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Curating ‘Women Artists’

How are women artists written about in museums and galleries? In what ways do curatorial approaches engage with feminist methodologies? Can complex theories be reflected within short wall labels, or do they inevitably become inaccessible? Should the work of women artists be interpreted in the context of gender or should the label ‘woman artist’ be rejected altogether?

Since the 1970s feminist art historians have debated approaches to writing about women artists. Methodologies range from those which employ a biographical approach, inserting women into the male-dominated ‘canon’ of art, to placing women artists in their social, political and economic contexts.

However, certain methods frame women within established stereotypes: women artists described as ‘breaking boundaries’ and ‘challenging conventions’, celebrated as ‘overlooked but now rediscovered’ or pigeonholed as artists-wives-mothers. Despite the proliferation of feminist art methodologies, there is no consensus on the most appropriate and ethical way to write about the work of women artists within a museum or gallery setting.

In 2010, curator Helen Molesworth reflected: ‘I feel fairly confident that I know how to write an essay as a feminist, less sure I know how to install art as one’. However, the work of women artists – still significantly underrepresented in public art collections – is and must be curated within museum and gallery spaces. This session will invite discussions on existing methodologies and reflections on new approaches. Proposals can include formal presentations, as well as creative and interactive responses, such as writing workshops and provocations.

Session Convenors:

Naomi Polonsky, The Women’s Art Collection, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge

Ella Nixon, Northumbria University and The Laing Art Gallery

Speakers:

Emma Davis, Birkbeck , University of London

Visual assembly – a thought experiment in curating Thérèse Lessore

This session’s convenors challenge us to consider how curation might communicate a half-century long history of academic debate on the recovery of women artists. This paper proposes to make the visual rather than written artefact its starting point. Taking Thérèse Lessore my case study, I consider how the act of assembling and viewing images might offer a tool to make choices over interpretation approach. Lessore is most frequently introduced as Sickert’s third wife, however by the time of their marriage in 1926 she had enjoyed a two-decade-long career, attracted international critical acclaim, and played a leading role in the London Group.

The exercise builds on the ‘excavation’ of Lessore’s works which, in common with many women artists, are scattered across private collections and regional museums. Mapping both extant works and gaps demonstrates visually the structural and temporal mechanisms of erasure whose explanation has been the subject of much recent academic debate. Rather than replay written research, this paper takes the form of a series of visual provocations to which I will invite the audience to respond. The works on paper for which Lessore was celebrated in her lifetime are today inconsistently digitised and rarely displayed and thus offer examples unencumbered by curatorial memory. A series of selections will test, for example, grouping by theme, comparison with contemporaries and biographical sequencing. I propose to collectively debate, from these visual starting points, the possibilities for interpretative positioning of Lessore against canonical, stylistic, and socio-cultural categories.

Una Richmond, Independent art historian

Sarah MacDougall, Ben Uri Gallery

Curating the Women’s International Art Club

In order to combat prejudice and exclusion, the Women’s International Art Club (WIAC), founded in 1898, organised annual women-only exhibitions in London, regionally and internationally until 1978 when the club disbanded. More recently, feminist historians have cautioned against women-only exhibitions for fear of marginalisation and separation from the art history canon. However, as part of a broader campaign to redress the ongoing lack of parity and visibility of women artists in permanent collections, perhaps women-only exhibitions remain warranted? Women’s art societies and clubs have been one of the most constant elements of women’s art history, but new research strategies and discourses are needed to study and exhibit such groups.

Taking the 2023 Ben Uri Gallery exhibition Sheer Verve: The Women’s International Art Club 1898- 1978 as an example, this paper will reflect on the curatorial complexities of exhibiting this seemingly disparate group of twentieth-century women artists. The juxtaposition of celebrated and lesser- known artists enabled the exhibition to draw attention to women with short careers, small oeuvres and those overlooked due to a lack of research and scholarship or simply overshadowed by male peers. The exhibition situated women within social, political and economic contexts as well as the canon of modernism, but also acknowledged their more complex histories; how they practiced, interacted, self-organised and made themselves visible both individually and as an exhibiting group. This approach offered a methodology more suited to the wider narratives of art history, working within already existing structures but expanding them to include more diverse characteristics, collaborative practices, and alternative contributions to art and society.

Marie-Anne Mancio, InFems art collective

InFems: Blueprints for the collective, feminist curation of contemporary women artists

In the short time since its inception in 2020, InFems feminist art collective has curated international exhibitions in Lisbon, Leicester, and London, working with myriad women artists from the emerging to former Venice Biennale representatives like Owanto and Tracey Moffatt. It has exhibited in an institutional show at Berlin’s Haus Kunst Mitte; hosted artists in residence both virtually and physically; held symposiums, talks, and workshops; and taken on charity fundraising projects benefiting women and girls for Carolina Herrera and, latterly, War Child UK.

Yet the evolution of the collective’s membership has thrown up questions about the nature of collaboration and feminist practice. How can we exhibit, write about, and promote contemporary women artists whilst creating valuable and authentic networks based on a new, feminist, model that reflects intersectionality? What can be learned from examining the trajectories of historic feminist collectives? What organisational model best serves a collective endeavour aspiring to collaboration over competition? Is it sustainable to operate entirely self-funded and work pro bono and what is the impact of prevailing attitudes to women’s labour? Why, as all women curators who had worked exclusively with women artists to date, did InFems elect to work with established male artists like Ai Weiwei and Peter Howson in their latest exhibition, ‘Lost Girls’ at Flowers Gallery, London?

Whilst not purporting to assert a definitive blueprint for a feminist curatorial practice, InFems aims to arrive at several through debate and knowledge sharing.

Clara Zarza, School of Architecture and Design IE University, Madrid

Curating the personal: Tensions between Self-Revelation and Biographical Framings

At the turn of the 21st century the Euro-American institutional art world developed a fascination with artworks that seemed to provide a peek into the artist’s private sphere. The polemic around pieces such as Tracey Emin’s My Bed, shortlisted for the 1999 Turner Prize, and the newfound visibility of artists playing with self-revelation part of a broader buzz around privacy, intimacy and personal narratives. Although transgressive artistic practices had been pushing the boundaries of self-portraiture and exploring the use of personal material as a critical tool since the 1960s, it is not until the mid 1990s that these practices the subject of curatorial interest. By the early 2000s the connection between art and notions of autobiography, confession and intimacy had become institutionally accepted; and this had given way to a revitalization of traditional art history models based on the relationship between the work and the artist’s biography which, in the case of women and non-normative subjects, seemed to easily take intimate and sentimentalist tones.

In this paper I wish to address the problem of assuming access to a supposedly stable artistic subject and the stigmas associated with self-representation (narcissism and lack of artistic elaboration) to then expose the sensationalism and self-fulfilling stereotypes they promote as part of a normative perspective of ‘otherness’ that manufactures and consumes difference as a commercially successful source of novelty and engagement. I will argue that, while the visibilization of that which is deemed private was a fertile soil for radical political agendas aligned with feminist, postcolonial and non-normative discourses, their curatorial reception, and dissemination in terms of testimony, confession, and autobiography worked as a depoliticizing counterforce.

Rachel Warriner, Northumbria University

Reclaiming the ‘woman artist’

In our current moment, the figure of the historical woman artist is one who is often lauded, framed as someone who challenged the society of the time to pursue her vision and insist on the value of her practice. Tales of heroic feminist challenge pervade the literature on women artists, extending to children’s books, documentary films and t-shirts, suggesting that we understand practice as a brave and political act in its own right. In this paper, I will trace the emergence of this model, looking to the 1970s and the beginnings of the women’s liberation movement in the arts to consider how and why it was formed.

Focusing on the activism of New York in the early 1970s and the cultures of publication and exhibition that were developed as part of that movement, I will consider the discursive frameworks that helped to reshape the idea of ‘the woman artist’ from being a term of derision to one of self-identification and pride. In exhibitions like X12 (1970), Mod Donn Art (1970), Where We At! Black Women Artists (1971), and Women Choose Women (1973) and in the pages of Women and Art and The Feminist Art Journal an act of redefinition was taking place, one which often argued that women were uniquely suited to creating authentic art that had not been corrupted by patriarchal culture. I argue that this was a both a consciousness-raising tactic and a strategic redefinition that allowed women to identify with and pursue women’s liberation in the arts.

Eva Belgherbi, Université de Poitiers CRIHAM – École du Louvre

Émilie Oléron Evans, Queen Mary, University of London

Women Artists Bingo, French edition

This paper invites the audience to a game of Women Artists Bingo, drawing on the exhibitions ‘elles@pompidou’ (2009-2011), ‘Sculpture’Elles, les sculpteurs femmes du XVIII-ième siècle à nos jours’ (2011), ‘Elles font l’abstraction’ (2021), and ‘Pionnières: Artistes dans le Paris des Années Folles’ (2021). These shows demonstrate that the topic has become fashionable in the French curatorial landscape, in contrast with the reluctance shown by institutions in the 1970 and 1980s – a time when, according to art critic Aline Dallier-Popper (2009), the words ‘women’ and ‘feminism’ were ‘frightening’ – to put together exhibitions ‘which would have dealt with the presence-absence of women artists in ancient or recent history’.

However, the growing number of successful yet time-limited displays of art by women has not led to any significant cultural shift in the (lack of) balance of gender representation in permanent art collections. This, we argue, is due in part to the use of a performative language that conflates and confuses showing women artists with developing a sustainable feminist museum practice. This confusion arises from the dramatisation of a form of collective amnesia surrounding women in art history, or from a rhetoric of exceptionalisation that generates an alternative canon of heroines. Guided by Linda Nochlin’s call for feminist intervention as ‘transgressive and anti-establishment practice’ (Nochlin, 2015, 320), we will ‘call out’ labels and stereotypes on our bingo card (from ‘pioneers’ to ‘ground-breaking’ to ‘overshadowed’) and exemplify how inclusivity can be embedded in the museum discourse through a language that is self-aware, flexible, and playful.

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