Friday, March 21, 2008

Women artists & museums (by Suzie)

         As a newspaper reporter, I sat next to the art critic for a while. Once I wrote about the Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. She dismissed the idea of dedicating a museum to women, saying art should be judged on its merits, without any sort of affirmative action. That was one of many times where I thought I would leap across my desk to choke her. Apparently, there's no politics in the art world, unless it's giving recognition to women.
         The museum has a new director. The historic gem of a building is worth a visit, even if you don’t care about art. If you do, the permanent collection is solid, and the current exhibit is a retrospective of Paula Rego’s work.
         Members can go on a trip April 17 to the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Organized in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the artist's birth, 'Frida Kahlo' is the first major Kahlo exhibition in the United States in nearly fifteen years,” the Philadelphia museum notes.
          In New York, I’m loath to enter the Museum of Modern Art without a gorilla mask. But I love the Brooklyn Museum, whose Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art is celebrating its first anniversary this month.
          The museum has the first U.S. survey of art by Ghada Amer. “The Egyptian-born artist is best known for her abstract canvases embroidered with feminist motifs.” (Emphasis added to catch Echidne’s attention.)
          The “Votes for Women” exhibit “reviews women in American politics and the suffragist movement.” On March 29, the
National Women's History Project will make a stop, after a multimedia presentation on “Women’s Art and the Woman Suffrage Movement.” Also that day, Beverly Lowry will speak on Harriet Tubman.
          Other lectures include a panel discussion on “Beyond the Waves: Feminist Artists Talk Across the Generations,” March 30; and Miriam Shapiro on her work, April 26.
           The museum has an extensive collection of Egyptian art and artifacts, including alabaster goddesses and a famous Nile figure with upraised arms called “Bird Lady.” Last year, I followed curator Edward Bleiberg’s walking tour on “Pharaohs, Queens and Goddesses.”
           He explained that women were chattel in Rome and had few rights in Greece, but had many rights in Egypt. They could own property, handle business, enter into marital contracts, initiate divorce, and negotiate divorce settlements and who got custody of children. This befuddled the Greeks and Romans, who weren’t used to female rulers. For example, they saw Cleopatra as a schemer while we might understand her more as a CEO. 
           Similarly, the earlier Pharaoh Hatshepsut seemed crazy to many male historians. Bleiberg said feminists and female Egyptologists helped change her image. Her story made sense once people understood her within a context in which women could assume power as part of the “natural order.” (Maybe these experts could help us with our presidential race.)
           The museum’s Sackler Center houses Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party.” I had heard Chicago speak, and I have a poster of “The Dinner Party” autographed and framed in my dining room. (I like the irony and the reactions of people unfamiliar with it: "Um, those plates look like, well, um, I don't mean to be nasty, but, um ..."). I had never seen the work installed until last year. I roamed 'round and 'round the table, looking at it from different angles, crouching down to inspect the detailed ceramics, tapestries and embroideries.
        I attended a discussion by Maura Reilly and Linda Nochlin, curators of “Global Feminisms.” (I had studied Nochlin’s well-known book “Women, Art and Power” in college.) The moderator asked what some issues, such as transgender, had to do with feminism. Reilly snorted and said, “Let me get you a book by Judith Butler.”
           Next was a dialogue between Chicago and Sackler, who had donated the money for her namesake center. Chicago was fiery, but Sackler was pretty radical herself. They were irritated by a New York Times’ review. The headline, "They Are Artists Who Are Women; Hear Them Roar," set a dismissive tone to a story that made a little joke about bra-burning. Grrrrr.
            I wrote a letter to the editor and copied the museum. I received a thank-you from not only the museum’s director but also Sackler herself, who wrote:
The creation of the Center has been an extraordinary partnership with the Museum, Maura is a fine curator and it continues to bring in young and old from all walks and backgrounds - which is everything I had hoped.
I am glad that it is everything you would have wanted too.