A Student’s Perspective on Views of Feminism’s Future

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.

From the Center: Now! through Feb. 25th

From the Center: Now! through Feb. 25th

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.

6 thoughts on “A Student’s Perspective on Views of Feminism’s Future

  1. Nancy Charak says:

    Thank you Emily…You are correct, the discussion at the panel quickly digressed and went off topic into each of our particular agendas. Many of us from the battles of the 70’s are still nurturing powerful hurts. It’s hard to explain unless one has experienced it directly how much it hurts when a professor turns to the men in the classroom and says of the lone woman in the class, in front of her, “don’t worry, she’ll be out of here in a week.” As an affiliate member of the A.R.C. gallery, I have come to the reluctant conclusion that there very much is still a need for an alternate space that is open to voices that have been stilled for too long. That being said, those voices do not necessarily have to be stridently feminist. Simply on the basis of demographics, there are way, way, too many, many artists for the so-called commercial market to handle and the alternative artist run spaces are a good, good means of increasing the exposure of the cacophony of art-voices.

  2. Bonnie Peterson says:

    Emily,

    Good blog. Your observations are articulate. I was not there but it sounds like the discussion went way off topic and got emotional on the way.

    A female artist group I belong to is considering starting a WCA chapter. Just the thought of WCA caused one woman to have PTSD as she remembered being subjected to similar derogatory comments from male professors when she was an art student. Interesting, she does not want the WCA affiliation, she’s been there and done that.

    So these emotions last a lifetime. I know I tell my daughters and son about workplace discrimination I faced. And as an artist I definitely benefit from alternative spaces for political work.

    I hope there can be a discussion that isn’t so lopsided and full of the past.

  3. Melissa Potter says:

    I am so pleased to see the response of a young woman, Emily, you are who we had in mind! We clearly didn’t have enough time, and we clearly went off track, not unlike a lot of CAA panels. Producing new information in this forum is a toughie.

    That said, I actually bridge the two generations here: I’m between the young students, and the women who actually started these organizations. My life has been a miracle: I went from art school (mid-90s) where I was made fun of for wanting to look at the work of women artists, to “The Year of Feminism” in 2007. I witnessed a change, and as you note well in your post, that can seem miserably distant.

    I’m currently working on a project with young women. What I find so fascinating is that young women DO feel empowered to do whatever they want, on their own terms. This is a change, even from when I was very young. What frightens me is the world the older women and myself have lived through, and I believe still exists. Simply put, WomanMade continues to be a necessity for so many reasons, not the least of which is we live in a society where women often have to work without free childcare for all. Women can’t really make the “choice” about whether these venues are a necessity until we actually have all choices made available to us.

    One thing I’m confident of: all the women at the panel believe fundamentally in giving women choices. We have to figure out how to make those choices relevant to the next generation.

  4. Joyce Owens says:

    Glad Woman Made set up a blog and Emily’s strong voice is the first one here. Besides my affiliation with S&C collective I teach at Chicago State University and am the curator there. I have a predominance of female students. One is currently an intern at Woman Made Gallery!

    I love WMG, as I said during the panel, repeatedly. I have promoted the gallery and gifted work and asked people to join it over the years. I have worked with Artemisia, ARC and of course Sapphire and Crystals, just taking down our show at Elmhurst College today. In recent years exhibited with the Women of Vision in Pittsburgh, Venus Envy in St. Louis, as well as Delta Sigma Theta Sorority in a couple of cities including Chicago. I was the featured artist for their annual art event last year. I appreciate and enjoy women’s institutions.

    The diagnosis here of the panel is so different from the one I read on Columbia College’s blog and I appreciate your frustration. The point is to think. I want to see each woman have the right to decide where and what she does with her work.
    My own blog, that was to be a forum leading up to the panel, asked questions. I asked what women want (and no one said…) In the panel I said women need to RUN museums, and consider other arts positions. Studio artist is only one choice. An artist in the audience from New York, Noreen Dean Dresser, followed me saying women should be collectors and donate work to the museums to form a stronger women’s presence. On the blog I went further, but I never said women need to run away from women’s institutions.

  5. Joanna Gardner-Huggett says:

    Emily,

    I want to thank you for your very astute analysis of the panel and I sincerely regret that students felt alienated by the experience. That certainly was not our intention. As one student commented to me later, the generational divide in the audience in terms of how feminism is defined, experienced, perceived and needs to move forward remains deep. Clearly, a more productive means of conversation and dialogue is necessary that will not make anyone feel their position is marginal. This issue came up in The Feminist Art Project meeting the next day and they plan to address it in future symposiums, as well as the Women’s Caucus for Art.

    As you noted, there was general consensus among panelists on the need for women’s institutions. After many conversations in the summer we felt it was better to jump into the short panel with some agreement and then there would be time to highlight/debate the larger issues that come out of advocating this position through questions from the audience. Unfortunately, the topic and these points got lost in the debate that ensued. It’s my hope that your blog post will provide another venue for conversation.

    I was so happy to see so many DePaul and Columbia students (and perhaps other schools as well) taking advantage of CAA and maybe we can talk in the near future about sponsoring an event locally that could revisit the points you highlight.

    Thanks, Joanna Gardner-Huggett

  6. Otha Marchi says:

    I think that is an interesting point, it made me think a bit. Thanks for sparking my thinking cap. Sometimes I get so much in a rut that I just feel like a record.

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