Women have been artists since the beginning of time, yet their names have been buried and forgotten by art history and museums around the world as male artists have taken the center stage. A movement over the last thirty years has called for museums and art history to bring their names out of the archives and display them in their proper place amongst the noteworthy artists of the world.
The issue of including women in museums and cultural institutions came to the forefront of the artistic community with the creation of a group of women artists known as the Guerilla Girls. Founded in 1985, a group of anonymous women artists who adopted the names of famous women artists from history and began critiquing museums and institutions for the startling absence of women artists in their exhibitions. They composed posters, billboards, and protests to draw attention to these issues, such as their well-known piece “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist” which lists “advantages” such as “seeing your ideas live on in the works of other people” or “not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius”. Their works focus on educating the public about the discrepancy between the amount of women artists there are and the amount that are represented in museums and in art historical memory.
It was around the same time that a new museum was opening in Washington DC that followed along with the goals of the Guerrilla Girls. The National Museum of Women in the Arts was founded in 1981 by Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and her husband, Walter. The couple began collecting art after a discussion with a friend and searched out a niche of the art market that was overlooked. Stumbling upon the untapped market of works by women artists, they quickly began collecting until they had a large enough collection to start the museum. The current location of the museum is an old Masonic temple a few blocks away from the White House and opened in 1983.
The museum’s mission proclaims their dedication to the display of women artists from around the world and across all time periods. The museum currently holds a collection of over 4500 works by women and presents ten exhibitions a year around women artists each year. The museum also holds a large library and research center of over 18,500 volumes on women artists. The museum upholds their dedication to promoting women artists through a variety of programs as well. Their FRESH TALK series brings in artists, academics, curators and other prominent figures in the creative world to discuss pressing issues, starting with women’s issues and touching on issues of race, class, the environment, the economy and many other topics. They also host cocktail hours and family-style dinners to bring the community together to discuss pressing issues in their community. Their mission to display and promote an underrepresented group of artists has influenced their actions and made them a center of discussion for other issues facing minorities and our community.
A great feature on the museum’s website is their “In Your Region” section, which highlights exhibitions of women artists around the country and internationally. This section promotes these exhibitions and encourages the patrons of the NMWA to spread their passion for women artists around the country by visiting these other exhibitions. The museum makes itself a center for support and promotion of women artists, even outside the walls of the museum. Every March for Women’s History month, the museum encourages followers on their social media pages to name five women artists. This campaign pushed followers and their community to think about how much we know about women artists and how little attention they receive. The campaign was supported by a series of events throughout the month, such as a “Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon” where they got people together to improve or create Wikipedia pages related to notable women artists and members of the art community. As well as supporting other museums displaying women artists and pushing their patrons to get involved in advocacy, the NMWA provides artists resources to support contemporary women artists in writing grants, applying for artists residencies, and finding supportive artist communities around the country so these women artists can flourish.
The movement started by the National Museum of Women in the Arts has spread to other museums in recent years. Curators are becoming more aware of the deficiency of women artists in their museums and many have taken the initiative to bring more solo exhibitions of women artists to their museums. Museums, such as the National Gallery in London, the Prado in Madrid, and museums throughout the United States have started presenting more and more exhibitions dedicated to women artists. There is a growth in gallery spaces reserved for the display of women artists, such as Woman Made Gallery in Chicago, which provides exhibition space, professional opportunities and public programming to support women artists and “ensure the equal placement of women’s art in the world”.
The important element of his movement is that the focus is not on raising women artists’ work above the works of their male contemporaries, but rather open up the dialogue so that women artists are a part of the discussion. As stated previously, there are only 27 women artists mentioned in the standard art historical survey textbook. When discussing art history, women artists rarely enter the conversation simply because few people know about them. This movement is focuses on the idea that these artists deserve an equal placement in our museums and art historical memory. The current situation shows women artists as a minority group of artists, categorized and separated from the main art community and placed in specialized spaces, such as the National Museum of Women in the Arts and galleries like Woman Made. While these spaces are doing excellent work informing the public about the importance and talent of women artists, they continue to stigmatize women artists because of their gender. They are places in separate spaces because they are considered different from the works of their male contemporaries. It is for this reason that many artists who identify as female reject the title of “woman artist”, because it segregates them. Many notable women artists have spoken out, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, who stated “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.” By classifying these women as “women artists”, it allows the public and the art world to place them in a different category, often a lesser category, from their male contemporaries. As Elaine de Koonig said in response to the article titled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” by Linda Nochlin;
“We’re artists who happen to be women or men among other things we happen to be—tall, short, blonde, dark, mesomorph, ectomorph, black, Spanish, German, Irish, hot-tempered, easy-going—that are in no way relevant to our being artists.”
The difficult question is how can we begin to inform the public about these artists and integrate them into museums without first identifying them as a separate group that we must recognize. This is a struggle that many of these museums are fighting with and I believe that as the public is more informed about these women artists, they will follow in the example of well-known women artists like Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe, and will be able to be integrated within their art historical context, hanging in museums alongside their male contemporaries.
The final struggle facing this movement of inclusion is the lack of female positions of power in the highest ranks of the museum. While many curators within the museum field are female, less than half the museums included in the American Association of Museum Directors have women at the head of the museum, with only about 47% of small museums having women directors and only about 25% of large museums having women as directors. The same discussion can be brought up when looking at museum’s board of trustees. Museums and galleries, such as the National Museum of Women in the Arts, have entirely female boards of trustees who are supporting these women artists and the mission to be more inclusive, but establishments like the Metropolitan Museum, the Art Institute, and larger encyclopedic art museums have males in the highest positions of power. While more and more female curators are pushing to include women artists in their museums, they are hitting roadblocks at the highest level from directors and boards of trustees who are not looking to put the money into large exhibitions of artists the public may not recognize.
While the movement to include more women artists in museums and galleries has seen dramatic changes in the last few decades with the institutional critiques of the Guerrilla Girls or the opening of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the separation of “women artists” from “artists” is still clearly defined and is a roadblock in the path to creating museums that represent male and female artists throughout art history equally.
National Museum of Women in the Arts Website
Wilhemina Holladay, A Museum of Their Own. 2008.
Gender Gap in Museum Directorship, Association of Art Museum Directors.