Thursday, March 15, 2018

Women artists still neglected -- March 15, 2018 column


Can you name five women artists? Off the top of your head. No Googling.

Take your time. I’ll wait.

If you found the question tougher than you expected, as I did, we’re not alone. When the National Museum of Women in the Arts hit the streets of Washington and asked people to name five, a common response was, “Um.” Most people couldn’t.

The museum launched the challenge March 1 for Women’s History Month. Now in its third year, the #5WomenArtists social media campaign aims to make people aware of gender inequality in the art world.

It’s embarrassing to realize how few women artists’ names leap to mind – after Georgia O’Keeffe, of course – but it’s not entirely our fault. Women are often the subject of art in museums but rarely the creators.     

As the provocative poster by Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous feminist art activists, reads: “Do women have to be naked to get into U.S. museums?”

In 1989, women artists were less than 5 percent of the artists but more than 85 percent 
of the nudes in the modern art sections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Surely, you say, things are better now. Nope. In 2011, women artists were less than 4 percent of the artists and 76 percent of the nudes in the modern art sections at the Met, the group reported.

If you look at a work of art in the National Gallery of Art, there’s only a 4 percent chance it was created by a woman, say researchers at the data analysis firm Priceonomics, who pored over the gallery’s online collection of nearly 100,000 works.

Male dominance on museum walls reflects when the art works were created, Priceonomics says, explaining that more than 70 percent of the art at the National Gallery was created before 1950 and only 4 percent since 1990, when gender parity was first achieved among debut artists.

The women’s museum sprang from another simple, but rarely asked, question: Where are all the women artists?

Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, now 95, and her late husband, Wallace, started  collecting art by women in the 1960s, opened their Georgetown home for art tours and then founded the private, nonprofit museum a few blocks from the White House.

Its collection of more than 5,000 pieces from the 16th century to the present includes work by Louise Bourgeois, Mary Cassatt, Judy Chicago, Frida Kahlo and Amy Sherald, whose portrait of Michelle Obama was recently unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

When the women’s museum opened in 1987, some women artists weren’t keen on being pigeon-holed by gender, and some critics panned it.

“A virtuous bore,” sniped critic Robert Hughes in Time magazine. He dismissed the museum as “a grimly sentimental waste of money, an idea whose time is gone” and predicted it would soon be irrelevant.

Except that it wasn’t.

Women artists are still exceptional, a nice way of saying neglected. But that’s changing. Millions saw the Google doodle on March 8, International Women’s Day, featuring 12 female artists.

Last year, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, one of the world’s oldest and most famous museums, had its first exhibition of work by Plautilla Nelli, a 16th century nun considered the first woman Florentine painter. The Uffizi promises more exhibitions of art by lost women artists.

Rediscovering and restoring women’s art in Florence is the inspiring mission of American Jane Fortune – sometimes called Indiana Jane – and the Advancing Women Artists Foundation she founded.

Closer to home, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts had an exhibition of “Women Artists and Abstract Expressionism” from May 2016 to January 2017. You can find an audio tour on the museum’s website that features 16 of the nearly 300 women artists in its collection.

The #MeToo movement has raised consciousness, as we used to say, about the need for women’s perspective in all aspects of society, including the art world. But what action can we take?

Ask museums and galleries to exhibit more women artists. Praise exhibitions that strive for gender equity, criticize those that fall short. Share your enthusiasm with the staff and on social media, the women’s museum suggests.

And, of course, buy artwork by women.

Next year we’ll see if we can name five women artists without an “Um.” 

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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