On Dec. 18 the New Britain Museum of American Art will open WomenArtists@NewBritainMuseum, a comprehensive exhibition of women artists represented in the permanent collection. This is a first in the Museum’s history and a landmark show that sets it among a group of major international museums—the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles—that have presented large-scale exhibitions of art by women in the past four years. The Museum of Modern Art just published a 500-page catalogue of women’s work in their collection and the Jewish Museum of New York recently opened an exhibition of feminism and painting drawn primarily from their collection and featuring seven works that they have recently acquired. This sudden flurry of action signals a coming of age for women artists from the perspective of museums. After forty years of political pressure, women’s art has achieved major institutional recognition.
The New Britain Museum of American Art has good reason to be proud of its collecting practices in regards to women artists. In the past decade, under the direction of Douglas Hyland, it has doubled the number of works it owns by women while at the same time significantly growing its holdings in modern and contemporary art. The upcoming exhibition presents a selection of 80 works from a total of over 600 works by women in the collection. Spanning the last two centuries and including an array of media—painting, prints, sculpture, photography, video, installations and a hologram—it will send the viewer out into the hallways and onto the grounds as well as through the Museum’s gallery spaces.
A good number of luminary figures appear, among them Sarah Miriam Peale, Lily Martin Spencer, Mary Cassatt, Isabel Bishop, Dorothea Lange, Louise Nevelson, Georgia O’Keeffe, Grandma Moses, Elizabeth Catlett, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Elizabeth Murray, Nancy Spero, Nancy Graves and Cindy Sherman. Yet the interest of the show comes just as much from strengths in lesser-know artists. American women working in the early 20th century produced not only expected portraits, but images of both migrants and immigrants, views of cities, and even factory interiors. Though often noted for its collection of realist art, the NBMAA’s collection of women is particularly strong in abstraction, including the Abstract Expressionists mentioned above and more recent artists, such as Ellen Carey and Lisa Hoke, working on a large-scale in unexpected media. Go to the Museum’s website to get the picture.
While women’s access to art training increased throughout the 20th century, women from radically diverse backgrounds have entered strongly into the multi-vocal arena of American art since the 1970s. Among those in the exhibition are Moroccan American Lalla Essaydi, Chinese American Hung Liu, Indian American Siona Benjamin Kruge, and Ecuadorian American Gabriela Gonzales Dellosso.
Guest curators for the exhibition, Sherry Buckberrough and Nancy Noble, professors of art history at the University of Hartford, have chosen to present the works by women in thematic groupings—portraits, the body, the city, narratives, identity, nature, abstraction, and written signs. These topics are pertinent to the history of women artists and also to the strengths of the collection. They will give the viewer the opportunity to consider the life experiences and motivations of women artists from a variety of perspectives and they provoke unexpected comparisons. The exhibition as a whole, of course, constitutes a separation of women artists from the body of the Museum’s total collection. It gives us reason to reflect on the collection practices of museums in general and, of course, on the relation of the work by women in this collection, in terms of style, subject matter, and quality, with the work of their masculine peers. There’s no worry in that regard (and the question itself is now totally out of fashion)—women artists’ work stands up just fine!
-Sherry Buckberrough and Nancy Noble
An extensive scholarly catalogue with essays by the director and the guest curators will be published in conjunction with the exhibition. The official opening will be held on January 7 and a full-day symposium, at which artist Kate Cheney Chappell will speak along with the curators, will take place on January 17.