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Creating value around women artists: the chief curator’s view

Interesting article in The Art Newspaper by Julia Halperin in which Los Angeles Moca’s Helen Molesworth explains why the gender imbalance in museums persists and what can be done to remove it.

Here follows an excerpt, read the full article here


Helen Molesworth


In our May print edition, we examine new initiatives in the US and UK that aim to promote female artists—and ask curators, collectors and artists whether such philanthropic endeavours can make a difference. According to research by the Freelands Foundation and The Art Newspaper, female artists in the US and UK receive fewer than 30% of all solo shows at major museums. 

Molesworth spoke with us about why the gender imbalance in museums persists, why we must expand the definition of “genius” and what hard choices institutions must make in order to create a truly balanced programme.

The Art Newspaper: Recent studies in both the UK and the US found that women get around 25% of the solo shows at major museums. Why do you think this disparity still persists today?

Helen Molesworth: People always stay “still today” as if something happened to change the patriarchal system that we live under. As far as I can tell, the patriarchal system is still firmly in place. Since the movement in the early 20th century to get the right to vote, we haven’t had that long a battle in terms of changing the institutions that shape our culture. That’s why the percentages are the way they are—in the Senate and the House of Representatives and Fortune 500 companies. I don’t think the art world has any special purchase on patriarchy.

But people talk about the art world being progressive, a place for ideas—as if it should be ahead of other institutions.

It is a place for ideas and we are a progressive and liberal community, but that doesn’t set us apart from the larger cultural forces at play, which have for the past several hundred years promoted the idea that genius and men and power and money are all very intertwined with one another. Unravelling centuries’ worth of discrimination doesn’t happen overnight, or even within decades.


How do you think things have changed over the past five or ten years? I spoke with the artist Deborah Kass about this, and she said that things have only got worse since art became an asset class.

The rise of art as an asset class has made a lot of things worse for a lot of people—women and men. It’s a low moment in the development of Western civilisation. But I do think some things are better and I think there have been really important shows of work by women. A handful of people around the country make diverse schedules. We could have had this conversation 40 years ago but I wouldn’t have been a chief curator and you wouldn’t have been an editor. That progress is slow and the ascendancy of art as an asset class has only slowed that progress down.

Why should museums open up their ranks?

Two reasons. First, I believe that museums reflect the ideas and values of the culture that they live in, so they need to expose us to all the possibilities and diversity of that culture. The second, more important, reason is because museums in the West are bound up with democracy. The Louvre became the first public museum in the wake of the French Revolution. They help people understand where they come from, where they are and where they might be going. I don’t understand how we can get any better at being democratic if we aren’t making a programme that represents the fullness of human capacity.

Did Marcel Duchamp steal Elsa’s urinal?

In an article in The Art Newspaper Julian Spalding and Glyn Thompson suggests that "The founding object of conceptualism was probably `by a German baroness`, but this debate is rarely aired".

Evidence that Marcel Duchamp may have stolen his most famous work, Fountain, from a woman poet has been in the public domain for many years. But the art world as a whole—museums, academia and the market—has persistently refused to acknowledge this fact. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is the latest eminent body to bury its head in the sand. It has just published a new edition of Calvin Tomkins’s 1996 life of Duchamp, updated by its author. Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, praises Tomkins in her introduction for his “thorough research”. But Tomkins avoids addressing the implications of the question marks over the origins of the work that Duchamp himself raised in 1917.

Duchamp maintained that he bought the urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works in New York, signed it with the pseudonym R. Mutt, and submitted it to the Independents exhibition, calling it Fountain. The ­urinal was rejected despite the objection of Duchamp’s rich friend Walter Arensberg, who argued that the ­society must honour its own rule and hang everything submitted. The ­urinal was a work of art, he claimed, because an artist had chosen it.

Scholars have long since proved that Duchamp could not have bought the urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works because Mott didn’t sell that particular model. Most tellingly, on 11 April 1917, just two days after the board had rejected it, Duchamp wrote to his sister, a nurse in war-torn Paris, telling her that “one of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture”. The explosive contents of this letter did not enter the public domain until 1983 when the missive was published in the Archives of American Art Journal.

Elsa was a poet of found objects, but she didn’t leave them as they were—she transformed them into works of art.

Elsa exploded in fury when the US declared war on her motherland, on Good Friday, 6 April 1917. Her ­target was the Society of Indepen­dent Artists, whose representatives had consistently cold-shouldered her. We believe she submitted an upside-down urinal, signed R. Mutt in a script similar to the one she sometimes used for her poems.

Armut—the homophone of R. Mutt—has many resonances in German. It is used in common phrases to mean “poverty”, and in some contexts “intellectual poverty”. Elsa’s submission was a double-pronged attack. The society was hoisted by its own petard, for in accepting the entry it would demonstrate its inability to distinguish a work of art from an everyday object, but in rejecting it, it would break its own rule that the definition of what was art should be left to the submitting artist. Hence the “intellectual poverty” of its stance.

The urinal was Elsa’s declaration of war against a man’s war—an extraordinary visual assault on all that men stood for. As a sculpture of a transformed everyday object, it deserves to rank alongside Picasso’s Bull’s Head, 1942, made of bicycle ­handlebars and a saddle, and Dali’s Lobster Telephone, 1936.

If Duchamp did not submit the urinal, why would he pretend later that he did? After Elsa died in 1927, forgotten and in abject poverty, Duchamp began to let his name be associated with the urinal, and by 1950, four years after the death of Alfred Stieglitz, who photographed the original Fountain, he began to assume its authorship.

Read the full article here

Book: A Sisterhood of Sculptors by Melissa Dabakis

When Elizabeth Cady Stanton penned the Declaration of Sentiments for the first women’s rights convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, she unleashed a powerful force in American society. In A Sisterhood of Sculptors, Melissa Dabakis outlines the conditions under which a group of American women artists adopted this egalitarian view of society and negotiated the gendered terrain of artistic production at home and abroad.

Between 1850 and 1876, a community of talented women sought creative refuge in Rome and developed successful professional careers as sculptors. Some of these women have become well known in art-historical circles: Harriet Hosmer, Edmonia Lewis, Anne Whitney, and Vinnie Ream. The reputations of others have remained, until now, buried in the historical record: Emma Stebbins, Margaret Foley, Sarah Fisher Ames, and Louisa Lander. At midcentury, they were among the first women artists to attain professional stature in the American art world while achieving international fame in Rome, London, and other cosmopolitan European cities. In their invention of modern womanhood, they served as models for a younger generation of women who adopted artistic careers in unprecedented numbers in the years following the Civil War.

At its core, A Sisterhood of Sculptors is concerned with the gendered nature of creativity and expatriation. Taking guidance from feminist theory, cultural geography, and expatriate and postcolonial studies, Dabakis provides a detailed investigation of the historical phenomenon of women’s artistic lives in Rome in the mid-nineteenth century. As an interdisciplinary examination of femininity and creativity, it provides models for viewing and interpreting nineteenth-century sculpture and for analyzing the gendered status of the artistic profession.

To order the book go to the Publisher Penn State University Press