Almost no one now living remembers the time before the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women over the age of 21 the right to vote on August 26, 1920. With its centennial approaching next year—in what is shaping up to be an election year for the ages—U.S. art institutions are organizing exhibitions and programs that not only mark that momentous event but also address its failure to protect women of color in vast parts of the nation and spotlight enduring inequities in the present.
The Feminist Art Coalition (FAC), a consortium of 52 art organizations across the U.S. initiated by the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, has been organizing many efforts, which will include a series of feminist-informed shows, performances, lectures, and symposia that will take place in 2020 from September to November at venues that range from giants like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to smaller institutions like 80 Washington Square East at New York University and Root Division in San Francisco.
The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College will open “Never Done: 100 Years of Women in Politics and Beyond” on August 26, coinciding exactly with the centennial of America’s adoption of the 19th Amendment. Organized by Rachel Seligman, the Tang’s curator and assistant director for curatorial affairs, and Minita Sanghvi, a professor of management and business at Skidmore, the show will include 100 works by 100 women artists, with Lorna Simpson, Deborah Roberts, Laura Aguilar, Cindy Sherman, Martine Gutierrez, Wendy Red Star, and Mickalene Thomas among them.
Also in the Tang show will be a framework replica of the Wesleyan Chapel, the site of the first suffrage meeting in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. This roofed structure, which will be created by an in-house designer, will function as a space for programming related to the 2020 election as well as campus and local issues. Special events, debate watching parties, voter registration drives, and more will be organized with a student advisory group, many of whose members will be first-time voters next year.
“I think we want to make sure there’s a program that will really contextualize the moment of suffrage in terms of both what it accomplished and what it did not accomplish,” Seligman told ARTnews. “We want to be particularly conscious about a program that helps to explore the nuances of that moment and how they have impacted women from that moment until now.”
Some works featured in the exhibition, which is planned in collaboration with a group of Skidmore faculty members, will be drawn from the Tang’s collection, with other pieces by artists who are not represented in its holdings. The show will not be divided thematically so as to speak to dialogues and intersections between issues of gender, race, sexuality, and class. It “will suggest a very diverse chorus all at once speaking to this stage in the middle, which I’m hoping will be very dramatic and impactful,” Ian Berry, the Tang’s director, said.
The Tang is encouraging professors to integrate the exhibition into their curriculum. A political science course focused on the college’s history with women’s suffrage will organize a concurrent display of archival materials from the school’s Lucy Scribner Library in the museum.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Museum of Art has launched what it’s terming “2020 Vision.” For the year, it will organize special exhibitions with a focus on women, including solo shows by Tschabalala Self, Mickalene Thomas, Lisa Yuskavage, Candice Breitz, Katharina Grosse, and Joan Mitchell (a hotly anticipated retrospective). Also on tap are thematic exhibitions exploring representations of motherhood in African art, 20th-century American craft, and beaded works created by Lakota women in the 19th-century.
In an interview with ARTnews, Christopher Bedford, the BMA’s director, said that the museum’s priorities “have to do with analyzing the canon as we know it and correcting it for various omissions,” adding, “The idea of focusing a year on women artists and female identifying artists aligned very seamlessly with that agenda.”
The institution has also committed to acquiring only work by women in 2020, an effort that is part of the BMA’s attempts to address historical inequities in its collection and programming. (The Rockwell Museum in Corning, New York, while not part of FAC, has similarly vowed to acquire only works by women artists in 2020.)
The centennial programs come as many institutions have been actively looking to correct historical imbalances in their collections, a project that has been central to Bedford’s tenure at the BMA. In recent years, the museum has deaccessioned work by white male artists represented in its collection to acquire pieces by women artists and artists of color.
And it’s not just art museums that are getting involved. This summer, the Museum of the City of New York’s added to its ongoing, rotating exhibition “Activist New York” a section on the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s and its relationship to the 19th Amendment. The online component of the show also features information on major demonstrations for women’s suffrage around New York.
“We wanted to gesture at the Women’s Liberation movement 50 years later, and in turn connect that movement and the feminist movement to the suffrage movement,” Sarah Seidman, curator of “Activist New York,” told ARTnews.
Ephemera like magazines, posters, and newspapers currently figure in the show, along with an iconic photograph of Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes captured by Dan Wynn, a bookshelf stacked with feminists texts, and more.
Special programming at the MCNY in 2020 will focus on women who could not vote after the passage of the 19th Amendment, examining Jim Crow laws’ disenfranchisement of black women, exclusionary laws that prohibited Asian American women from voting, and other histories of discrimination.
The New-York Historical Society, meanwhile, will take a chronological approach to the story of women’s collective activism from the 1820s to the present. Organized in five sections, “Women March,” opening February 21, 2020, will feature video footage, photographs, and archival materials.
The show “contemplates the 19th Amendment as a moment that was not an end in itself, but rather a beginning,” Valerie Paley, director of the NYHS Center for Women’s History, told ARTnews, explaining that it looks at “what exactly was going on in the buildup to the 19th Amendment, and what the unfinished aspects of that story, which continue today, were.”
There are deep dives on petitions against slavery and crimes against Native Americans signed by women in the first half of the 19th-century, the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, sanitary commissions organized by women during the Civil War, and a post-Civil War speech made by the abolitionist and suffragist Frances Harper (which is reenacted by Tony-nominated actor Ariana DeBose in a film on view).
“We hope to create an immersive environment for visitors to viscerally feel the historical context of what we’re talking about,” Paley said. “We’re showing that this whole process of women’s suffrage and activism is part of a longer movement of women coming together for change.”