Looking Back, Looking Forward: Discovering the Future of Women-Led Arts Organizations

May 15, 2018 by

Looking Back

The 1970s: Vietnam, Kent State, Watergate, the Equal Rights Amendment, feminism. Art historian Linda Nochlin asked “why have there been no great women artists?,” and the Feminist Art Movement took root in the United States. If the male-dominated arts institutions weren’t going to lift up the work of women artists, then women artists would create their own institutions and production and distribution channels.

The Woman’s Building, an independent center for women’s culture, opened in LA in 1973. Begun as an antidote to the male-dominated culture of CalArts, it was created by four women, including Judy Chicago, whose 1974-79 artwork The Dinner Party is now the centerpiece of the Brooklyn Museum’s Center for Feminist Art. It closed in 1991. Womanspace, another LA group, opened in 1973, closed in 1974. The Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota opened in 1973, closed in 1991. The Woman’s Salon for Literature in New York began in 1985, closed ten years later. You see where I’m going with this….

While many women-centered arts institutions came and went during the second wave of feminism (an era that yielded Title IX, co-education for women, and Roe v. Wade), others continue to operate today such as the A.I.R. Gallery, Spiderwoman Theater, and The WP Theater. Why is it that some women’s arts groups not only survived but thrived as we moved into third- and fourth-wave feminism in the 1990s and beyond?

Four women-centered arts groups—Women & Their Work in Austin, Women Make Movies and New York Women in Film and Television in New York City, and Women’s Studio Workshop in the Hudson Valley—decided to find out by forming the Women’s Art Consortium or WAC. (Three of these groups had already worked together as the Apple TARTS “Teaching Artists to Reach Technological Savvy” consortium created in 1984 to get free Apple computers and learn how to use them.)

The members of the Women’s Art Consortium—all of whom were founded between 1972 and 1978— inspired a generation of women artists to take control of their artistic careers and create opportunities for themselves and others. They are still fighting to get their films financed and artists’ books and prints published, giving next-gen women-identified artists residencies to create and then exhibit their work, and getting that work written about by critics and tastemakers.

Looking Forward

In this #MeToo moment, and with help from friends at the Ford Foundation, WAC was created to assess the individual and collective histories of women’s arts organizations, to identify trends, document the formulas for success that let these four thrive, and better understand how to navigate ongoing and common challenges such as (lack of) visibility, leadership development, and more.

These four arts groups will come together across three sets of meetings to better understand and place their work at the intersection of today’s feminist movement under the guidance of a team of consultants that include nationally renowned leaders in that movement—Sara Gould, Idelisse Malavé, and Joanne Sandler.

The first meeting took place at Women’s Studio Workshop in February and was an uplifting experience where new leaders were mentored by founders, board members met colleagues who advised on how to navigate change successfully, discussions of gender and trans issues came to the forefront, and sharing stories led to recommendations and the seeds for future individual and collective transformation. In July, we’ll meet again in Austin, and by early 2019, we expect to issue a report to the field that will help us all find the path forward for the next-gen feminist art movement.

The Women’s Art Consortium is supporting new leaders, helping long-term leaders think about leadership succession, reconnecting a network that has been dormant for decades, and is letting us chart a new direction for the field of women’s art. A woman-powered future in this segment of the arts sector looks bright.

About the author:

Kerry McCarthy is the program director of Thriving Communities at The New York Community Trust, and is the vice president of the board at Women’s Studio Workshop. Before joining The Trust in 2009, Kerry ran a consulting company serving nonprofit arts groups—including Women’s Studio Workshop. She has curated exhibitions for the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts.