A Place of Honor, or of Con­fine­ment?

Women’s Mu­seum Gives Ne­glected Artists Their Due and, One Hopes, Other Venues a Prod

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts - By Ann Hornaday

The Na­tional Mu­seum of Women in the Arts opened its doors in 1987, and im­me­di­ately the is­sues tum­bled out: Would the for­mer Ma­sonic tem­ple (turned kung fu movie house) be an all-im­por­tant “room of one’s own” for women artists? Or a ghetto? Would it cor­rect a record dom­i­nated by the mus­cu­lar hero­ics of Michelan­gelo, Pi­casso and Pol­lock, or push women fur­ther to the mar­gins of that nar­ra­tive?

Would sep­a­rate be equal or would it fur­ther in­sti­tu­tion­al­ize in­equal­ity? What’s more, wouldn’t the suc­cess of the Women’s Mu­seum — full foot­ing for women artists in terms of space, money and ac­claim — by def­i­ni­tion en­tail its ob­so­les­cence?

It’s a mea­sure of fem­i­nism’s gains that those ques­tions can now be seen as pre­sent­ing false choices. As the Women’s Mu­seum it­self stands to re­mind us, re­al­ity is all in the fram­ing. I’m re­minded of what may have been the best ad­vice Glo­ria Steinem ever gave me, when I was a young would-be writer at Ms. mag­a­zine fac­ing some now-forgotten ir­rec­on­cil­able choice. “You know what I al­ways say,” she told me, with char­ac­ter­is­tic mor­dant wit and blind­ing clar­ity. “When you have a choice be­tween two things, take both.”

That was just a year or two be­fore Ms., in its un­signed re­view of the open­ing show at the Women’s Mu­seum (the NMWA trade­marked that name), summed up so many fem­i­nists’ anx­i­eties about an in­sti­tu­tion many re­garded as elit­ist and dis­em­pow­er­ing. Af­ter chastis­ing the mu­seum for lack­ing crit­i­cal and cu­ra­to­rial edge, for marginal­iz­ing great women artists and pa­tron­iz­ing medi­ocre ones, the anony­mous reviewer ended on a de­featist note: “For now, artists are caught in a dou­ble bind. Damned if they do en­ter the col­lec­tion, and damned if they don’t.”

Damned if you do, or take both? That might sum up the cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance of the gen­er­a­tions, not just of artists but of all women who have come of age in the past 20 years. It cer­tainly seems to fit an art world that has seen huge strides made by women dur­ing those years, but whose pa­ram­e­ters have changed lit­tle since cu­ra­tor, critic and his­to­rian Linda Nochlin wrote a sem­i­nal (ovu­lual?) es­say in ART­news.

Pub­lished in 1971, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” rad­i­cally re­framed the no­tion of artis­tic ge­nius, not as some su­per­nat­u­ral “golden ker­nel” of in­her­ent great­ness but as the re­sult of in­ten­tion and am­bi­tion on the part of the artist and a con­spir­acy of cul­ti­va­tion from an en­tire range of sup­port­ers and in­sti­tu­tions, from am­bi­tious par­ents (usu­ally fa­thers) to teach­ers (usu­ally male) to spouses (usu­ally wives), not to men­tion col­lec­tors, cu­ra­tors and crit­ics.

In other words, artis­tic ge­nius is as much so­cially con­structed as mys­ti­cally im­bued. Which might have been one but not the only rea­son why, un­til 1986, no fe­male artists were in­cluded in H.W. Jan­son’s stan­dard art his­tory text­book, 95 per­cent of the art­works ex­hib­ited in Amer­i­can mu­se­ums were by men (even though women ac­counted for 38 per­cent of work­ing artists), and few if any ma­jor mu­se­ums saw fit to give fe­male artists solo shows. (It bears not­ing that the Na­tional Gallery of Art pre­sented oneper­son ex­hi­bi­tions of Berthe Morisot and Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe the year the Women’s Mu­seum opened, per­haps con­firm­ing its po­ten­tial as a source of tacit pres­sure.)

Those num­bers have in­creased. And a walk through the hushed, gen­teel gal­leries of the Women’s Mu­seum to­day re­veal a still-young col­lec­tion, mod­est in scale and scope, that proves there’s noth­ing the­mat­i­cally mono­lithic or aes­thet­i­cally uni­fy­ing or morally dis­tinct about art made by women, but that there’s some- thing po­tent about con­sid­er­ing their work in so­cial and his­tor­i­cal con­text. In fact, its very gen­til­ity and mod­esty make the Women’s Mu­seum’s col­lec­tion an in­ad­ver­tent ex­pres­sion of women’s fore­closed po­ten­tial through the ages. Part of what makes the mu­seum in­valu­able is its re­minder to to­day’s as­pir­ing fe­male art stars that, not­with­stand­ing the fem­i­nist vic­to­ries they now take for granted, ’twasn’t al­ways thus.

And clearly things have im­proved, as this year’s fem­i­nist shows, spa­ces and sym­posia at­test to. As Nochlin her­self said in a re­cent is­sue of ART­news — which first pub­lished her seis­mic ar­ti­cle and which 36 years later an­nounced that fem­i­nist art is the “Next Wave” — “We’ve made a lot of progress.”

But is that progress struc­tural and en­dur­ing, or just an­other form of mar­ket­ing hype? As Ben Davis, as­so­ci­ate ed­i­tor of the on­line jour­nal Art­net, wrote last month, the num­bers still don’t line up. Women make up more than half the stu­dents in art schools, he noted, while only one-third of the solo shows in Chelsea have ex­clu­sively fea­tured women artists.

The art world is awash in mad amounts of cash right now, but “What is deemed ‘hot’ new art must fac­tor in what piques the in­ter­est of play­boy Euro­pean heirs, Ja­panese cap­i­tal­ists, newly rich Rus­sian rob­ber barons, Amer­i­can i-bankers and the like,” Davis wrote, “all of whom are pre­dom­i­nantly male, and ar­guably less prone to buy overtly ‘fem­i­nine,’ let alone fem­i­nist, work, or take women se­ri­ously.”

We have made progress, as Nochlin ob­serves. But it’s all in the fram­ing: Progress can mean not only more fe­male art stars (a Yuskav­age here, a Whiteread there), but en­tire com­mu­ni­ties of fe­male artists sur­rounded by squads of sup­port­ive teach­ers, men­tors, col­lec­tors and, above all, spouses will­ing to cook, par­ent, clean and per­form those myr­iad thank­less tasks that make ge­nius pos­si­ble.

Progress can mean not only that emerg­ing women artists tran­scend re­duc­tion­ist la­bels when they don’t iden­tify them­selves as fem­i­nists or women, but that they won’t be pun­ished or marginal­ized if they do.

Progress can mean not that NMWA be­comes ob­so­lete (“Hey, half the Hir­sh­horn’s col­lec­tion is now by women — we can all go home!”), but that it be­comes sim­ply an­other venue for ex­cel­lence in Wash­ing­ton, be­com­ing not an an­nex to, but a cru­cial part of, the larger cul­tural land­scape. The great­ness of a mu­seum, af­ter all, lies not in its or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple, but in its cu­ra­to­rial vi­sion.

And progress can mean not just look­ing crit­i­cally at the no­tion of a Women’s Mu­seum but look­ing crit­i­cally at the far big­ger and bet­ter en­dowed Na­tional Mu­se­ums of White Men in the Arts that out­num­ber it. Progress can and should mean that male ad­min­is­tra­tors, col­lec­tors and crit­ics fi­nally see their col­lec­tions and canons as half-empty when women are miss­ing or not con­sid­ered.

Of course, that’s an­other fram­ing is­sue. On my way out of the Women’s Mu­seum re­cently, I hap­pened upon a young wo­man nurs­ing her baby on the first floor, calmly gaz­ing into the mid­dle dis­tance, look­ing for all the world like a Mary Cassatt paint­ing two floors up. Was she bathed in the soft sen­ti­men­tal glow of iconic moth­er­hood? Or did she sim­ply em­body women’s prac­ti­cal — and, thanks to fem­i­nism, in­her­ently po­lit­i­cal — ca­pac­ity for get­ting on with things?

I’d say both.

NA­TIONAL MU­SEUM OF WOMEN IN THE ARTS

The Na­tional Mu­seum of Women in the Arts: Will progress make it ob­so­lete?

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