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  • Writer's pictureDavid Eichholtz

Museum Showcases a Neglected Segment of the Art World: Women

Female artists have long lacked support, experts say. An initiative at the Baltimore Museum of Art is trying to change that.

The New York Times

By Aimee Ortiz

November 30, 2019

The Baltimore Museum of Art will have “a year of exhibitions and programs dedicated

to the presentation of the achievements of female-identifying artists.”Credit...Jon Bilous/Alamy

The Baltimore Museum of Art owes a lot to women.

Its first director was a woman. The Cone Collection, the institution’s crown jewel, was a gift from the Cone sisters of Baltimore. Even the museum’s wings are named after women philanthropists.

The museum introduced an initiative last month “dedicated to the presentation of the achievements of female-identifying artists.”

When the museum announced its plan in August, it said it was part of a “broader vision to address race and gender diversity gaps within the museum field.”

“We are a museum built largely by women,” Christopher Bedford, the museum director, said in an interview this week, adding that while the institution has “a very glorious history of women leading the charge, that is not necessarily reflected in either our exhibition history or the constitution of our collection.”

Women have long been overlooked in the art world — that’s the rule, not the exception, according to experts.

A study published in the online journal PLOS One in March found that men accounted for 87 percent of the artists at 18 major museums in the United States.

Art made by women accounted for just 11 percent of all acquisitions by 26 prominent American museums and 14 percent of all exhibitions in the last decade, a joint investigation by Artnet, an art market information company, and “In Other Words,” a weekly podcast and newsletter produced by Art Agency, Partners, an art advisory firm that was acquired by Sotheby’s, found.

The groups’ report, which was titled “Museums Claim They’re Paying More Attention to Female Artists. That’s an Illusion,” said: “The number of works by women acquired did not increase over time. In fact, it peaked a decade ago.”

Artworks featured in the exhibition “By Their Creative Force: American Women

Modernists.”Credit...Mitro Hood/The Baltimore Museum of Art

Many American museums have come to recognize the need to embrace female artists, but few are taking the steps necessary to reach parity, the report said.

Jessica Porter, the executive director of ArtTable, an organization dedicated to advancing women in visual arts, called the Baltimore museum’s initiative “inspiring.”

“The diversity of women that they’re showcasing, as well as the commitment to acquiring work by women over the next year, which they have the budget to do — it was a game-changer,” she said on Tuesday. “You’re actually putting money to the issue as well. They’re not just putting together exhibitions, but actually going to be buying work that reflects this mission.”

The initiative, which celebrates the centennial anniversary of women getting the right to vote, includes programs, acquisitions and exhibits.

Jessica Wohl, an artist who has exhibited in museums and is an art professor at Sewanee: The University of the South, praised the museum, saying she could not recall another institution taking such a dramatic step to diversify its collections. But, she said, the initiative needs to last for more than one year.

“If we are going for equity,” Ms. Wohl said, “I think quantity is really important.”

Women made 3,800 of the museum’s collection of 95,000 artworks.

Susan Jarosi, an art professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., said the Baltimore museum’s initiative “takes full advantage of the ‘future is female’ trend in marketing art to the public.”

Installation view of “Mickalene Thomas: A Moment’s Pleasure” at the Baltimore

Museum of Art.Credit...Mitro Hood/The Baltimore Museum of Art

The museum “clearly wants the public to know that it knows what feminists have been saying for half a century now — that issues of parity can only be addressed through structural change and institutional policies,” she said.

Professor Jarosi said the museum’s lack of the word “feminist” in its marketing materials and announcements for its plan, known as its 2020 Vision, gave her pause because it was “as if women are safe to champion but feminists are not.”

“The biggest questions, then, are what perceptible or demonstrable impacts these initiatives will have on the institution going forward,” she said.

Some museums have taken significant steps to diversify their collections, Artnet and “In Other Words” reported, citing as examples the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The first exhibition as part of the Baltimore initiative — called “By Their Creative Force: American Women Modernists” — opened last month and features works by artists including Elizabeth Catlett, Maria Martinez and Georgia O’Keeffe.

The museum said it was looking to create long-term, systemic change.

“A single exhibition acknowledging the gravity of 2020 didn’t seem adequate to us,” Mr. Bedford, the museum’s director, said. “In order to make the collection better, richer and more relevant,” he said, “I think you have to take aggressive measures to diversify.”

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