Leigh Arnold, Assistant Curator at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, presented and moderated the panel discussion Off the Pedestal: Women Artists in Art Museums at the Nasher in February. The discussion was about the underrepresentation of women artists in the art world, and museums in particular, and how museum collections might grow to be more equitable. The notable panelists were artist Lynda Benglis, curators Connie Butler and Jenni Sorkin, and philanthropist Elizabeth Sackler. The enormous interest this discussion generated demonstrates the need to address the persistent problems with representation and inequality within the art world, and to delve further into these issues. Arie Bouman on behalf of Glasstire sat down with Leigh Arnold to talk about the panel, a show she is curating for the Nasher about women and Land art, her research, and Dallas’ history of women artists.
Arie Bouman: Did you come up with the idea for the panel?
Leigh Arnold: I was supportive of it, but the idea came from Kaleta Doolin, who gave [the Nasher] the funding for the Doolin Acquisition Fund for Women Artists in 2015. She wanted to develop a way to bring greater awareness to this problem of the historical lack of representation of women artists within museum collections. She’s based in Dallas—she’s an artist herself, as well as a philanthropist and a feminist, and she is one of the Nasher’s patrons. She felt that the Doolin Acquisition Fund could have an actual visual impact on the museum. Ultimately, she wants more people to contribute [to it] so the fund can grow, and our acquisitions can increase.
So the Nasher came up with the idea of making a public program in honor of the Doolin Fund with women who were involved in this area, either as curators like Connie Butler and Jennie Sorkin or as artists like Lynda Benglis or philanthropists like Elizabeth Sackler. And it all came together really quickly; we had to decide a date and had to get people on board in the span of a couple of months. I think the fact that it came together so quickly and with such an amazing group of women speaks to the importance and the need for this kind of program.
AB: How has the Doolin Fund impacted the Nasher so far?
LA: Before the Doolin fund was established, we had work by Barbara Hepworth, Beverly Pepper, Nancy Grossman, and Magdalena Abakanowicz. Since the inception of the fund we have acquired works by four women artists, although not just through the fund. We’ve also been gifted a work by Lauren Woods, the Dallas-based video artist. Our first acquisition through the Doolin fund was work by Phyllida Barlow, who had a show with us in 2015. Then we acquired the work by Ana Mendieta, and we are in talks to acquire another group of works by another artist, which will be announced soon. So in some ways, we are getting close to doubling the number of women we have in our collection. It’s great, and it’s having a significant impact.
Although we are thinking of this issue not just with acquisitions, but with our programming as well. Regarding our exhibitions at the Nasher, I think because we are very conscious of our limits concerning our collection, we are always very aware of the shows that we program. It’s an ongoing conversation among the curatorial staff with our director, Jeremy Strick. Often we look at our programming and think, ”Where can we do better?” “Is this too many of this type of show?” So one way to support women artists is to have exhibitions of their work. Even if we can’t always acquire the work, we can support them by giving them exhibitions.
AB: You are actually currently working on an all-women show.
LA: Yes, but it’s some ways off, in 2020. I’m preparing an exhibition on women involved in the Land art movement. I wrote a dissertation on Robert Smithson. When I was writing the dissertation, Nancy Holt—Smithson’s wife—was still alive, and I was in contact with her quite a bit. I worked with her on a show at the Dallas Museum of Art on Smithson in Texas [2013-14]. She had all of this footage that she had filmed during the making of the Amarillo Ramp (1973) which, as everybody knows, Smithson died making. Holt hadn’t looked at that footage since it happened, which is insane because 40 years of time had passed at that point. But she worked on that footage and made a film for the exhibition. That was the last thing she ever did.
After that I realized Holt had this entire body of work that nobody knows or talks about. The only way she comes up [in an art historical context] is in connection to Smithson. So then I started thinking about other women who were involved in Land art who were also were overlooked and never actually considered. Because, to this day when you think of Land art you think of men: Smithson, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, etc. But there were a lot of women involved.
AB: Why have we not heard of these women?
LA: What I think happened is they continued to work in that vein even after the decline of Land art—when its popularity was waning. Their work transitioned into the public realm. So when you think about public art in the late ‘70s early ‘80s, when Percent for Art programs became a thing—first in Philadelphia then in other cities around the country—all these women that were already working in Landscape and Land art shifted their site locations from rural or desolate landscapes to urban landscapes, and started getting involved in public art projects. Which, in turn, removed them from the market, removed them from the galleries. Artists like Mary Miss, Alice Aycock, Patricia Johanson, Michelle Stuart, and Nancy Holt transitioned from going out into the landscapes of the Western U.S. to going back into the city landscapes and working within a public realm. The idea for the show came out of my interests and from realizing that there was this whole other group of women that were never brought into the historical canon of Land art.
AB: Is the reason these women aren’t included in the historical canon that they slowly faded away into the background over time, as the focus narrowed more on the famous men?
LA: No. Even historically, the early, seminal Earthwork and Land art exhibitions shows that were happening in the 1960s—they were all men. Women didn’t start becoming included even in the group exhibitions until the late 1970s. Yet, you had women making serious and important work that just wasn’t covered. Virginia Dwan, the art collector and owner of the Dwan Gallery in N.Y.C. and L.A. was an incredible supporter of these projects, like [Smithson’s] Spiral Jetty (1970), that weren’t going to get her any money [as a dealer]. However, she had no women on her roster, and that is a huge problem. With large-scale projects, women artists were often left to fund themselves.
For her iconic work Sun Tunnels (1973-76), Nancy Holt received some grants, but in her essay [about the sculpture, published in Artforum in 1977] she writes about the difficulties she faced in making ends meet and how much she paid for that project out of her own pocket. The same cannot be said for similar artists—men—who received tons of financial support. So already there was an erasure of their participation from the very beginning. It is only when Land art had reached its apex of popularity that there was more acceptance of women artists. So the women from the Land art movement ended up being sucked into this particular area of public art and disappeared from view.
Maybe in the end, because public art commissions are awarded through competitions, it was a way for women to get more involved. Maybe not as equals, but it was, in a sense, more of a meritocracy. It wasn’t tied up so much into the art market, which is dominated by men and gender dynamics that have shaped art for years. In a way, public art was a more democratic way for women to get involved in large-scale projects.
AB: You talk about an art market that has been shaped by gender dynamics. Yet already in the ’60s and ’70s there was a great awareness of this, and even push back against it. So why hasn’t it changed more, especially when considering that the art world always presents itself as a beacon of progressiveness?
LA: Yes, and no. A significant amount of museum funders, donors, and patrons are fiscally conservative. The market is built on selling fame and a story, and all of our history books focus on men. So the value of their work rises with the amount of coverage they receive, the amount of exhibitions they produce, the amount of work they sell—and it will be a slow evolution to get women up to where they are equal to men.
The canon is largely dominated by men and continues to be. It’s only with these acquisition funds like the Kaleta Doolin Fund, or galleries saying, “I’m going to represent as many women as men because these women’s works are as interesting and compelling as the men’s work.” There are a lot of things that have to change before there is going to be equality among the sexes in museum collections. There are so many reasons why. Look at sculpture—the field is historically lacking women’s involvement.
During the panel, Jenny Sorkin gave this brilliant explanation about what happened in the early 1910s with a law [the Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act of 1917] that led to the establishment of practical arts being taught in public school systems, resulting in courses that were gendered: boys were placed in the industrial arts and girls in home economics—removing women from learning tools, learning how to work with this kind of heavy machinery and industrial materials. That’s a very clear example of something that happened in the past that has had this ripple effect on entire generations of women. It didn’t prevent women from making sculpture—they just changed the way they did it. Women artists focused more on work that we deem “craft,” like ceramics and textiles. The kind of material that, when a man does it, let’s give him a gold medal and buy all of his work. But when a woman does it, because she’s doing it in her kitchen and her kid is crying the whole time when a curator is trying to do a studio visit with her, it’s under-appreciated or overlooked or considered unserious.
That’s the other thing; women have to balance raising a family making work. And again there is this double standard here, for a male artist to have is kids around is like this beacon of enlightenment, but for a female artist it’s considered negative, like a ball and chain. Women artists are often taken less seriously because of their circumstances, instead of valuing the work no matter what the circumstances. You should say the work increases in its value because it’s being made in spite of all these factors working against its creation.
AB: How do you think this problem of representation should be solved?
LA: There are all sorts of things to consider, but this issue should always be in the back of your mind, this bias that exists—though I’m guilty of it, too. I wrote a dissertation on a white man who is dead. Lots of people have written about him [Smithson], so why did I choose him? It brought me into the universe of Nancy Holt, so it did open me up to considering the problem of representation of women in art, and to work on revising and re-evaluating the canon. Because once you start to change the canon, or maybe even blow up the canon and start fresh, then you start to get more interesting things happening. If you can change the historical perspective, that should influence everything else. If girls are seeing more women artists succeed in their lifetime, or in art history textbooks, that’s only going to mean that they are going to believe they can go on and be artists too.
I think there is something very exciting about this revisionist moment that we’re having. It gives us, as curators and art historians, the ability to rediscover all these women artists who have been there all along, whose work is just as impressive as that of their better-known male counterparts. When you look at art history in that way, you get a much fuller story. You get to understand more about history if you include an artist like Nancy Grossman. So now we are in this revisionist period where there are all of these exhibitions being organized that focus on women, or focus on people of color. And those are fantastic because they bring more awareness to the fact that, for example, in 1905 there were a whole bunch of artists making all kinds of different work that is interesting and worthwhile. We no longer have to distill everything down to one artist, who created one movement that we consider for that entire period, like, for example, Picasso.
AB: Is this revisionist moment connected to the current political events?
LA: It’s a political moment, but it’s also a response to an increasing demand. If museums want to grow, they have to grow with their visitors, and they have to respond to who their audience is, so as the demographics of the cities change, the demographics of the museum should change too. The women’s panel received so much great feedback, so there is obviously a need for that. When we did the Melvin Edwards exhibition our audience changed, our visitors changed, our demographics changed. So we then had to ask ourselves: Why haven’t we seen this audience before? There are entire museum audiences out there just waiting for the museum to do something to bring them in. And until they see something that excites them, that interests them, and, more importantly, represents them in some way, they’re not going to come to the museums. So as museums move forward, they need to take that into account. If museums don’t become representative and inclusive, their audiences will continue to grow older, and nothing will change.
AB: Elizabeth Sackler during the panel said that when she proposed the name Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, she was asked “Why not the Center for Women’s Art?” to which she responded, “That’s what they would call it in Texas.”
LA: I felt the need to stand up for Texas during the panel when Elizabeth Sackler said that. When I was working on the show the DallasSITES [at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2013], I was able to find out so much about the history of women in the arts in Dallas, going back to the 1950s. Betty Blake started the Betty McLean Gallery here in Dallas [in 1951], which was the first contemporary art gallery in the Southwest. She was also the president of the board of the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Art at the time of the merger  with the Dallas Museum of Fine Art [now the Dallas Museum of Art] whose board was chaired by Margaret McDermott. I think it’s amazing to think that in the 1950s and ’60s there were these two powerful and influential women in these important roles.
Then there was the Dallas Women’s Co-op which started in the 1970s, only two years after Womanhouse in L.A. Women artists in Dallas started this women-only gallery because the regular galleries wouldn’t represent them; the gallery lasted for more than a decade. Then there was the all-female art collective who called themselves Toxic Shock with Frances Bagley, Deborah Hunter, Julie Cohn, Linda Finnell, and Susan Magilow. They were doing subversive things like requesting CVs from all of the major art players in the Dallas scene and then putting them on display so you could go through everyone’s career history. Certain questions arose from that work—such as, how did so-and-so get that job? Who did he/she know? Looking at a person’s CV in the 1980s meant more then than it would today, perhaps, as this is pre-Facebook, pre-LinkedIn. To know someone’s past could reveal all sorts of problems or conflicts of interest. So for me, researching that exhibition made me proud of this tradition of strong women in Dallas art.
AB: When looking at this history and the slow shifting of gender dynamics in our art institutions, do you think we still need these all-women exhibitions?
LA: As long as you have to ask the question I think that there is still a need. As long as we still have to do historical revisionist exhibitions—plugging women back into the historical context they were written out of—we still need to be doing these shows to re-write this history. Maybe there will come a day 20 years from now when we’re looking back and starting to historicize shows from the 1990s and the 2000s, and it won’t be such a problem. Hopefully, in our current moment, we are writing this history with a greater awareness of the gender bias, and maybe in 50 years, when our current moment is being historicized, perhaps then these women-only shows will be a thing of the past.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.