Recent Acquisitions of Work by Women Artists
In 1989, American feminist art activists the Guerrilla Girls, famous for their succinct posters, focussed on the topic of art collections: they produced a poster which posed the question “When Sexism And Racism Are No Longer Fashionable, What Will Your Art Collection Be Worth?” At that point, public institutions in the U.S. and Canada collected appallingly few works of art by women thereby shutting them out of a crucial component in establishing their careers as artists.The Guerrilla Girls’ question also addresses private collectors and the assumptions about gender at the basis of their collecting practices.This issue has taken on greater importance in Canada over recent years because, with the erosion of public funding of the arts in our country, donations from individuals have become the major source of acquisition for public art galleries. Thus, although institutions now purchase and accept donations of more work by women, there is a twofold imbalance to redress: the dearth of work by women artists in public collections resulting from decades of discriminatory practices and the lack within private collections which constitute a key source for future public collection building.
Taking the helm of a major public collection three years ago, I was well aware of the problem of the representation of women artists in public collections. As a feminist curator, one of the attractions in taking on the position of Director/Curator at the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery was the opportunity to create tangible change in the composition of a significant public art collection. This exhibition, Changing Values: Recent Acquisitions of Work by Women Artists, displays some of my efforts to fill gaps related to work by women artists within the university’s art collection. Without a standing purchase budget to facilitate my goals, I have focussed on requesting donations from women artists who were not represented in the collection, and clearly should be, or who were represented, but not with recent work. Their generosity and their recognition of the importance of placing strong works in public collections have made this exhibition possible.
My interest in collections goes much further than addressing quantitative assessments of inclusion because the presence of diversity within a public collection is meaningful in multiple ways. Certainly, the number of women artists and work, by women in a collection, are important factors as indicators of the nature of acquisition policies and of the impact on artist’s careers. Similar to being left out from historical texts, if women artists are excluded from public collections, their work will not be preserved and documented nor will it be available for exhibitions and research. At another level, collections themselves produce meaning. They are not passive and inert and they are not simply a conglomeration of items which exist as examples of a ‘larger reality’ outside the collection. Once a work enters a collection, it has a dual existence as both an object in its own right and as an item within a collection with the potential to interact with the other items and with the role of helping to constitute the collection itself. In other words, collections are one of the instances where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Exhibitions based on collections provide a clear demonstration of this idea. For example, paintings such as “Flood Plain” (1993) and “Sandwich” (1994, see image above, left) do represent Joanne Tod’s work as an artist as well as patterns within art making, painting in particular, and feminist practice in Canada during the 1990s. Yet at the same time, the inclusion of such paintings within a collection allows new connections to occur with other works. Without it, an exhibition of 20th century painting in Canada or art making in the 1990s would imply that women artists were not doing anything worthy of collecting and exhibiting and would leave the interaction amongst the other works intact. Tod produces her work in response to claims such as painting is a masculine art form or images of the domestic sphere are not the proper subject matter for serious art. A core aspect of her practice is that her paintings challenge contemporary visual culture and her imagery contests imagery within other art practices. In this way, inclusion of Tod’s work in a collection, and in exhibitions arising from that collection, has a significant impact because her work raises many different concerns.
Bearing these multiple levels in mind, it is clear that addressing gender within public art collections requires more than one approach. In general, it is necessary to acquire work by women artists and thereby interfere with the cycle which perpetuates discrimination – if the work is appropriate for one public collection, it will also be more likely to be in exhibitions and therefore to continue to meet the standards set within collecting policies at other institutions. In particular, public collections need to include overtly feminist art work because these practices are critical for the potential meaning produced by a collection. Due to its challenge and to its use of processes, materials and subject matter deliberately counter to dominant, masculine practices, feminist work has been much more likely to be dismissed as not the right kind of thing to be acquired by a public collection.
Becky Singleton’s series of photographs (see B&W images above) and Colette Urban’s photographic residue of a performance (below, left) are both works that focus on feminist concerns with the representation of the female body. Singleton selected a model who does not fit the stereotypical image of female perfection as part of her critique of the scientific tropes associated with black & white photographs. Urban uses her own body in performance and in imagery as part of her playful and often humorous attention to how bodies are represented. It is risky for a woman to situate her work on the divide between Woman as object of the artist’s gaze and a woman who is the artist and the subject who produces the work. Having Singleton’s and Urban’s work together is another indicator of the importance of acquiring a breadth of feminist practices in a collection. Together, it is possible to see an indication of the range of approaches to representing the female body whereas if only one was in the collection, the work becomes solely a token example of feminist art.
As with Tod, a key feminist approach is for women artists to take on aspects that have been staked out as male territory. Many of the works in this exhibition interact with issues related to abstraction and painting. There has been much discussion of the overwhelming masculine assumptions within this dominant art movement and the difficulty for women artists who want to explore abstraction’s on-going influence in contemporary art practice. The issue continues to be relevant as women explore possibilities which were previously rejected because they did not work with macho, heroic approaches. Jennifer Gordon (see image below, left), Marie Lannoo (see installation image at bottom of this webpage), Danielle Sauve and Margaret Vanderhaeghe (see image below, right) take on different aspects of abstraction and explore various possibilities in the paintings and sculpture included within this exhibition.
In some cases, work can raise feminist issues even though the artist does not position herself within this frame. “The Gaborone Raid -June 14, 1985”, a tapestry by Tebogo Mogapi (image at top of this webpage), involves a different kind of politics. Produced within the Oodi Weavers collective and using a traditionally feminine medium, this is the kind of work which was excluded from public art collections and relegated to cultural artefact or deemed not worth collecting at all. The work shows a very different kind of approach to addressing social politics than that found in Canadian art practices. Using everyday imagery, it quietly tells the story of a key event in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa by depicting the results of an infamous military attack on civilians.
In closing, I am pleased to report that this exhibition does not represent the total of new works by women artists in the collection. There is enough work that I was able to make selections around themes and connections between works. Furthermore, the depth of recent acquisitions of work by women artists in the University of Lethbridge Art Collection means that future exhibitions will be able to include such work and thus this exhibition will not be the only event to involve the contributions of these artists.
Director/Curator of the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery
The accompanying brochure for this exhibition is available by going to the U of L Art Gallery’s PUBLICATIONS PAGE.