Feminism, Exhibitions and Museums in Los Angeles, Then and Now

By Iskin, Ruth E. | Woman's Art Journal, Spring-Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Feminism, Exhibitions and Museums in Los Angeles, Then and Now


Iskin, Ruth E., Woman's Art Journal


After almost half a century of feminist art history, we are now in a position to observe that momentous changes have taken place in the realm of museum exhibitions of women artists. The 1970s feminist art movement is in the process of becoming history, as museums as well as university galleries are exhibiting--and in some cases collecting-feminist art made from the late 1960s onwards. The story of the feminist art movement of the 1970s in Los Angeles, as generally told, has focused primarily on individual artists, notable works such as Womanhouse (1972) and The Dinner Party (1974-79), and one feminist institution, the Woman's Building, but has not dwelled much on exhibitions. While later feminist art exhibitions have been covered more broadly, (1) the literature does not examine the long-range trajectory of feminism and museums and alternative exhibitions. The goal of this article is twofold: to propose an historical trajectory of feminist art exhibitions and compare today's developments to the 1970s, and to deepen understanding of the history of the feminist art movement in Los Angeles in the 1970s by focusing on exhibitions.

The vibrant and provocative beginnings of this movement crossed paths with my personal history in Los Angeles, where I arrived in September 1972, and proceeded to become intensively involved in early art-related feminist activism. Exhibitions of art by women, and especially feminist art, were still a very new phenomenon limited to a few alternative independent feminist art spaces. For those of us engaged in organizing the exhibitions, we did not think of it as "curating"; rather, the activity was part of feminist art activism and the day-to-day running of feminist art spaces.

During the 1970s, exhibitions played a central role in the feminist art movement, which was an integral part of the larger feminist movement but outside the established art institutions. From the beginning feminists pursued a two-pronged strategy: founding independent feminist art spaces for exhibitions and performances, and mounting protests of exclusion by museums. The opening shot of the feminist art movement in Los Angeles was the groundbreaking 1972 exhibition of Womanhouse. Twenty-one students of Cal Arts' Feminist Art Program, led by Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago, made the first collective feminist artwork by transforming a dilapidated mansion in mid-town Los Angeles. The site was a significant distance both from Los Angeles's La Cienega Boulevard art gallery district and from Valencia, where the Feminist Art Program was located. Being on both geographical and institutional margins was crucial to Womanhouse. The site functioned initially as the place where the art was made, and then as the exhibition and performance space for its month-long run. (2) The students transformed a mansion that was soon to be destroyed, located in a rundown area in midtown Los Angeles, into an innovative temporary art installation. Their work explored the motto, "The personal is political," by delving into personal experiences through consciousness-raising as a tool for uncovering oppression and developing critical insights. Integrating emotional and political expression, they made art that focused on the material base of the middle-class home to draw attention to the oppressive mystification of white feminine domestic labor. Performances held at the Womanhouse site addressed these and other feminist issues, including the topic of rape. Even though working on the margins of the art world and its institutions was wholly necessary for developing this pioneering feminist exhibition, so innovative and radical for its time, it attracted an impressive several thousand visitors during the single month it was open to the public, and drew the attention of the national press, including Time magazine. (3)

Having been designed as a temporary exhibition and space, Womanhouse disappeared. Soon after, however, a community of women artists, art historians, and art professionals in Los Angeles organized to found the city's first alternative, independently run art gallery for women artists, which opened on January 27, 1973. …

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