Doin' It in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman's Building
Klein, Jennie, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies
In 2001 Public Offerings, curated by Paul Schimmel, opened at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (LA MOCA). Part history and part contemporary art survey, Public Offerings was comprised of the formative work (in some cases the Master of Fine Arts shows) of twenty-four artists who became art rock stars in 2001. These artists, among them Damien Hirst, Rikrit Tiravanija, and Sarah Lucas, became famous in an age when the art market was burgeoning while art schools became increasingly privatized. Art students in the 199os eschewed the antimaterialism and intellectualism of the 196os and '7os for opportunities in the commercial arena. Public Offerings included a lot of objects, many of them oversized and vaguely suggesting a critique of something--the art market, racism, the museum, the art school, or whatever. But the primary criterion for inclusion was art market success. (1)
Unlike most curators, who continued devising, into the mid-naughts, exhibitions of expensive objects around an increasingly worn-out premise of transgression, Schimmel was at least honest. Public Offerings was still depressing, especially considering that it opened ten years after the demise of the Woman's Building, one of the only institutions ever devoted to the education and nurturing of feminist artists. The Woman's Building was founded in 1973 (almost twenty years earlier) by Judy Chicago, Arlene Raven, and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, all three Cal Arts refugees who sought to create a "space of one's own," to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, for young women to become feminists and artists. When it first opened in 1973, the Woman's Building, located downtown in the former Chouinard Art Building, was a vibrant center of women's culture. In addition to being the home for a degree program in feminist art making--the Feminist Studio Workshop, or FSW, which had morphed from the Feminist Art Program that Chicago had founded at Fresno State and Cal Arts--the Woman's Building was home to the Associated Woman's Press, the Center for Feminist Art Historical Studies, Gallery 707, Grandview Gallery I and II, Los Angeles Feminist Theater, Sisterhood Bookstore, Womanspace Gallery, Women's Improvisational Theater, and Women's Graphics Center, which de Bretteville helped to organize. By 1991 the building had moved from its central location in downtown Los Angeles to the former Getty office building, located on the edge of Chinatown. The FSW had disbanded years earlier, although several of the students and teachers in the program continued to be involved with the building. The affiliated organizations housed in the building had shrunk to just two: the Woman's Graphics Center and the Woman's Slide Library. Plagued by financial problems beyond their control, the staff at the Woman's Building managed to host the tenth and final Vesta Awards ceremony just as the building finally closed. The slide library, as well as a wealth of material that did not make it to the Smithsonian, accompanied Sue Maberry, one of the last of the building administrators, to Otis College.
Ten years after Public Offerings and twenty years after the Woman's Building closed its doors, it is fitting that an exhibition devoted to the art of the Woman's Building is being shown at the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design. If nothing else, Doin' It in Public: Feminism and Art at The Woman's Building (October 1, 2011--February 26, 2012) serves as a potent reminder that making a public offering in the art world didn't always involve buying shares or speculating as to the next big trend. Curated by Meg Linton and Maberry, Doin' It in Public is a comprehensive survey of the art and programs associated with the Woman's Building. For this special issue of Frontiers dedicated to the manifestations of the feminist art movement outside of New York or Los Angeles, a discussion of an exhibition devoted to the art of the Woman's Building, however laudable, might seem misplaced at best, myopic and self-serving at worst. …