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For Its Centennial, the Allen Museum Focuses on the Important Roles Women Played in Its History

The Allen Memorial Art Museum clearly understands the importance of the issue of gender equity.

Inscription on the entrance of the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio (all photos courtesy of the author for Hyperallergic)

CLEVELAND — While there may be some folks in the art world who believe we are reaching gender equity in the representation of men and women artists in museums, most are fully aware that gender is still an issue. The Allen Memorial Art Museum clearly understands this, and has taken their centennial anniversary celebration to highlight the significant and primary roles women have played in the founding of the museum, and the curation, donation, and production and its artworks since its very beginning.

Carved into the façade of the Allen Memorial Art Museum is the text “The Cause of Art is the Cause of the People.” Equity is built into its architecture, and is reinforced by its lineage of staff. Many of its curators have been women, notably its earliest ones, when such staffing was less common. The museum has had four female directors, including Sharon Patton, one of the earliest African-American, female museum directors in the country. The museum’s founder and first benefactor was a woman: Elisabeth Severance Allen (later Prentiss), the daughter of the treasurer of Standard Oil. A significant portion of the museum’s extensive collection exists thanks to the work of women — including a collection of about 1500 Japanese prints, mostly from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, donated by Mary Ainsworth (some of which will be featured in a Spring 2018 exhibition), and a modern art collection of works acquired through the influence and advocacy of the iconic Oberlin College art history professor, Ellen Johnson. Even more, the core of the Allen’s modern European collection was made possible through donations from the co-founder of the Maidenform company, Enid Bissett. In an interview with Hyperallergic, museum director, Andria Derstine, said they “weren’t planning to focus on women, but it just kind of came about.” Looking at how integral women have been in the Allen’s workings for the past one hundred years, it is not surprising women in the arts emerged as a prominent theme.

Gallery view of This Is Your Art: The Legacy of Ellen Johnson

There are five special exhibition galleries allocated for the centennial anniversary to convey highlights of the Allen’s collection of contemporary modern art, Asian art and printmaking. Two additional centennial exhibitions looking at Rembrandt and Japanese prints will be shown in 2018. Maidenform to Modernism: The Bissett Collection presents twenty-four artworks that were donated by Enid Bissett and her husband Joseph Bissett. The two became ballroom dancers and entertainers together in the 1920s, eventually leading to Enid’s co-founding the internationally successful Maidenform company, which focused on the production of a new type of brassiere. In 1952, the Bissetts decided to give the collection to the Allen because of the museum’s connection to Oberlin College. (They actually started making donations in 1955 and continued to do so up to 1966.) They made the donation with the particular purpose of using the works of art in an academic setting to further the education of students. The full collection of prominent modernist works have not been on display since 1968.

Gallery view of This Is Your Art: The Legacy of Ellen Johnson

The deep connection of the museum to Oberlin college is highlighted in This Is Your Art: The Legacy of Ellen Johnson, the exhibition that pays homage to the legacy of former Oberlin professor Ellen Johnson who expanded the museum’s collection by strongly advocating for museum purchases, donating from her personal collection, or by facilitating works being donated in her honor. Johnson also initiated the Art Rental Program, which continues to this day, enabling students to rent original works of art for a few dollars each semester. Professor Johnson insisted to her students that contemporary art was “your art” and worked tirelessly to increase the Allen’s collection to ensure that students had the opportunity to live with and be changed by the art and communicate with the artists who made them.

Gallery view of Maidenform to Modernism: The Bissett Collection

The majority of the Allen’s collection are prints, and so in considering the centennial, according to Derstine, it only seemed to make sense to the curators to have an exhibition focused on printmaking. While printmaking has been seen for centuries as a masculine art form — because of its physically demanding nature, messiness, and the social restrictions on women’s access to it — the conception of the exhibition overlapped with the 2016 presidential election’s rhetorical focus on women. Curator Andaleeb Banta keenly suggested the exhibition shine light on the work of women printmakers, because as Derstine described it, they “knew it was important.” The result was A Century of Women in Prints, 1917–2017 which lays out a wide range of styles and approaches to printmaking: from a selection of Käthe Kollwitz’s dark and dramatic German woodcuts from the 1920s to Native American Jaune Quick-To-See Smith’s color lithograph, “Theatres of War” (2006). The works range from calculated and mathematical shapes like Agnes Denes “Dialectic Triangulation: A Visual Philosophy” (1970),  and Vija Celmins’ “Constellation-Uccello” (1982), to the more abstract and blurry images of Koo Kyung Sook’s “Invisible Torso #2” (2004) and Kiki Smith’s “Untitled,” (1990) a two-color lithograph that looks like a wild mat of hair or roots. Faith Ringgold’s 1996 colorful lithograph “The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles” steals the show with its vibrant storytelling reflecting a strong folk culture.

A series of prints by Käthe Kollwitz included in the A Century of Women in Prints, 1917-2017 exhibition

As the Allen reflects on the past one hundred years, they are also looking forward. For Derstine, she sees the Allen continuing to be a “training ground for the next generation,” one that is especially inclusive of women and women of color. She says, “It takes three things to make a great museum: its collection, its building, and its people.” From the looks of things, the ethos carved into their museum “The Cause of Art is the Cause of the People” isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Editor’s Note: Subsequent to publication, a few factual errors were found in the article. They have since been corrected. We apologize for the inaccuracies. 

 A Century of Women in Prints, 1917-2017 runs through December 17, 2017. This Is Your Art: The Legacy of Ellen Johnson; Maidenform to Modernism: The Bissett Collection, both run through May 27 at the Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College, 87 North Main Street, Oberlin, Ohio).

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