It’s hard to believe that just thirty-six years ago, women were protesting to get the work of female artists displayed in New York City Museums. While the art world may have always appeared liberal, there was a time when the work of male artists dominated museum walls, and the work of female artists was not equally represented in major cultural institutions.
This news may be shocking, here is another field where women not only had to excel in their work, but change the mentality of the status quo, protest, and chart a new course in order to equal the playing field. After all, we have seen the women’s movement break barriers from the passing of the nineteenth amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920, to 2008 when there are seventy-four women in statewide elective posts, and now a possible seat in the White House. Twenty female CEO’s successfully run fortune 500 companies, but the art world just like politics, just like corporate America, just like the evening news, had to rethink its old policies.
Second Wave Abstract Expressionist Artist Fay Lansner was a catalyst for that change. Fay was first and foremost an artist, known for her larger than life portraits of women. She studied at The Art Students League, with Hans Hoffman, and later in Paris with Fernand Leger and Andre Lhote. When her talent, and her studies, weren’t enough to secure a venue for her work in major museums, Lansner co-founded the Women in the Arts Movement back in 1971. WIA was an organization seeking to change both public and institutional attitudes toward women artists. In 1972, group members demonstrated in front of the Museum of Modern Art protesting discriminatory curatorial practices. The group sent an open letter to New York’s major museums listing six steps to correct discriminatory practices, the first being an exhibition of art by women. The late Mario Amayo Director of the New York Cultural Center responded, and the result was the groundbreaking Women Choose Women show of works by 109 women artists opened shortly after the protest at the New York Cultural Center in 1973.
Fay Lansner is now eighty-seven years old. Her work is included in the collections of such prestigious museums as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Philadelphia Museum as well as other museums and private collections across the U.S. and France. She was given rave reviews for her work by art critics like Irving Sandler, books and articles were published about her, Fay Lansner (Ava Books 1976), and Women as a Metaphor (Women’s Art Inc.1986) by, Alexandra de Lallier. She is featured in several art books, and the Who’s Who in American Artists.
But it wasn’t happily ever after for female artists and their relationships with major museums. The timeline for protesting unfair museum practices continued through the eighties when The Guerrilla Girls, a group of feminist artists, was established in New York City in 1985. They are known for using guerrilla art to promote women and people of color in the arts. Their first work was putting up posters on the streets of New York decrying the gender and racial imbalance of artists represented in galleries and museums. One of their most famous posters was plastered across New York City buses in 1989. Its headline read, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”
So, are things ok for women in the art world now? According to the Guerilla Girls, things are better now than they ever have been for women and artists of color.
They state that currently there is decent representation of women and artists of color at the beginning and emerging levels of the art world. The Guerrilla girls have said that at the institutional level however, in museums, major collections and auctions sales, things are still pretty dismal for all except Caucasian males. The Guerrilla Girls believe that the economics of the art market is responsible for this. As long as art costs a lot of money and can be owned and controlled by individual collectors, it will represent the values of those people, not the larger art audience or the culture at large.
On June 13th, 2008 from 6 to 8 p.m., Pgartventure Gallery in Larchmont New York will display a small collection of paintings by Fay Lansner. This is surely a historical moment in time for all who can remember, or now are aware of how far women artists have come in showing their work. “To create one’s own world in any of the arts takes courage,” said Georgia O’Keeffe. Fay Lansner exemplifies such courage on the canvas, and in the outside world.