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April 30, 2016
Where are all of the women artists?

Intrigued by New York Magazine art critic Jerry Salz's investigation and public condemnation of the percentage of women artists found in the Museum of Modern Art's Permanent Collection, I decided to look to my own backyard and see what I could find. 

At the Boca Raton Museum of Art - according to my own quick and dirty survey - we have 16% women artists represented in our Permanent Collection galleries' Modern Art areas. That equals around 29 women artists to 175 men.  I am somewhat happy that we have "out-suffraged" the MOMA, (4 percent or 19 out of 383) but 16 percent is still relatively low. 

I will concede right at the outset that we grow our collection through donations and we do not actively buy at auction on a regular basis by any means.  Further, when speaking only of permanent collection exhibits, we have dedicated an exhibition to women (The Other Half: Women Artists in the Collection 2005) and recently acquired on loan a very large Nancy Graves wall sculpture that passionately announces its femininity in our Abstract Art gallery. If you have not yet seen Canoptic Legerdemain please visit our East Wing gallery on the second floor.  The vast difference between it and the work by the male abstract artists on display is amazing. 

Still, more must be done to promote women in the artsMr. Salz puts it quite succinctly when he says in his letter to Ann Temkin, Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the MOMA:

To those who have complained that installing the work of women will mean too much so-called  "lesser" work will be on view. You can't develop what Oscar Wilde called "the critical spirit" if you're mainly seeing the story as it has always been told. Seeing only what's already been seen doesn't tell you how good or bad this work may be. As André Malraux wrote, 'We can feel only by comparison. The Greek genius is better understood by comparing a Greek statue to an Egyptian or Asiatic one than by acquaintance with a hundred Greek statues'...The point is, when it comes to being artists, women can be as bad as men. The problem is that even now, decades after the onset of women's liberation, women aren't being allowed to demonstrate this. I doubt that there's a conscious effort to keep women from showing, yet the percentage of women exhibiting in museum PERMANENT COLLECTIONS is grievously low.

We, of course, - just as with the majority of Museums - seem to reflect this stagnant attitude towards re-writing women into the history of art. As part of the Curatorial department, all that I can say is that in my experience thus far (starting October 2009) when installing new work into the permanent collection galleries, there is very often discussion of actively searching out women artists to be displayed.

It makes me proud to know that this is a subject that is considered more often than not.  Of course, we cannot simply take down all the eminent male artists on display and replace them with lesser-known women artists. Instead, we use the gradual build approach. We actively insert more and more women artists into our galleries in order to familiarize and teach the public about their role in history while still supplying the community with the recognizable male artists that they have come to appreciate over the years.

The conversation about the male to female ratio of artists exhibited in museums has been taking place for a long time. I hope it will continue to be a topic of conversation and shape our understanding of the "canon" of art history for years to come. This fluidity and opportunity for growth and changes in understanding is what truly excites me about the study of art. 


Posted by: Kelli Bodle @ Monday, June 29, 2009 3:45:13 pm 
Yes, I do think, Kelli, that many art curators, institutions and spaces need to "revisit" their stash and take a closer look at some of their holdings as to women artists and expose those works and artists to the public and to themselves as to/ and of their merit in this newer age of recognition to all artists.
Posted by: Marlene Waller @ July 31, 2009 6:34:00 pm

Marlene: I agree with you wholeheartedly that one should not support art that they do not feel has substance just because a woman created it (or any particular race, religion, sexual preference, etc). What I like in particular about Mr. Salz's argument is that he feels women artists are not even afforded the opportunity to compete with male artists in order to have society critique their work. It seems like institutions are more inclined to reject hanging a woman artist from the past eras because of the lack of familiarity that the public has with such artists. I would like for unknown women artists to be hung with their peers so that contemporary society can make their own decisions as to whether or not the work has merit because the past audiences were not allowed to do so.
Posted by: Kelli Bodle @ July 15, 2009 9:39:00 am

I am a woman, an advocate of the entire "art scene" and a student and reader of and about many issues and commentaries that are made in this area. I strongly advocate the recognition and inclusion of women in major museums along with the men but ONLY when the merit of the work recommends this. When is does do that, I then say "Go for it!". To "push the envelope" does not work if the envelope is empty. There is no Title 9 in the art world and I do not think there should be.
Posted by: Marlene Waller @ July 13, 2009 10:14:00 pm

I think it is interesting to note that all four award winners from this year's "All Florida" were female artists. That show has a very strong showing of women. Granted, this does nothing to change the gender balance of the Permanent Collection, but it could be a sign that modern women artists have found a more open platform than their historic counterparts. It is always important to look inward, as you did, when evaluating the Museum's role in this ongoing discussion.
Posted by: Tricia Woolfenden @ July 7, 2009 3:53:00 pm

Elena: I am glad you are also following the trajectory of this ongoing debate. As a working woman artist, I believe that the effort you put forth to make a name for yourself helps the cause even more than simple reflection on the matter.
Posted by: Kelli Bodle @ July 7, 2009 9:33:00 am

Thank you Kelli for posting this. I also read Jerry Salz article and followed this issue that has been discussed in Joanne Matteras blog....(

We need to keep this conversation in the forefront and although we cannot change what has happened up to now, we can sure correct the imbalance from now on.

or as you so well put it:
"The conversation about the male to female ratio of artists exhibited
in museums has been taking place for a long time. I hope it will continue to be a topic of conversation and shape our understanding of the "canon" of art history for years to come."

Thank you, again
Posted by: Elena De La Ville @ July 5, 2009 12:50:00 pm

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