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At Sheldon, Women Now Rule — To Make A Point

Either great minds do think alike, or someone in Nebraska has been listening to Jerry Saltz (and, less prescriptively, me).

Ringgold.jpgSaltz has railed about the lack of work by women artists on display at the Museum of Modern Art many times, including for an article I wrote for The Art Newspaper’s June issue. That’s when he said:

“I don’t believe in hanging work in museums according to gender. But MoMA has been so frustratingly remiss in this area that for now I am in favor of anything that MoMA can do to get more work by women artists on view. If this means removing every Picasso and Matisse and Brancusi and Mondrian for nine months, do it.”

That was in the context of MoMA’s women’s initiative, but I’m pretty sure his feeling applies to other museums.

So I was thrilled to see that the Sheldon Museum of Art, part of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, is devoting some 85% of its gallery space to work by women, despite the fact that works by men dominate its collections 12 to 1 vs. works by women. According to the Omaha World-Herald:

In a two-part exhibit self-consciously titled “Better Half, Better Twelfth,” the Sheldon is featuring a range of works — paintings, prints, photographs and sculpture — by women artists as famous as Georgia O’Keeffe and as up-and-coming as post-representational painter Jennifer Scott McLaughlin.

The museum also is showcasing other works by women through special exhibits, including a traveling first-ever show of female pop artists from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, on display through September.

SheldonVeneciano.jpgThe article quotes Sheldon director Jorge “Daniel” Veneciano saying he believes his domain is the “first U.S. museum he’s aware of that has stored most of its male artists — including the popular Brancusi, Rothko and Hopper — to free up space for lesser-known women.” He drew inspiration from, and visited, the Pompidou Centre’s elles@pompidou exhibit, which stripped the Centre’s galleries of work by men in favor of showing women’s work.

It’s sad that these kinds of measures are necessary — in the long run, the selection of art must be gender-blind (and color-blind).

But it’s not now, and voluntary measures can help remedy the situation.

A strawberry to Veneciano (left).

Photo Credits: The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles, by Faith Ringgold (top); Jorge Veneciano (bottom), courtesy of the Sheldon Museum   




  1. I believe, like Nicholas Kristof and Sheril WuDunn (see their book Half the Sky), that parity and rights for women is THE great issue of the 21st century. But we cannot change history. For the postwar period, sure there are many women who can “hold the wall” as well as their male counterparts. But we’d need to discover dozens of brush-weilding Emily Dickinsons to balance the scales before then. Let’s not cheat museum visitors for the sake of presentist political correctness.

  2. Sue Ann Robinson says

    Rather than “change” history, the Long Beach Museum of Art, in CA., is celebrating history and its remarkable history of collecting and exhibiting work by women since its founding in 1950. This year of “Celebrating Sixty” currently includes “Light in the Shadow: Decades of Art by Women.” The LBMA has featured art by women in group exhibitions, solo exhibitions, and in the permanent collection every year since 1950. Twenty-five percent of the permanent collection is art in all media by women, an achievement matched by few museums. It’s “no cheat” to discover the visions and the inspiring stories of women artists on a regular and consistent basis. Sue Ann Robinson, Director of Collections, LBMA

  3. History changes constantly — it is always being revised to reflect new thinking and discoveries. How will people know if women artists can “hold the wall” if they are not exhibited?

  4. cecilia wong says

    “Holding the wall” and beyond…
    The Pompidou in Paris last year devoted a display entirely of works of female artists in its collection, claiming it was the first in the world.
    The current summer show in the Whitechapel Gallery in London is Painted Truths by pioneering portrait artist, the American Alice Neel.
    From group shows to monographic exhibitions, this is a very encouraging progression allowing audiences to see woman artists’ works on an experiential and intimate level, perhaps absorbing their essential characters, if any.
    As someone who loves and looks at a lot of art, though not an art world professional, I would love to see a next step: Woman artists’ works put in context. That is, putting them alongside works of male artists, either their contemporaries, or their treatment of the same subject matter… This would allow us to read and assess their place in (art) history on hopefully a more intellectual, interpretational level.
    A few examples come to mind: Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay… or Agnes Martin in minimalism, Helen Frankinthaler and Joan Mitchell in abstract expressionism… and many more contemporary woman artists.
    How about Alice Neel and Lucien Freud?

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