Feminisms and Curating…II

Feminisms and Curating: Strategies, Interventions, Histories, Part II

Session chair:

Jessica Sjöholm Skrubbe
Ph.D., Researcher, Senior Lecturer
Department of Art History
Stockholm University
[email protected]


A Short History of ‚Women’s Exhibitions’ from the 70s to the 90s

Doris Guth, Assistant Professor, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Wien, [email protected]

Why did established institutions such as the Museum in Wiesbaden, the ICA in London and the Whitechapel Gallery in London put so much money into large-scale womens exhibitions in the 1990s? Are they the fruits of extensive labour by feminist over the past 30 years, who worked to enforce women’s participation in all fields, including the arts? How are gender identities represented and produced within exhibitions that explicitly deal with gender as their man topic?

I will negotiate the phenomon of ‚women’s exhibitions’ with a close look on their historical origin: These exhibitions were frequently designed in the 1970s and represent a reaction to discrimination against women in the arts, specially to women marginalised position within processes of constructing meaning within institutions such as galleries, museums, magazines, etc. Women’s galleries, women’s magazines, and women’s exhibitions are forums initiated and created by women artists and theorists in which they are able to discuss in inequalities and power structures in the arts. These alternatives to the established representation systems provided platforms where women are welcome ro realise their own concepts. Separatist forms of public spaces, such as women’s exhibitions, are acknowlegded as a necessity in self-discovery and politically claiming power, but they indeed evoked controversial debates within the feminist movement of the 1970s. Were they dealing with the isolation of these already excluded, which simply results in a reification of their discriminated and excluded positions? From this point of view, the concept of a ‚women’s exhibition’ could be seen reinforcing the hegemonic system, and therefore as questionable means. Women artists’ marginalised role is thus stated as a given within the power structure of the arts. Such artificially induced framworks would restrict and ghettoise the reception of women’s art. Many women’s exhibitions of the 90s are too close for comfort to universalistic essentialism, often employed in the 1970s, an essentialism that groups and unites women according to a universal binding and common feature. Nevertheless, don’t alliances among women aim to support strategic acts in attaining sufficient opportunitis, to create a space for dialogue without being interrupted, and to receive ample space and attention for project development? Aren’t women’s exhibitions therefore necessary interventions in pointing out relations of dominance within the art system? The two substantially controversial positions taken in this conflict are that of autonomy and of integration. In the one hand, autonomy stresses the difference between hegemonic systems – if an ‚outside’ even exists to begin with – and on the other hand, integration emphasises demand for equality within power structures. Women’s exhibitions at mainstream exhibtion venues tend toward breaking down the binary concept of public versus private, thus reducing the private to a female sphere and the public to a male sphere. Beside the debate on gender concepts of public and private during the 1970s and its supportive or reductive functions, some others aspects have been in the focus of the debates, e.g.: the (over)emphasis of the gender of women artists and its consequences.

Against the background of socio-political change and theoretical frameworks of the 1990s, we are confronted with the construction of gender in a different context and how it works in womens’ exhibitions. I will highlight some basic phenomena pertaining to this form of artistic presentation and introduce some exhibition conceptes as examples. For this reason I will expound three specific strands and provide examples for each one.

Finally the ‚women’s exhibitions’ of the 90s are on the one side, the results of feminist struggles. On the other, they are also institutions interpretations of the category ‚Women’s exhibitions’ and their instrumentalisation and utilisation of feminist ideals and goals used to polish their own images. Women’s send out a signal of being progressivley orientated and political involved. However, if we take a look at female identity concepts transported via ‚women’s exhibitions’, we can easily see that they are not automatically based on contemporary forms of feminist thoughts  Throughout this mainly critical examination of different women’s exhibitions one important question still remains: Were any exhibitions within the 90s able to manoeuvre around such conceptual and ideological traps?


Telling a Story of Modern Art from the ’Feminine Side’? Assessing the Significance of elles@centrepompidou

Joanne Heath, PhD Cand., University of Leeds, UK, [email protected]

From May 2009 – February 2011 the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris elected to display what it described as the ‘feminine side of its own collections.’  elles@centrepompidou thus constituted a significant and unprecedented attempt by a major public art museum to re-arrange its displays in order to tell a story of modern art through the work of artists who are women.  In contrast to the recent spate of temporary, blockbuster exhibitions focussing on feminisms in art (Wack!, Global Feminisms, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Gender Battle, Rebelle, etc), which have implicitly positioned feminist art practice as a distinct movement in modern art, having its beginnings in the late 1960s/early 1970s, in its original installation elles@centrepompidou offered an overview of women artists’ engagement with modernist art practice across the duration of the twentieth century.  Yet, in a subsequent re-hanging of the exhibition, the works of those women artists whom elles@centrepompidou identified as ‘les pionnières’ (pioneers) disappeared from view, and those rooms of the museum devoted to the display of early-twentieth-century modernist art reverted to ‘business as usual’.  This paper will consider the broader issues for both feminist curatorial practice and art history by the inclusion, and subsequent exclusion, of early-twentieth-century artists who were women from elles@centrepompidou.  While one floor of the exhibition was given over to the thematic display of works by women artists from the 1960s to the present day, on the floor below, works by women artists from earlier in the twentieth century were threaded into an existing narrative of the stylistic development of modern art.  Having analysed the unacknowledged tensions between these different curatorial approaches to the work of artists who are women—one separatist, one assimilationist—I will explore how a curatorial practice that is informed by a feminist questioning of the relations between femininity, modernity and modernism might enable us to move towards an historically situated and theoretically informed understanding of the work of artists who are women.


Feminist Art Curating in the Post-Soviet Baltic States

Katrin Kivimaa, Professor, Estonian Academy of Arts, Tallinn, Estonia, [email protected]

In my presentation, I will take the art world of the post-Soviet Baltic states for a case-study to test some models and idea(l)s of feminist curating that have become part of institutionalised art setting in Western Europe (e.g. the Nordic countries). My aim is to demonstrate how certain (political) models of making art exhibitions which may seem normalised or even ‘too domesticated’ in their original setting may continue to function as a cutting edge critique in the neighbouring region.

We often hear that feminist curatorial practices are no longer the site of radical critique or intervention since – at least in the West – feminist art and curating as an international/global strategy is institutionally accepted in the art world as well as in the academy. However, does this mean that visible, although often contested, institutionalisation of feminist curatorial practices in some cultures has been accompanied by the removal of gender bias and gendered modes of marginalisation in exhibition and museum structures everywhere and in all levels?

Secondly, what is the impact and response to these Western blockbuster exhibitions, which are often thought of as markers of the institutional acceptance of feminism, in other locations – such as European cultures that do not share the same political, social and cultural history with the West?

Departing from these questions, I will try to analyse the potential or failures of trans/national strategies of feminist curating conceived as creative, political and critical practice. By looking at the systematic and long-term distrust and silencing of feminist curators, or at the fact of their absence, in some parts of Europe we can perhaps form a better understanding of how a transnational project in feminist curating might develop in future.


MoMA’s Modern Women’s Project, Feminism, and Curatorial Practice

Alexandra Schwartz, PhD, Montclair Art Museum, USA, [email protected]

In spring 2010, MoMA New York published Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art, a 500-page, 50-author book. Its publication was celebrated with more than a dozen permanent exhibitions over 2010 to 2011, as well as an international symposium, “Art Institutions and Feminist Politics Now” (June 2010). The book was the culmination of a five-year study of the Museum’s holdings of work by women artists, led by a committee of representatives from each of the Museum’s curatorial departments. The Modern Women’s Project, as the larger initiative was known, represented the first time MoMA, or any major American museum, had conducted a comprehensive study of its collection through the lens of gender. Events sponsored by the Modern Women’s Project included a two-day international symposium, “The Feminist Future: Theory and Practice in the Visual Arts” (2007); the “Feminist Future Lecture Series” (2007-08); the “Women and the Bauhaus” lecture series (2009-10); a major digital imaging initiative; and a number of academic courses.

As the coordinator of the Modern Women’s Project from 2005-10, I was deeply involved with all aspects of this initiative, serving as co-editor (with Connie Butler) of Modern Women, curator of two of exhibitions (Mind and Matter: Alternative Abjections, 1940s to Now and Modern Women: Single Channel), coordinator of the symposia and lecture series, director of research, and instructor for the courses. In this role, I gained an extraordinary perspective not only on the complex interrelationship between feminism and curatorial practice, but also on how the Modern Women’s Project affected the culture of one of the world’s major museums. The Modern Women’s Project was transformational for MoMA, permanently altering how the collection was historicized and interpreted. During the five years leading up to the publication of Modern Women there also (coincidentally or not) occurred a generational shift in the Museum’s leadership, which included the rise of an unprecedented number of women to senior curatorial positions.

This paper will focus on that period of transition, during which the Modern Women’s Project went from an under-the-radar research initiative to a major Museum event; as well as the changes, both within and outside MoMA, that it wrought. The Modern Women’s project led to a number of “firsts” at MoMA, from “The Feminist Future” symposium selling out in record time, to the first time the Photography galleries were installed with only women artists. Yet the project, which was mostly funded by a gift from a private donor, initially met with considerable resistance from some members of MoMA’s curatorial staff. Though, by the time of the book’s publication, it had been fully embraced by the Museum, including those who had resisted it, the reasons for the initial hesitance are worth examining. The paper will also consider how MoMA’s project coincided with similar efforts by other major museums to examine their collections through the lens of gender, particularly the Pompidou’s elles@centrepompidou exhibition (2009-11) and the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art (opened 2007). It will speculate as to why these events occurred simultaneously, and will consider what their long-term effects on curatorial practice may be. Finally, on a more personal note, my paper will consider how my own, formative professional experience at MoMA might serve as a case study for how an emerging generation of curators has been shaped by these recent explorations of gender and feminism.