With only 13-15% of works by female arts featuring in major museums in the United States and 30% having gallery representation, this all-female visual art exhibition is set to correct the existing gender disparity.
From June 19 to August 3 2019, Phillips X—the auction house’s private selling platform—is showcasing NOMEN: American Women Artists from 1945 to Today, an exhibition focusing exclusively on post war works of art by women artists. Curated by Arnold Lehman, Phillips’ Senior Advisor and Director Emeritus of the Brooklyn Museum, this show highlights the marginalization of American female artists until the 1960s. Featuring paintings, photographs, and sculptures by artists like Jenny Holzer, Yayoi Kusama, Howardena Pindell, Kiki Smith, Dorothea Lange, this exhibition celebrates the contribution of female artists to the trajectory of 20th century art and the art historical canon.
Arnold Lehman, who retired as the director of the Brooklyn Museum and joined Phillips as Senior Advisor to CEO Edward Dolman, said of the project, it “aims to bring attention to the extraordinarily important role of women artists in the United States as America assumed the leadership of the art world. Pre-1945 most women artists in America struggled to assume their rightful place alongside their male counterparts. However, these determined women artists became increasingly central to the evolution and success of the American art community, as well as of the modern and contemporary art community worldwide.”
Tell us about your role at Phillips.
I am Senior Advisor to the CEO and Chairman at Phillips, Edward Dolman. Primarily, it is to help lead the public and the academic or in programming at Phillips and to organize and moderate panel discussions, symposiums, lectures, and other programming, as well as curating exhibitions. I work with specialists, artists, collectors, art historians and critics to incorporate all aspects of the visual experience in a variety of activities.
“Initially, I thought about a feminist-only show but I was concerned about whether people would understand the difference between an exhibition on women’s art and feminist art.” –Arnold Lehman, Senior Advisor at Phillips Auction
You were the director of the Brooklyn Museum, how did you find the transition from the museum world to the auction realm?
I found the transition quite easy because I’d known the CEO of Phillips [Edward Dolman] for over 20 years. I worked with him, I am a great admirer of his. He asked me if I’d be interested in joining the team there. I would more or less sketch out what I wanted to do. I also know many people from Phillips from their past roles at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. I was excited to focus primarily on contemporary art—an area I know best from my museum experience during the past almost five decades.
What advice would you have for others who would like to make the transition to an auction house?
My advice is not to be intimidated in making that transition. I think for many years people thought somehow they were going from the good to evil, the evil world of business and that they could never go back if they wanted to. The fact of the matter is that this is one large art ecosystem and that we all bring people to art and art to people, whether through museums, galleries or auction houses. The one thing we do that the museum world doesn’t is that we let them take the art home with them and enjoy it, live with it, and love it. It really is one world with different talents, programs and directions, but when you put it together it is all about art.
Do you find that you can promote women’s art more freely in an auction house than in a museum?
I don’t think it’s the location, I think it’s the commitment. There is zero problem in doing this at the Brooklyn Museum, I’m sure that a number of other museums in the country clearly do the same. I had no push back at all when I decided to do NOMEN. The typical commercial gallery looks at it more or less from an economic standpoint, but in these days, I believe if you’ve got problems promoting women’s art then you’ve got bigger problems than that. I would never stand for a situation where a woman was not treated equally as a man. When I was the director at the Brooklyn Museum, I had seven deputy directors, and I believe five were women. People sometimes criticized me for choosing women over men. Change is never easy or easily accepted.
What inspired NOMEN: American Women Artists from 1945 to Today?
When I came to Phillips, I was thinking about what areas I would like to explore through exhibitions at the auction house. The two areas that were very important to me—the areas of African American art and women’s art. Doing exhibitions at Phillips is dependent upon getting space to do it and auction schedules are getting so complex and intensive, space is not usually available. The other requirement is a reasonable amount of time to have the exhibition on view. I believe the most important issue in getting people to see an exhibition is word-of-mouth. And by the time word-of-mouth starts in a week or two, people don’t get there if the exhibition is on view for only two or three weeks.
Initially, I thought about a feminist-only show but I was concerned about whether people would understand the difference between an exhibition on women’s art and feminist art. Ultimately, the exhibition included seventy women and I included many feminist artists in the exhibition.
2019-2020 is also the hundredth anniversary of women’s right to vote in the U.S. It became the federal law—the nineteenth amendment to the constitution. I thought to do an exhibition 100 years since American women could vote was an important historical statement.
“I would never stand for a situation where a woman was not treated equally as a man. When I was the director at the Brooklyn Museum, I had seven deputy directors, and I believe five were women. People sometimes criticized me for choosing women over men. Change is never easy or easily accepted.” –Arnold Lehman, Senior Advisor at Phillips Auction
How did some of the women in the exhibition break into the art scene in the 1940s and 50’s? Did it coincide with a feminist movement?
You can see many American women artists of the 20th century studying in Europe, where they were more or less accepted into academic programs and classes. They worked next to impressionists and post-impressionists and other artists. When they got back, there was no market for their work so they wound up giving art classes to children or wealthy American women. That changed in part in the 1920s with the advent of a number of important women photographers. Photography hadn’t been as embraced in a contemporary way in the U.S. until people like Dorothea Lange came along and others who adopted it as their medium. Not only were they going hand to hand with male sculptors/painters, but they had a field that was very open to them. One they helped develop. Their engagement with photography was a kind of a breach in the wall, the all-male wall of artists who were being reviewed, collected and shown in galleries.
From then on, starting in the 1940s 1950s and 60’s, women’s participation grew and grew but it’s still not until the 1980s and 90’s that there was a remote balance between those professionally successful women artists and professionally successful male artists. There were exceptions. I did a show on Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s wife. She was always known as Jackson Pollock’s wife and now you have a great show of Krasner’s work at the Barbican, London. It has taken all this time for her to be so well-known. I think that feminism helped to bridge that gap. Feminism often caused a lot of discomfort but I really think that discomfort often leads to gaining what you’re fighting for! So I very much believe that the feminist movement and the chronological success of women artist in America go hand in hand.
“The goal was to broaden people’s horizons, to let them know that out in the world there are extraordinary artists who happen to be women.” –Arnold Lehman, Senior Advisor at Phillips Auction
What are the main themes of the show?
It has not been part of my plan to begin with [a main theme] except in general terms. I certainly wanted to make sure that we had women who were abstract artists and to make sure there were women who represented other directions as well. I wanted to make sure we had enough photographers in the exhibition and that we had feminists artists. If you go through the exhibition, it was not about themes in particular. It is about one theme—the growing significance of American women artists over that seventy-five year period at the same time that women also began to play a more important role in American society generally. I’m very much committed to the idea of equity for all artists whether it’s in gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality. I think that these are coming close to the golden days of that kind of equity in the United States in terms of the visual arts.
What are the steps involved in curating an exhibition? How do you select the artists/works for a show?
While it is almost parallel to creating a museum show, there are however several differences. The primary difference is that all the works in every exhibition that Phillips does are all for sale. It is one thing is to encourage collectors to lend works of art. It’s entirely another thing to ask them to have it for sale. So instead of in the normal exhibition where it comes back to them in a few months or years if it travels, this is the moment they say goodbye—which is a major issue.
The second is that because of the schedules at auction houses, you have a very limited period of time to work on projects as opposed to a museum, where you typically plan exhibitions anywhere between two to four years. You have to do all of this in a period of a week or month. The third difference is in Brooklyn [Brooklyn Museum], you have a couple of weeks to install the exhibition and to make sure everything is perfect. Normally, we have two days to install and make everything perfect in the auction. It eats too much into the days open to the public.
Otherwise it’s the same. You identify collectors, who do you want or need to reflect a period or style. Then you contact the collector or gallery to encourage those works to come into the exhibition. The one place that we don’t typically go to, that a museum would, is to borrow works from other museums. Anticipation is that the works will be sold.
What would you say to someone who was critical about all-female art exhibitions and believe they encourage ‘tokenism’ and relegate women to the sidelines?
The problem is to get to the goal and reinforce it, educate the public and capture people’s imagination. You have to always keep creating ways to do that and one way to do that is a bold positive, strong, historically interesting exhibition just on women artists. Over the past years, I don’t think anyone ever said ‘I don’t think it’s right to have an exhibition on just male artists.’ Men were in control. Auction houses, galleries, museums were run by men.
Now I believe that the more visually engaging exhibitions, programs, books, articles, that are put together on women, African Americans, latinos, gay artists (those who have been marginalised for so long) deserve all the attention that they can get. I think it’s difficult to call my exhibition with seventy artists tokenism. You know if everything were perfect we wouldn’t have to do any of these exhibitions, they would all be chosen to fit the script that is needed. But at this point, I would do one all women’s exhibition after another. I think we can investigate more issues, concerns, and ideas. I want to do more about women and other artists I care about.
What do you hope people take away from the show? What was the goal of Phillips auction house?
I think the goal was to broaden people’s horizons, to let them know that out in the world there are extraordinary artists who happen to be women. That they should be noticed, studied and enjoyed. That these works should be purchased and ultimately given to museums so that museums all over our country and the world have a more equitable collection and can speak to a greater balance in how they talk about the visual artists of the past century or more.
Featured image — Photo courtesy of Phillips Auction.
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Lia de Souza Sanchez holds a B.A. in the History of Art with Material Studies from UCL in London. She is interested in writing about modern and contemporary art and emerging female artists. Born in Spain but raised in India, her cultural background inspires her writing. She is currently studying Arts Administration at Columbia University, New York City.