LOS ANGELES — Earlier this month, the Getty Research Institute announced it was awarded a “Save America’s Treasures” grant to process 11 collections related to the Woman’s Building, the seminal Los Angeles-based center for feminist art that operated from 1973 to 1991. The $284,400 grant, administered by the National Park Service and the Institute of Museums and Library Services, will provide about half the budget for a two-year project of preserving, processing, and digitizing holdings already at the Institute. These include the Woman’s Building records and videos, as well as archives of related collectives like the Feminist Art Workers, the Waitresses, and the Sisters for Survival, and the solo archives of artists Barbara T. Smith, Faith Wilding, and Nancy Buchanan.
Founded by artist Judy Chicago, designer Sheila de Bretteville, and art historian Arlene Raven in 1973, the Woman’s Building was an experimental art space that supported and encompassed public programs, artist groups, galleries, and educational resources, including the first independent school for women artists, the Feminist Studio Workshop. Initially located on South Grandview Avenue, near MacArthur Park, it moved in 1975 to its permanent location, a Beaux Arts warehouse on Spring Street previously owned by Standard Oil. Earlier this year, the building was designated a Historic-Cultural Monument by the LA City Council.
The founders took inspiration, as well as their name, from an earlier incarnation of a Woman’s Building, an 1893 structure designed by Sophia Hayden for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago that showcased art by women.
To get a better sense of the importance of the Woman’s Building, I reached out by phone to several of the artists involved for their perspectives.
“It was a grand notion of a woman’s culture that we carried in our imagination,” said artist Suzanne Lacy, who taught performance at the Woman’s Building in the ’70s. “Judy and Sheila and Arlene felt they had gone as far as they could go in an institution. They were interested in creating their own women’s culture hub.”
It was a hub that was created in opposition to, not in emulation of, prevailing institutional models. Sue Maberry, Library director at Otis College of Design and an early participant of the Woman’s Building, said this reflected the period’s coastal divide. “The focus of California was much more educational, more political. New York was more gallery focused,” she said. This allowed for a greater sense of experimentation than with more commercially oriented endeavors.
“One important element to consider was that it had private and public aspects,” said Cheri Gaulke, one of the original participants in the Feminist Studio Workshop. “There was the educational program, the Feminist Studio Workshop, but we were also bringing the public in to experience feminist art in its own context. Nothing like that existed at the time. Established artists could take risks, but there were all these students who could redefine what kind of art we would make.”
The emerging fields of performance art and video were fertile ground for risk taking. “I was interested in the fact that performance was a way for women to enter into the art world very quickly,” recalled Lacy.
Nancy Buchanan staged one of her first performances at the Woman’s Building, “Please Sing Along” from 1974. “It was a role reversal,” she said. “I had two beautiful men dance naked, while Barbara Smith and I had a real fight. We fought each other for as long as we could, as hard as we could.”
Over its nearly 20-year run, the Woman’s Building saw hundreds of students, artists, and writers pass through its doors, including Margaret Atwood, Simone Forti, Luchita Hurtado, Barbara Kruger, Adrienne Rich, Rachel Rosenthal, Betye Saar, Linda Vallejo, and many others. Through its educational program, its principles were disseminated outside its walls. “Those women went out to teach and brought those feminist values into their work,” remembered Maberry.
Its legacy lives on in contemporary groups like LA’s Women’s Center for Creative Work. “WCCW has the spirit of what we had at the Woman’s Building,” said Gaulke. “They’re part of a whole new generation of young feminist women artists.”
“I personally have been really inspired by Woman’s Building workshops,” said artist Micol Hebron. “It provided a model for alternative education and community building that was self-reliant and didn’t play into patriarchal models going back to the Renaissance, Bauhaus, even Black Mountain.”
And in 2016, Lauren Bon, whose Metabolic Studios sits a stone’s throw from the historic Woman’s Building, organized “Animating the Archives,” a project and fellowship organized around its records.
Despite the Woman’s Building’s important place in art history, there is still a lack of widespread recognition for the space and others like it. “It didn’t yield a single style, so its harder for writers to canonize,” surmised Hebron.
Lacy says it is a history that her students unearth and rediscover every decade or so. “It’s the same with the first Woman’s Building in Chicago,” she said. “It’s like, ‘why didn’t we learn about this?’”
This is where the importance of the archives comes in, which bring together all manner of ephemera from correspondence and exhibition announcements, to photographic and video documentation of performances and classes.
“One of the extraordinary things they did was to videotape so much of what went on there,” said Andrew Perchuk, acting director of the Getty Research Institute. “You can see seminars, lectures, classes, what was actually going on. You have a record that someone gave a talk, but now people can actually see it.”
The thousands of videos collected, which come from the Long Beach Museum of Art Video Archive, provided special preservation challenges, for which the Getty built a special conservation lab. For Gaulke, who is working on a documentary about performance art at the Woman’s Building, this proved especially meaningful. “I have my own videos on old reel-to-reels,” she said, “and the only reason I have a copy is because the Getty digitized it.”
Conservation is only part of the process, which also involves cataloguing and digitizing so it can be put online. “We often say, ‘you’re only as good as your metadata,’” said Perchuk. “All that needs to be added, so people can find it.”
Although the Getty Research Institute has about 6,000 readers — academics, authors, and students who are able to use the facilities in person — far more people access the archives on the web, 500 for every one who goes to the Institute, according to Perchuk.
It will take about two years before all material is available to the public, but archives will be uploaded throughout the process.
“I can’t wait to see more about these groups,” beamed Perchuk. “We’d do all these oral histories for Pacific Standard Time, and often people’s memories about performances diverged quite radically. For us as writers and historians, there’s nothing like seeing original documentation.”