The turnout was fantastic for “Women, Power, and the Arts,” a May 3 panel discussion at Boston’s Simmons College. A collaboration between the Massachusetts State Committee of NMWA and the Simmons Institute of Leadership and Change, the event attracted students, professors, working artists, and collectors. My fellow panelists came from different areas of the art world—we were professors, writers, curators, artists, collectors, and directors.
It was invigorating to address a topic that still pushes buttons and incites excitement and passion four decades after Womanhouse, the groundbreaking feminist art installation and performance organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro in 1972. However, the panel could have used a few younger voices. The sole under-40 panelist was MacArthur Genius Award-winning artist Anna Schuleit, who, upon being invited to participate, took a poll of her female peers about gender awareness in their careers. The responses she received were overwhelmingly underwhelming: gender seemed to have little if any impact on the consciousness of Anna’s colleagues. The audience’s questions reflected the age divide—a young woman asked us to comment on issues of transgender discrimination, while older attendees expressed frustration that after decades of producing art, entrée to gallery representation as well as private and public collections still lay beyond their grasp. Author Gail Levin, drawing examples from the life of Lee Krasner, her most recent biographical subject, suggested that success for women often comes at age 70—not by age 70, but at age 70, when an artist has stuck to her guns long enough to be noticed.
It is a rare opportunity to view three historical generations and explore the bridges and chasms among them, which are exposed even by the title “Women, Power, and the Arts.” I immediately thought of the Guerrilla Girls, particularly their strategies in using commercial advertising tools to bring attention to art-world disparities. For other panelists, power signifies an inner strength and imagination that can drive creativity and guide an art career. Schuleit’s brief presentation took the form of a paean to her artist mother who inspired—or empowered—her to pursue a career in the arts. As a curator, it dawned on me that the determination to empower oneself as a woman artist existed long before the 21st century, though the means have changed drastically over time. In 16th centuryItaly, authority and influence were won by networking with local aristocracy and the elite clergy. In 18th-centuryFrance, the royal court provided ample opportunity for artists of both genders to ply their trade. Today, empowerment might mean receiving equal space in the critic’s column, fetching prices equal to men of the same stature, or running a successful business as a printmaker, painter, or architect. “Women, Power, and the Arts,” not a statement of certainty, remains an open-ended question that continues to provoke discussion.
—Jordana Pomeroy is the chief curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts