Curators Debate the Pros and Cons of All-Women’s Art Shows

In the wake of #MeToo, all-women’s art shows have taken on new significance. But whether such shows are an effective strategy for achieving gender equity in the art world is still up for debate.

Jill Finsen, “Yellow Sail” (2018) 20 x 20 inches, oil on canvas (all images courtesy New York Studio School)

It’s been nearly half a century since the founding of the feminist art movement in the United States. Despite the progress made since then, statistics still paint a depressing picture of gender disparity in the contemporary art world. According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, even though 51% of visual artists working today are women, just 5% of artwork featured in major U.S. museums is made by women; only 25-35% of women artists have gallery representation; and women working across arts professions make an average of $20,000 less per year than men.

In recent years, in an effort to help correct for these long-standing disparities, many art institutions — even those with histories of disproportionately representing men — have hosted all-women’s art shows. In the midst of the cultural reckoning spurred by the #metoo movement, such shows have taken on new significance.

This summer, the The New York Studio School, a renowned art school formed in Greenwich Village in 1963, hosted its first-ever all-women’s alumni show. Called X Marks the Spot: Women of the Studio School, the exhibit featured the work of 90 female and female-identifying artists affiliated with the institution. Artworks on view ranged from Niki Singleton’s “I Never Preferred Blondes”, a showstopper painting of female desire and rage, to actress Lucy Liu’s self-portrait collage, “Slow Motion Love Kiss.”

Lucy Liu, “Slow Motion Love Kiss” (2018) Collage, 20″ x 17″

Whether all-women’s shows are an effective long-term strategy for achieving gender equity in the art world at large remains a subject of heated debate. At a panel discussion that accompanied the Studio School exhibit, some artists and curators argued that gender-based shows encourage tokenism and relegate women to the sidelines, while others argued that, after centuries of art shows that featured only men, all-women shows are a necessary corrective. Malado Baldwin and Maia Ibar, curators of X Marks the Spot, recently sat down with artist and Studio School alumnus Erin Haldrup Perrazzelli to discuss the pros and cons of organizing a show premised on gender.

Niki Singleton, “I Never Preferred Blondes” (2017) Handmade oil, acrylic, glitter on panels, 56 x 48 in

Malado Baldwin: No all-women show had been done before at the New York Studio School. When we proposed the show in 2016, during the presidential election campaigns — perhaps buoyed by a female candidate — we thought that it was past due time for such a #herstoric event. Significantly more women than men come out of the Studio School — which is true of most art schools — and in the years since we graduated, we have witnessed the discouragement of our female peers as they encounter the challenges of being female in the art world at large. We wanted to provide a platform for these artists to share their accomplishments — to encourage, support, and promote. And in doing so, perhaps tip the balance a bit in an effort towards equalization.

Erin Haldrup:  During a panel talk about the exhibit, two accomplished painters and alumnae of the school, Andrea Belag and Joyce Pensato, were asked if we should have all-women shows.  They both answered assuredly, no.

Malado Baldwin: They brought up good points about all-female shows relegating women to the sidelines. As a third-wave feminist artist myself — a former riot grrrl and strong advocate of feminism since my early teens — my views tended to differ. I believe inherent sexism continues to affect all areas of culture globally, and that it is essential to continue to raise awareness and strive towards equality by any means. I think that women’s advocacy groups and women’s shows are effective ways to affect that change.

Erin Haldrup Perrazzelli, “Creation”

Maia Ibar: This is a complicated topic that I am not sure will ever be resolved until there is equilibrium. We are in the process of reimagining the canon of the past. In 2018, the statistics about gender in the art world still indicate great inequality and show the serious, urgent, whacky reality of our time. Allowing marginalized people the space and opportunity to express their perspectives is critical. If we do not acknowledge the spectrum of the human condition, we continue to be part of the problem. Engaging in these marginalized perspectives can often be tense, but now is the time to step forward — post-#metoo, post-#feminisms, post-#cheeto. Shows like this bring awareness and celebration [of women artists]. We did not think that this show was devaluing or victimizing the artists but more embracing each others’ sisterhood; a door to check in, to share, to listen, to provide space.

Erin Haldrup: On the surface, the debate appeared to be about all-women art shows, but it was really an example of a deeper debate — the locking of horns between two opposing waves of feminism. There are differing philosophies regarding the best strategies for relieving women of their position as “the other” in society. Second wave feminists think that holding all-women’s shows relegates them to that very position.  Based on the strong generational divide in the room, it became clear that there is a new wave of feminism that seeks to give women opportunities, special or not, in order to create a chance for society at large to see that woman are on equal footing.

Jenny Lynn McNutt “URGE, Ninhursag” (2017)

Malado Baldwin: What I got from curating the show, participating in the panel, and hearing the audience voice their reactions, was how much peoples’ individual stories entered into their perspectives; testimonials that affirmed the necessity, as I understand it, of making space for female artists of all kinds to showcase their work. More often than not, we are juggling a lot, as moms and partners, or solo artists working and hopefully showing. Until someone makes that leap of faith and gives us an opportunity, says yes to a proposal, or asks us to be in a show, we are on the sidelines. It is about the work — it is not about gender. But, it is also about giving equal opportunity.

Maia Ibar: I would like to be in a position where I could say I don’t think about my identity as a “woman artist”, but as an artist and curator today, there is still a gender problem. My perspective has had to change after years of identifying myself purely as an “artist” without bringing the specific conditions of my [female] existence into it. Also, I’d mention that there can be a stereotypical competitive behavior between women when they are forced to fight for limited forms of recognition in a misogynist society.

Carole Seborovski, “Ocean of Love” (2018) Flashe, glass powder, aluminum leaf, glass beads, clay stilt, acrylic, acrylic latex, wood pan. 12 x 8 x 3½ in

This show was a way of saying “Hey, we are walking this path together, and if we help each other out and stay positive, we are activating this deconditioning process.”  I think that not having a specific theme besides the title of the show X Marks the Spot: Women of the NYSS brought in some tremendously strong work. The artists and art were vibrant, bold, humorous, serious. It brought all kinds of topics — ranging from motherhood to pussy-grabbing, animals, landscapes, and abstractions. We were not specifically trying to tackle femininity for this show; we were picking the most compelling art and putting it together in the best way that provided the strength of the show.

Erin Haldrup: I also never thought of myself as a “woman painter” until I had children.  I want to be careful in expressing this because all women face extra challenges and mine are no more special than others’ — but my particular challenges have to do with balancing painting and motherhood. You have to really focus to harness, direct, and strengthen your energy as a mother who is also an artist.

When I think of historical examples of artists who are mothers, there is a dirth. I can come up with Alice Neel and Sally Mann as a couple great ones. But today, because things are changing for the better for artist mothers, there are many more examples. Some of the highest paid and most successful female artists are mothers, such as Cecily Brown, who is an alumnus of the New York Studio School. There are artists who are mothers in the show: Becky Yazdan, Catherine Lepp, Elisa Jensen and Cecelia Rembert, to name a few — and they are all doing an incredible of job of striking this balance.

Men never have to ask themselves whether it would pigeonhole them to create work that is uniquely male in its perspective — in fact, it’s expected, encouraged, and does well in the market. This goes back to what I was saying about masculinity still being the normal or dominant energy in society from which everything else is considered a deviation. So I see this prejudice as a problem.

Malado Baldwin: There was so much great work in the show. I think the female perspective is an interesting and worthwhile one — and also, marketable. And since the point of the exhibition is to showcase artistic talent, I’ll mention some highlights: Alice Klugherz’s stunning performances spoke to a hardcore feminism with humor and seriousness. Niki Singleton’s show-stopper of female desire and rage, “I Never Preferred Blondes”, was full of contrasts. There were paintings that spoke to admiration of other women, like Susu Pianchupattana’s portrait of the beloved Queen mother Somdet Ya of Thailand, “Mom Told Her Tale.” Or, more intimate moments like Dena Shutzer’s painting of a woman in a laundromat, “Laundromat-20 dollars,” and actress Lucy Liu’s collage (perhaps a self-portrait), titled “Slow Motion Love Kiss.” The influential Studio School professor Margrit Lewczuk’s graphic small painting “Orange X” and Tamara Gonzales’ “Acoustic Location” paired nicely next the fierce multimedia collage-painting by Sylvina Rodruiguez, “N.A.”

Dena Schutzer, ‘Laundromat-20 dollars” (2018) Oil paint on canvas, 24 x 20 in

I find it interesting to flip history on its head by having women present work in which the man is the muse — reversing the male-gaze trope, so to speak — which I did in my video, “God_my_GODDESS”, a portrait of the writer Octavio Gonzalez.  Robert James Anderson’s powerful, time-based performance and singing (in drag) of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” was also a favorite.

One could argue that we could have chosen to not advertise the all female-identifying roster in an effort to avoid a heated debate. We decided instead that there was strength in naming it: pointing out the reality of the statistics on gender and celebrating the diversity within all the women that have studied and taught at this special New York institution.

X Marks the Spot: Women of the New York Studio School, curated by Malado Baldwin and Maia Ibar, ran from July 23rd to August 26th, 2018, at the New York Studio School. 

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