Following a selection of diverse sessions at the most recent CAA conference held in Chicago, from “Myths of the Nation in 19th century Visual Culture” and “Questioning ‘Cultural Influence’ in the Medieval Mediterranean, another sort of session began. Aside from a few exceptions, the small room at the bottom of the Hyatt Regency was filled with brightly dressed women greeting each other warmly as if they had known each other for years. And maybe they had. For many of the women who attended the discussion (turned debate) “Investigating the Need for Women’s Art Galleries, Exhibitions, and Organizations” on Thursday evening formed the nexus of a complex web of nationwide feminist organizations and relationships. This panel discussion was held in correspondence with the exhibition, “From the Center: Now!” going on now at Woman Made Gallery.
Janice Nesser-Chu, the recently elected president of the Women’s Caucus for Art, introduced the distinguished panel of women including Amy Galpin and Beate Minkovski, both representing our own Woman Made Gallery in separate ways, DePaul University History of Art and Architecture professor Joanna Gardner-Huggett, Melissa Potter from Columbia College in Chicago, and Sapphire and Crystals Artist Collective representative Joyce Owens.
Although introduced as a session concerned with the concept of women’s space—whether women galleries are still necessary in a 21st century world—it quickly devolved into a presentation of individual concerns. Opinions on the panel varied but not enough to inspire inter-panel controversy. Overall, the panelists agreed about the benefits of exclusively women galleries; it was their discussions of the negatives which inspired the audience members to react, with artist Joyce Owens claiming that she would prefer to show her work in a more traditional (typically male) space as opposed to galleries like Women Made or ARC. And here is where the discussion was presented to the women attending whose presence quickly overwhelmed the accredited women sitting at the front. After Potter reminded the group that they would like to make this a nontraditional sort of session favoring debate over the typical question-answer format, a steady stream of women began filing to the front, anxious for their chance to grab the microphone and address their fellow feminists.
I wish I could say that the comments and stories told from this point forward inspired as much confidence in the issue of women galleries and the role of the female artist as my work at Woman Made has until this point. Unfortunately, I can’t. What struck me instead were the highly emotional, largely anecdotal sermons the women charging for the microphone proceeded to give. Although everyone attending seemed to agree that, in an ideal world, women should be given the ability to choose whether or not their work was shown in a traditional gallery or an exclusively women space, very few asked the group what we can do to make this vision any sort of perceivable reality. Instead, these first and second wave feminists began to berate those persons they believed responsible—the contemporary female artists disassociating themselves from women galleries, the men who threatened the female autonomy of such a space, and (most disturbing to me as a young, self-proclaimed feminist) the new generation of women who have a hard time being proud of their feminist heritage and a harder time speaking up for.
I attended the conference with two art history students and saw maybe four or five other young women (some artists themselves from Columbia College) seated inconspicuously amidst the volatile and vocal women of an older generation who had experienced the first powerful waves of feminism during the 1960s and 70s. Although I have nothing but the utmost respect for the opportunities and advantages these women worked to provide for my generation, their assumption of the discussions control was entirely alienating to the young women in the audience whose participation in the new feminist movement will perhaps prove the most formative and vital. What could have been a discussion on what needs changing and how we can approach these goals quickly spun out of control. It ended with a collection of tirades by audience members so dissatisfied with the oppressive art market as they perceived it that their only reaction was to prejudice themselves against the presumptuously labeled “silent” young women taking time out of their class schedule to participate in a debate advocating the real potential for feminist change.
As an art history major, I was disappointed to hear the topics discussed in the debate digress from the role of the exclusive female gallery to the audacity of a man who can’t bake, the latter so inconsequential to the pertinent art historical issues initially raised. As a young person, I was offended that my opinion seemed to matter so little and that my human experience was subjugated to such an exaggerated degree. Finally, as a woman, I was saddened that my feminism differed so dramatically from the feminism of these women that I would be surprised if a dialogue where each side tries to understand the other could really occur. All this and when push comes to shove, we believed the same thing: equal art space regardless of gender. Sometimes those who yell the loudest say the least.
-Emily Heap, WMG Intern
Emily is a senior at DePaul University where
she is studying History of Art and Architecture.