I've always felt that celebrating Women's History Month (or Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage Month for that matter) was unnecessarily limiting. Why relegate such celebrations to one month out of twelve when we can recognize the achievements of all the whole year through?
In my first position as a young curator (at the San Antonio Museum of Art), I was greeted with a very public welcome campaign by the local chapter of the Guerrilla Girls. They had researched my early career as a critic and cited me for my equitable attention to female artists in my writing (to be honest, I hadn't ever counted or even noticed, but apparently I had reported on more female than male artists).
It seemed only natural to me, but the "Girls" had been paying attention and vigilantly drawing attention to the lingering inequities in the art world throughout the 1980s and beyond. One of their legendary posters asked "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?"
Today at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a new installation in our 20th century galleries is brimming with great works by women. These range from a Miriam Schapiro "femmage" to one of Susan Rothenberg's breakthrough horse paintings of the mid-1970s. A Lynda Benglis sculpture occupies floor space with a Jackie Ferrara construction, and a tied-wire relief by Ruth Asawa hangs near a grand-scale Louise Nevelson work.
Susan Rothenberg "Four Color Horse," Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
The effect is a bold reminder of the achievements of female artists in so many moments and modes. Some (Shapiro and Benglis) confront directly the male-dominated art world structures of their time. Others (Nevelson and Asawa) found their own calling and carved out new territories for themselves. And Susan Rothenberg simply changed the course of art history with a body of work that re-inserted figuration into the prevailing minimal Gestalt. In a previous gallery, artists such as Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan converse with their contemporaries and challenge the notion that "lady painters" (in the parlance of the recent Mitchell biography) were somehow second to their male counterparts and colleagues.
Joan Mitchell "Untitled," Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
During the years leading up to the opening of Crystal Bridges, I heard from many skeptics and naysayers that it was going to be impossible for us to build an important collection of American art now because all the great works were already in public collections. I think we've disproved that notion already. My counterargument is that we have opportunities for collecting today that are greater than ever, precisely because it's the 21st century. We avail ourselves of decades of new scholarship and knowledge that didn't exist when many of the great museum collections were built in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the generation since the advent of first-wave feminism, for example, the art world has awakened to discover the enormous contributions of female artists throughout our history. At Crystal Bridges, we've been able to collect extraordinary works by accomplished women from the earliest days of American art (e.g. Henrietta Johnston's 1720 pastel portrait) all the way up to our current moment (younger artists such as Alison Elizabeth Taylor, Kara Walker, or Karen LaMonte).
The story of American art dazzles with its variety -- of subject matter, style, material, and especially of the artists who made the work. The artists already in the Crystal Bridges collection reflect the country's richly textured and diverse population and history. And that's worth celebrating every day of the year.