Women + Contemporary Art

Being a woman artist uniquely qualifies us to use our voices for social change.

A place at the table

Judy Chicago’s iconic work from the 1970s, The Dinner Party, began as a way “to teach a society unversed in women’s history something of the reality of our rich heritage.” A triangular banquet table with 39 dinner plates featuring vulvar core imagery for both mythical and historical women are the focal point of this feminist temple. In 1979, this work commanded the question: is there a place for women at the table?

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party,The Brooklyn Museum

Almost thirty years after its creation, Judy Chicago and her monumental work of feminist art was finally given ‘a room of her own.’ In 2007, the Brooklyn Museum opened the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art which included dedicated space to put The Dinner Party on permanent display.

Judy Chicago, Study for Virginia Woolf from The Dinner Party (1978).
The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.

And 40 years later, this work is still as relevant and controversial as it was when it was first exhibited.

Feminist Community

Thanks to the fight of many women such as the Guerrilla Girls, who have been working for over thirty years, the often overlooked art by women is gaining attention. In the 1990s I started studying artists like Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Artemisia Gentileschi who were not included in traditional art history books at the time. It’s only been in recent years that their names have been mentioned with more frequency. So although female artists have been gaining more recognition, it is an extremely slow process.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror (ca. 1786), oil on wood

Social Activism

A current example is the ‘pussyhat,’ which became the symbol of the Women’s March in 2017. This handmade hat started as a project by a small group of women in California who wanted to make a statement. The Pussyhatproject website states, “A Pussyhat now resides in the Rapid Response collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the permanent collection of Michigan State University’s museum, and other collections as an important piece of feminist history. What started as a simple means of protest, participation and solidarity, has become an iconic global symbol of political activism.”

Women’s March, Washington, D.C., January 21, 2017

Museum Exhibitions

The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition spaces have historically been lacking in the numbers of work by women. But, this conflicts with their interest in female art and politics: in 2010 they hosted a conference titled ‘Art Institutions and Feminist Politics Now.’ That same year, the work on permanent display by females was less than 5%. The museum recently closed for renovations and will be “rethinking”their spaces to add more works by women.

Ilse Bing, Self-Portrait in Mirrors, 1931. Gelatin silver print,
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Let’s hope that we see real increases in numbers and that our collective voice calling for change continues to get louder so we can help female artists to gain more recognition.

Penny Griffin Lutz

Penny Griffin Lutz is the Director of The Gallery at Penn College Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Lutz earned a BA from Northern Arizona University, and a MA from Bloomsburg University. She is passionate about the arts and has been involved in the arts sector as a creator, advocate, manager or director for over 20 years.

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