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Celebrating Women in the Arts with the North Carolina Museum of Art

The representation and visibility of women artists remains an uphill battle in museums, galleries, and art publications. In February 2019, The Public Library of Science reported in a survey of permanent collections of 18 leading art museums in the US that of 10,000 artists 87% were male and 85% were white. The Freelands Foundation reported that “22% of solo shows in major London non-commercial galleries were by women artists,” a decrease of 8% from 2016. The National Gallery just acquired its first painting by a woman since 1991, a self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi, bringing their collection up to 21 total works by women in 2018.

However, there is hope for a more equitable future for women artists. Some institutions are starting to take more action to give women artists better representation in their galleries. In a step in the right direction, the National Gallery is planning on an Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition in 2020 that will show 35 paintings of her work. More institutions are taking Women’s History Month more seriously and special events like International Women’s Day on March 8th and Support Women Artists Now (SWAN day), the last Saturday of March, are being celebrated throughout the world by big and small institutions.

Mostly recently, the North Carolina Museum of Art has taken the celebration of women in the arts to a new level with their Women’s Weekend, held over the March 8th weekend in 2019. Over three days, the museum held over 20 events including Artist walks, lectures, film screenings, workshops, tarot card readings, and even yoga in the galleries. Headlining the weekend was Frida, one of the original Guerrilla Girls who spoke to a sold-out audience as well as conducted a workshop called “Exercise Your Activism.”

The idea for the Women’s Weekend began with the efforts of NCMA patron and board member named Lizzie Cheatham McNairy who decided to form the Matron of Arts initiative to support better representation of women in the arts. Funding from the initiative has been helped with acquisitions, programming, exhibition support and much more. This year, when McNairy suggested bringing one of the Guerrilla Girls to the NCMA, Silvia Filippini Fantoni, Ph.D, NCMA Director of Programs and Audience Engagement, and Jennifer Armstrong Hicks, NCMA Director of Programs, decided to “turn it into a whole weekend experience that celebrates women.” Armstrong Hicks explained, “We wanted to figure out a way to have a weekend full of programming that was centered on women. We wanted to run everything through the filter of art. We tried to keep it as close to things that related to our property and our collection.”

When Valerie Hillings, Director of the NCMA, joined the institution in November 2018, she decided “to really continue this and formalize it as one of our affinity groups as a statement of the institution. The institution has done great work already. The contemporary collection is very strong in women artists. Such that I asked our Chief Curator and Curator of Contemporary art to make an entire gallery of women artists in collaboration with the weekend.” But she notes there is work to be done in the historic galleries.

celebrating women in the arts

Over the summer, the NCMA team began figuring out how to make the idea into a reality. Armstrong Hicks and her team began meeting with women in the community to hear what they were thinking and find out about their needs and possible barriers to participation. Through these conversations, NCMA realized that childcare was an important issue for many participants. While Armstrong Hicks noted that they struggled in coming up with a solution, she felt that they found a great way to address it. The NCMA used its experience running summer camps for kids to have supervised drop-in areas where parents could leave their kids to do activities.

The team wanted to make sure the event was diverse at all levels; there were many free events as well as paid ones. Fantoni noted, “We wanted it to be inclusive. We didn’t only want women to come. It was a welcoming experience for everybody who were willing to celebrate all women.”

The NCMA decided to create a thematic overarching idea for each day of the weekend. Friday was “Activate” with the Guerrilla Girl lecture. A great cross section of people came out for Frida’s lecture that began with Frida throwing out bananas to the audience. There was a NCMA Late event “Cocktails and Craftivism” that included a silent disco (where people dance and listen to music over headphones) with 3 women DJs, art by Betsy Greer, called the godmother of Craftivism (craft + activism), an activation by Empower Dance, and much more.

Saturday’s theme was empower. The day began with a three-panel discussion called “The (Museum) Future is Female” where three directors of three art institutions of the “Triangle” or the Piedmont region in North Carolina, notably Valerie Hillings (NCMA), Katie Ziglar (Ackland Art Museum) and Sarah Schroth (Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University), spoke about their experiences led by moderator Renee Chou of WRAL, local news. Alia El-Bermani, one of the weekend’s participating artists and co-founder of Women Painting Women, noted that “hearing their stories and how they got to where they are not only make me really wish that I had become an art curator, cause their stories were really fun.” But more importantly, she noted: “seeing people at the top helping reach back down, participating to help other women and being conscious of it not just being white women was a good positive thing.”

Running throughout the day, there were artist led walks through the galleries called “DoubleTakes.” Artists were asked to talk about their view of the NCMA collections. El Bermani led one of the DoubleTakes and began with introducing her background as the daughter of an Iraqi father as well as her interest in representational painting and work advocating women painters with her blog.

interactive artwork

She was gratified at the popularity of her tour; it was supposed to be 20 people but by the end, there were 40 people engaged with her talk. She explained how she often feels invisible in the art world due to her gender and heritage. She noted, “I haven’t felt allowed to identify my father’s heritage. And for the first time I was talking about that publicly” and it felt like “the museum is seeing me.”

There were art installations run by local artists throughout the museum. Stacy Bloom Rexrode, presenting artist and Curator of Exhibitions and Collections at Raleigh Arts, installed “Tag You’re It” that had a crocheted structure, as a “homage to women as makers” with tags tied to the structure. The tags had statistics about women’s health, reproduction and sexual abuse such as “1 in 3 women worldwide will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.” People were invited to read as well as share their own experiences or reactions to the piece. Bloom Rexrode said, “The response exceeded my expectations” when 100 people engaged with the work and 50-60 people left messages about their own experiences with sexual abuse and health. People came up to her crying; one woman said she felt it was a healing exercise to put out her experience into the world.

Of these programming, Hillings explained how she saw “the absolute power of having these living artists do tours of our collection and/or activating the gallery spaces. It was a reminder of how important it is to have the voice of the artist present in our programming and how we are sharing the collection. It is true that the best way to understand art is to offer multiple perspectives on it.”

Other events included a scavenger hunt, various workshops including a Seeing Ourselves Painting Workshop also led by El-Bermani, and other events.

Sunday’s events were themed around the idea of self-care. Activities began with 8am screening of the Princess and the Frog with cereal for parents and children, known as “Cereal Cinema,” yoga sessions in five galleries, tarot card readings, and so much more.

People attending the event seemed to respond well to it. Fantoni said that one father came up to her impressed with the programming and said, “Seeing daughter dancing in galleries, it was the best experience of my life.” Bloom Rexrode said, “Hat’s off to the museum being willing to take on those conversations, create an environment for the audience to interact and start those conversations.” NCMA estimated that about 2,000 number of people attended the Women’s Weekend.

Staff at NCMA credited both internal and external support for making the weekend happen. The programming staff worked with conservation and registration staff to ensure the art was protected from the materials they were using in the galleries; they also worked out details with security staff. Education and learning teams also helped out by supporting the childcare experience or the Young Artists Zone. Volunteers also played an important role in making the event happen; Fantoni and Armstrong Hicks noted: “ This is possible thanks to enthusiasm of people who liked the idea, liked the concept and were willing to be part of it, even if it required an extra little bit of work.”

Moreover, the staff noted that they had a whole group of artists that they had wanted to work with for a while but never had the right opportunity or right context. The Weekend was the right fit for them. 

When asked if they were going to have the Weekend again in 2020, Fantoni and Armstrong Hicks said they were likely going to change up the formula in part because March and April are really busy seasons for the programming department. However, they plan on bringing back programming elements that they got to debut for the first time with the Women’s Weekend including the Double Takes, Cereal Cinema, and much more.

When asked what advice Armstrong Hicks and Fantoni had for institutions considering an endeavour like this, they had a few great suggestions. First, it was really helpful to have a headliner because it “created momentum for this experience. Have a name that resonates well and creates interest and vibe that goes beyond the interaction with artist.”

Added to that, Fantoni and Armstrong Hicks recommended that it was important to “use that opportunity to engage and activate local artists.” The museum often pairs international artists with local artists. It helps to “create the opportunity for local artists to get that visibility.”

Fantoni also suggested using “this as an opportunity to experiment with new models that you might want to do.” They were excited that they got to work with a variety of artists that they hadn’t been able to do in the past and work on new programming ideas.

The team at NCMA also stressed how critical it was to take the time to understand their audiences and find out what they want to see, what they expect, and what they may need. They think having a small diverse committee will also help bring in lots of viewpoints and help organizations know if “we were doing the right thing.” Their work with local groups helped bring forth the issue of childcare for the Women’s Weekend.

Fantoni and Armstrong Hicks also recommended that it was important to have a mix of free and paid experiences. They advised: “You want to engage with people who are here randomly and people who may not be able to afford them.” Most events were under $20, many were $5-$10, but they thought it was important to have events open to a wider group of people.

They also noted that organizations shouldn’t be dissuaded by a vocal minority that pushed back at anything related to women or feminism. NCMA said to tune those negative voices out and ultimately, “the positivity outweighs the loud voices of discontent.” Fantoni noted that you should realize that you “doing something good for the community.”

At the end of the day, Fantoni and Armstrong Hicks urged organizations to “just do it.” They explain that the event doesn’t have to be three days with a multitude of events; it doesn’t have to be perfect. Armstrong Hicks recalled what Guerrilla Girl Frida said to them, “Don’t stop. You have to do this. We have to bring these messages out. And it doesn’t have to take the activist route. Make sure we are creating programming like this, engaging women in museum, not just in art, and recognizing them.”

Armstrong Hicks concluded about the event overall: “People seemed like they really wanted this. Even if they didn’t know they wanted it, they wanted it.”

We can’t wait to see what institutions around the world do for next year’s Women’s International Day.

About the author – Elisa Shoenberger

Elisa Shoenberger is an academic out of academia. She is a writer, historian, oral historian, musician, performer, and general troublemaker. She writes about the arts and travel for a number of publications in both the United States and Europe.

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