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Feminist Post Follow-Up

Anna Schier

This July, Chicago Art Magazine ran a story profiling two well-established Chicago feminist galleries, ARC and Woman Made .

We received a record breaking total of 40 comments on the article on Facebook.

Readers highlighted the nuances and complexities of feminism’s role in the art world, questioning whether or not women’s galleries remain relevant and important in 2010.

Woman Made Gallery

A month later, after several calls and emails to ARC and Woman Made, the resulting responses exist as a chorus of voices, each speaking forcefully and passionately.  However, it seems they are not speaking to, but over, one another.

When seeking to answer inherently political and philosophical questions, we strive for communication and understanding.  Nevertheless, there comes a point when a dialogue becomes a diatribe.  In this quest to understand the role of feminism in the Chicago art scene, we may have reached that point.

“Forty years ago, feminism was a relatively cohesive social movement,” comments Gretchen Holmes, “Contemporary feminism lacks this cohesion.”

This absence is evident, not only in the logistical differences between woman-run co-op ARC and non-profit gallery Woman Made, but in the essential political and social goals of the institutions.

“ARC is what I would call ‘feminist lite,’” says artist and activist Mary Ellen Croteau .  “They have always shied away from identifying themselves as feminist.”

Not so, says Iris Goldstein, President of ARC.  “The feminist aspect is that we’re women running a gallery.  We like the idea that we are women working together, a sisterhood.”

ARC’s members and board work together to cultivate a community in which both emerging and established artists thrive.  Experienced artists mentor newcomers, allowing emerging artists to learn, grow, and find their footing.  The co-op environment nurtures and challenges members, creating a true sisterhood.

However, sisterhood never caused a socio-political debate.  Rather, the source of conflict and most overtly divisive element of either gallery is the fact that while ARC frequently shows men and women artists side by side, Woman Made, with a few rare exceptions, shows only women artists.

ARC Gallery

ARC’s Grant Writer, Cheri Reif Naselli, explains the gallery’s decision to show men’s work in a feminist space, stating, “Being inclusive of men opens up the dialogue.  We’ve all been influenced by the feminist movement.  We’re all somewhere between male and female.  There are men who do embroidery, there are women who do heavy-duty sculptural work.  Feminism is still relevant, as is feminist art.  It’s important to open the dialogue and to have a dialogue.  That’s what art is becoming more and more about.”

The presence of dialogue and open lines of communication is critical.  So, why, in 2010, is a woman-only gallery like Woman Made necessary?  If ARC can incorporate old-school feminist ideals like sisterhood, unity and mentoring while maintaining a contemporary conversation with individuals of all genders and identities, what purpose could a woman-only gallery possibly serve?

“Having a space that is not open to men keeps this process safe from patriarchy and our ensuing cultural tendency toward male-dominance, even in the most unplanned circumstances.,” explains Woman Made Gallery Assistant Ruby Thorkelson.

Woman Made Senior Advisor Janet Bloch states “I see Woman Made Gallery as a place of POWER!  That is why some people whine about it.  Many people are not interested in the mainstream.  We live in our respective worlds.  There are similarities and differences.  We are not waiting around at Woman Made for men to give us the nod.  Really, don’t worry about us.”

Cultivating an exclusively women’s community is, no doubt, internally fulfilling and enriching for the women who organize, jury, and show at Woman Made.  But is it externally relevant?  Does the Chicago gallery scene, statistically speaking, need a Woman Made?

In our post last July, the answer seemed to be, yes.  A mere 12 of River North’s 34 galleries are run solely by women.  However, upon closer examination, Chicago gallery management is far more diverse.  The majority of West Loop galleries are women-run (12 owned or directed by women, 9 by men, and 4 co-owned or run by individuals of both genders).  This majority is even more overwhelming in the North/Bucktown/Wicker Park area, where women are sole owners, founders, or directors of 8 of the neighborhood’s 15 galleries.

Numerically speaking, Chicago may not need Woman Made.  Does that mean organizations like Woman Made are no longer necessary?  Absolutely not.

Guerrilla Girls

Croteau notes, “It was a women’s gallery (Artemisia) which launched my own career which would never have gotten off the ground without that networking and support.  I owe my career to the women of that collective.”

Women’s galleries open doors for emerging artists who may not be able to get a foot in the door at more conventional show spaces.  While Chicago’s art scene has proved itself progressive in many ways, sexism is still an overwhelming presence in the art world at large.

Former Woman Made Gallery Assistant Kristen Carter points out “A recent survey was put out demonstrating that men are still showing in contemporary art spaces at alarmingly higher rates than women, despite the fact that there are more numbers of working women artists.”

This speaks to a recent reader debate about the relevance of the Guerrilla Girls .  Some suggested that in today’s “post-feminist” world, the message of America’s most iconic presence in the feminist art movement is no longer pertinent.  Mary Stoppert, a former professor and department chair at Northeastern Illinois University, cites how the message of the Guerrilla Girls has become a part of media culture today, stating, “Lady Gaga is a modern day Guerrilla Girl.  The Guerrilla Girls used spectacle to draw attention to what they perceived to be failings of the art world, and the world at large.”  Evidently, if their message has transferred to such an integral cog in the media machine, it is still important, and their goals have yet to be fulfilled completely.

To a certain extent, this is the case with all feminist art, or even the feminist movement in its entirety.  Perhaps Woman Made Advisory Board member Joyce Owens sums it up best when she says “If we still need to ask questions about feminism, the questions are still relevant.”