or are in the works in New York alone, including Elizabeth Murray at MoMA (last year); Kiki Smith (through February 11) and Lorna Simpson (March 1 through May 6) at the Whitney Museum of American Art; and Eva Hesse (last summer) and Louise Nevelson (May 5 through September 16) at the Jewish Museum.Unfortunately, this remains an anomaly. As Reilly points out in her catalogue essay, in 2005 the Guerrilla Girls updated their famous 1989 poster asking “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” with the startling statistic that less than 3 percent of the Met’s modern-art holdings were by women—down from 5 percent 16 years earlier. And in a September 2006 piece in the Village Voice, “Where the Girls Aren’t,” Jerry Saltz looks at the fall schedules for 125 top New York galleries and reports, “Of 297 one-person shows between now and December 31, just 23 percent are solos by women” (up from the previous fall’s 19 percent).Further, according to Saltz, at MoMA, only 5 percent of nearly 400 objects in the galleries dedicated to the permanent collection of work from 1879 to 1969 are by women. (Saltz’s article discusses only the works in the painting and sculpture collection—just one of seven curatorial departments at MoMA—and stops at the year 1970.)There is also the problem that many of those emerging female artists who do get representation in galleries and museums take exception to the term “feminist.” “The media love to talk about how nobody wants to be identified with being a feminist,” says Guerrilla Girl Kollwitz. “We have been working all these years to rehabilitate the word, because women and men who believe in the tenets of feminism don’t want to be associated with a term that has been demonized.”Judy Chicago hopes that the upcoming shows will permanently alter that perception. “The congruence of all these exhibitions will demonstrate that what happened in America, England, and the Western countries was a historic change,” she says.“The ’70s feminist movement is not over,” Chicago emphasizes. “It has spread worldwide. The feminist work that has been produced globally—which through these shows will come face-to-face with the New York art world—is the most significant art movement of the latter 20th century.”For Chicago, the permanent installation of The Dinner Party is a saga come full circle. And in some ways it is also a paradigm for the reconsideration of the importance of feminist art itself. Back in 1979, toward the end of the feminist movement’s heyday, when the work was first unveiled at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, it was an overnight sensation. “The initial response was huge,” says Chicago. But not for long; criticism of the piece, with its plates and runners representing 1,038 female innovators (39 of whom have their own “vulval” plates), coincided with a backlash against feminism that continued through the 1980s and ’90s. “There was a slow and negative kind of buildup in the art world of which I was completely oblivious,” says Chicago (whose original plan had been to create a porcelain room to permanently house the epic work). SFMOMA’s tour of the work fell by the wayside. “The Dinner Party went into storage, and I went into shock,” she says.Thanks to a number of grassroots groups, the international tour was rescheduled, and the piece eventually traveled to 14 venues in six countries. But it was in and out of storage until the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation acquired it and donated it in 2002 to the Brooklyn Museum, which put it on view. Now The Dinner Party will get the permanent home Chicago always envisioned for it, and, as she points out, “one of the big changes is that finally a woman has come forward to provide patronage for another woman’s work—at a level from which women had formerly been restricted.” She adds, “So much work by women has been erased, because we have not had comparable patronage. Feminism and feminist art is a long, historic struggle, and we are at another stage in the struggle.”The generation of women who were radicalized in the 1970s are now in their 40s and 50s, and many of them, like Reilly, have ascended to positions of power at major cultural institutions, and are now reexamining their holdings and the ways in which they are represented to the public.“The confluence of these shows is not serendipity,” says Reilly. “That it’s all happening at the same time is the result of a lot of hard work among myself and my female and really powerful male feminists. I think we’re finally infiltrating, to use a military term, the major institutions. The fact that something is happening at MoMA is a major coup. And the Sackler is the first exhibition space of its kind in the world dedicated to feminism. That in and of itself is worthy of major attention.”The Sackler Center’s inaugural show, “Global Feminisms,” is, in a sense, a 30-year update of Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris’s historic exhibition “Women Artists: 1550–1950,” which revealed how male-centric the canon of art history is, without questioning its Western centrism. The new show takes feminism to what Reilly calls its new frontier—international expansion. “Feminism has increasingly become a postcolonial movement that is very interested in notions of diversity and multiculturalism,” she says. “‘Global Feminisms’ is meant to embody those changes within feminism itself, which have gone global.”The exhibition also represents a generational shift: all of the artists in it were born after 1960. “We are looking at a young generation of artists who are exploring feminism from a kind of third-wave perspective, and who are part of that generation that takes feminism for granted,” says Reilly. “So this is precisely the type of audience that could really make a change.”In addition to its galleries for changing exhibitions, the center has a permanent biographical gallery devoted to the women represented in The Dinner Party. (That artwork itself was appraised at $2 million, but neither Sackler nor the museum would provide further budget details.)Says Sackler, “The center is a place that opens the door to dialogues about feminist art values and how we move as a society in the future toward equity. It provides a space for feminist art to take its place in the stream of art history. Feminist art is the mother of a lot of contemporary art. Without The Dinner Party and the feminist-art movement, many artists—both men and women—would not have branched out in the way that they did. The whole vocabulary expanded. Now we can put it in its historical place. I think we’re on a wave—and I hope it’s a roll.”“The issue of timing is really interesting,” says Butler, who curated “WACK!” at MOCA. “I think part of this is a reaction to the conservative tide in this country’s history during the time these shows were planned.” Butler (who is now Robert Lehman Foundation Chief Curator of Drawings at MoMA) says she had two major goals for the show: “I wanted to reveal the internationalism and the parallel practices of feminism, and I wanted to make a case that feminism was the most influential international impulse of postwar art. So much of the work we are now interested in is rooted in it, including the work of artists like Matthew Barney. There’s always sort of a 20-year lag between the time something happens and the time it is historicized, and coming out of the ’90s as we did, there was so much work that caused us all to look back. The radicality and freshness of the work is going to be absolutely evident, because the issues are still there. And to have the Sackler Center opening and The Dinner Party parked on the East Coast in everybody’s face is really great.”Butler has organized “WACK!” around major themes, including “Family Stories,” “Knowledge as Power,” “Silence and Noise,” “Social Intervention,” “Making Art History,” “Speaking in Public,” “Body as Medium,” and “Pattern and Assemblage,” in an effort to contextualize feminist artists as diverse as Yoko Ono and Audrey Flack.Meanwhile, at MoMA, what began as a book proposal turned into a symposium. After Peter created the Modern Women’s Fund in 2004, the museum organized a meeting of all its female curators and asked them to recommend the fund’s first project. The answer was a book documenting women in the museum’s permanent collection. (The only other major museum that has compiled a book of work by its woman artists is the Tate in London.) The first step was to create a bank of images, starting with the print collection.“It’s a tremendously exciting project to work on,” says Deborah Wye, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Chief Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books at MoMA and one of the curators responsible for the book. In order to create the image bank, each curatorial department went through its holdings and digitized images of women’s art starting in the 19th century. Now the curators are in the process of selecting the images for the volume.“I’m hoping this will create a sort of bull’s-eye for other people to think about and talk about, and for people to come forward and make donations,” says Peter. “I know Elizabeth Sackler, and perhaps people in my generation now have the skills to move into leadership. I’m old enough to have seen this happen before—the steam builds up and then dissipates—but I hope this is another surge of moving forward. The whole focus is that throughout the world, women don’t get the deal we want and the deal we deserve. Part of changing this is stepping up to the plate. I’m a wealthy woman, and if I don’t stand up and set the agenda, who is going to? It’s both my responsibility and my delight.”Guerrilla Girls Kahlo and Kollwitz think it’s about time. “There’s a lot of pressure from women inside the big art institutions to set them straight, and I think that’s where a lot of this comes from,” says Kahlo. “There are forces inside the museum, ranging from the staff to the benefactors, who are telling the museum that they really need to address these issues. It’s a no-brainer. It’s significant because it means that enlightened people inside those museums and enlightened people who give to them are trying to affect policy.”Adds Kollwitz, “There is a real acknowledgment among artists, academics, and students that feminism changed art. But it has taken a long time for curators at these institutions to get there. The question is, what is the feminist future? Where do we go from here?”Phoebe Hoban is a New York–based journalist who covers culture for a variety of publications. She is author of Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (Penguin, 1999).