Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Leaving the Gallery, Entering the Fray: Feminist Curating in Public Space

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Leaving the Gallery, Entering the Fray: Feminist Curating in Public Space

Article excerpt

This article examines the curatorial struggle of two emerging feminist artists/curators to communicate, through three exhibits, with an audience mostly comprised of students. Students expressed bemusement, hostility, misogyny and homophobia in response to exhibits located in the library at a women's university in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The authors draw on feminist theories concerning transformational politics to examine the relationships between feminist art, its curation, and its audiences.

This is a story -- if not a cautionary tale--about art production and reception within the academy; one that has implications for feminist students of art and curatorial practice extending their work beyond the formal boundaries of art galleries and into public spaces. We review here the prolonged curatorial struggle of two emerging feminist artists/curators to communicate, through three exhibits, with an audience mostly comprised of students, who documented their responses to the art in comment books associated with each exhibit. Students expressed bemusement, hostility, and, to an astonishing degree, misogyny and homophobia in response to exhibits located in, of all places, the library at a self-described women's university (85 percent of the students, and 60 percent of the faculty are women) in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The experience was singularly demoralizing for the artists and curators as well as feminist (and pro-feminist) faculty, students, and staff. We have undertaken discourse analysis of the comment books elsewhere. Here, we draw on feminist theories concerning transformational politics as well as interviews with the two curators and the Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU) Art Gallery director to examine the relationships between feminist art, its curation, and its audiences.

The three art exhibits at issue here were all part of the MSVU Art Gallery's "Window Box Project" series. Each exhibit was located outside the Art Gallery, in a corridor of the institution's library, within vitrines there comprised of two pairs of built-in display windows. This series was meant, explains gallery director Ingrid Jenkner, to "provide opportunities for artists who work in ephemeral or context-oriented modes" and to "give beginning curators a chance to produce small, manageable projects for a broad viewership, the staff and users of the university library" (Collyer, n.d., p. 1). Moreover, the "Window Box Project" series was congruent with the Art Gallery's mandate to emphasize "the representation of women as cultural subjects and producers" (msvu art gallery, 2000).

Grotesque abuse characterized a significant proportion of comments associated with each of the three exhibits, spanning a period of two years, from January 31, 1997 to February 22, 1999. Viewer response to these exhibits was recorded in comment books, made available for written commentary with each exhibit. We found that a large minority of the comments (between 27 percent and 40 percent) comprise a hostile, often obscene, debate concerning women artists, women's equality, and the role of the university as a university primarily dedicated to the education of women. We have termed this category of comments "gender debates": that is, both misogynous comments (generally, but not necessarily, rude, scatological, prurient, or obscene) that refer to women, sexuality, and gender relations, and derogatory comments about women and feminism. Many comments in this category either disparage women, art made by and about women, or constitute such responses to more thoughtful comments. Also included are responses to the above-mentioned hostile and offensive comments.

The first exhibit, Waiting, created by Kim Dawn and curated by Glynis Humphrey (January 31 to April 6, 1997), featured four components: one half of the west vitrine was "filled with multiple colour-photocopies of a photograph" (Humphrey, 1997, p. 1) of a nude woman. The other half was filled with "stacked rows of nylon stockings stuffed with brewed tea bags pressed against the glass. …

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