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The Museum is Me!” Early Women Curators and the Making of Institutional Collections (1880s-1960s)

Between the 1880s-1970s, women started accessing decision-making roles in museums. This panel proposes a transnational exploration of both the contributions and the challenges of pioneering female curators regarding exhibition design, collection-making, and museum practice. As scholarship (Diaz-Andreu, 2005; Hill, 2016) starts unearthing the distinctiveness of women’s curatorial choices, we aim to define and explore the extent of this potential gendered approach to collecting and curating. Would institutional collections and exhibitions have been shaped anyhow differently, had more women been in charge during their history?

Beyond describing obstacles to women’s agency in arts curation (such as “marriage bars”, salary gaps, and prejudices against female leadership), this panel aims to analyse the collective impact of female management in the shaping of museums and galleries. In that respect, the session will reflect on women’s institutional collecting patterns, as well as on the public reception of their curatorial practices. What did female curators collect, exhibit and research about? What were their networking strategies with the art market, art criticism and academic scholarship? Also, to what extent did gender-related restrictions influence and shape the collections of women- led museums? What workarounds have women employed to successfully carry out their curatorial duties?

Engaging with the conference’s themes of marginalised histories and diversification of the field, this panel will address excluded narratives in the shaping of institutional collections, on the grounds that an increased understanding of the 20th-century gender-biased development of the curatorial profession may ultimately shine a historical light into the current, persisting ‘glass ceiling’ in the museum sector.

Session Convenor:

Laia Anguix-Vilches, Radboud University

Speakers:

Emily Fuggle, Queen Mary, University of London and Ben Uri Gallery and Museum

No one quite comparable’: Ethel Solomon and radical curatorial practice at Ben Uri

This paper will examine the contribution of Ethel Solomon to the history of Ben Uri, a society for Jewish artists which became a ‘cultural nexus’ for émigré(e)s from Nazi Europe (Dickson, 2015, p.2) exploring Solomon’s radical curatorial practice, her championship of women artists and her assembly of a network of women art facilitators. Solomon (née Cohen, 1888-1985) led Ben Uri’s Art Committee from c.1933 and was Chairman from 1943 until 1966. From her first meeting in the chair, she introduced ‘radical’ practices ‘accountable to the emotions behind curatorial work’ (Sleigh, 2023) – making decisions ‘by vote of the artists exclusively’ and reallocating some of the exhibition ‘proceeds…to be devoted in aid of refugees’ (Ben Uri Executive Council Minutes, 1939). Solomon supported emigrée artists in restoring their ‘ruptured careers’ (Garlake, 2005, p.170), in particular acquiring the work of Erna Nonnenmacher and Else Meidner for her own collection. Later donating these to Ben Uri, Solomon shone a light on their work when, as Griselda Pollock has remarked, the Holocaust took with it ‘whole generations of women…at a critical moment in the history of women’ (Pollock, 1996, p.17). Finally, for her ‘every measurable accomplishment’, Solomon negotiated ‘several intangible contributions’ (Whitelaw, 2012, p.84) whether from women donors, women fundraisers or the women who worked at the Ben Uri, ‘through [whose] keenness and initiative the Society has now become one of the most important and vital organisations in the Jewish community’ (Ben Uri AGM, 1947). Her contribution will be considered for its transnational implications, given the Ben Uri’s key audiences of exile and émigré communities.

Marion Anker, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Projecting calm and acting efficiently’: the significance of Rijksmuseum’s women staff members during the art evacuations of 1939-1945

Even long after the end of World War II, many colleagues would recall how Marjorie Bottenheim, the librarian of the Rijksmuseum, had – by ‘projecting calm and acting efficiently’ – brought a collection of over 300.000 prints and drawings to safety, prior to the German invasion of Netherlands. Similarly vital, yet long overlooked, were activities to protect and preserve the collection by women colleagues like Marie-Anne Heukensfeldt Jansen, a scientific researcher at the department of Decorative Arts, and Maria Zettels, who served as the museum’s executive secretary. This paper examines the tasks and significance of women staff members of the Rijksmuseum in the context of the art evacuations between 1939 and 1945 – and thus their important contribution to protecting and preserving heritage in the Netherlands during World War II.

While there is an increasing emphasis on the diversity of roles played by women during World War II, it has yet to extend to women working in the museum sector. For the British context from 1850 to 1914, Kate Hill has shown that women made substantial contributions to the museum by flexibly adapting to diverse tasks and responsibilities. At the same time, this female presence has long been downplayed – not in the least because holding the job title ‘curator’ remained a ‘masculine privilege’. These dynamics are also evident in women’s positions at the Rijksmuseum during the tumultuous years of World War II, where changing circumstances offered possibilities for the female staff.

Archishman Sarker, Jawaharlal Nehru University 

Modern Talking: Grace McCann Morley and the making and staging of the collections of the National Museum, New Delhi (1960-1966)

This paper aims to present the contributions and legacy of the North California-born curator Grace Morley, who in the 1960s travelled to India in order to curate the collections of the newly opened National Museum in New Delhi, being invited for the job by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It examines how Morley harnessed her experience in the American modern museum industry in the early twentieth century to successfully integrate newly independent India’s ideas about museum as a modern space for public contemplation and participation with the complexities of its historical past and the different religious and cultural traditions, in order to highlight how Morley’s curatorial approach represented a break from erstwhile traditions through ‘passive educational’ methods towards audience engagement and interactivity, but also through presenting many religious objects and works of art in the modern and secular space of a museum. Furthermore, thesequestions are reflected in the context of the planned demolition of the National Museum and to replace it with a new ‘Yuge Yugeen Bharat Indian Museum’— to compare the varying national ethos and sentimentality behind the making of the museum as a modern institution in the 1960s under the curatorship of Grace McCann Morley and in our times.

Carla Poler

The Power of a Public Figure: Examining the Influence of Sofía Imber on the Success of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas

Sofía Imber (1924-2017), the Romanian-born Venezuelan journalist and art patron who founded the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas (MACC) in 1974, was an instrumental figure in the construction of the Venezuelan art scene. She contributed significantly to the evolution of modern art in broader Latin America, by establishing an institution (that would be named after her 17 years later), curating a collection, and fostering a program of activities that demonstrated that Venezuela was too, on the map. How can the success of the MACC/ MACCSI and its impact on Venezuela be attributed to Sofía Imber’s presence as a public figure in the late 20th century? Undoubtedly, it isthe story of an intricate interplay between an individual figure and the care held for an institution over time.

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