someone born in 1980, I admit that I have never had anyone tell me that my work is worthless because
I am a woman. No one ever told me that women cannot become
journalists, or artists, or any other profession for that matter.
that’s what they told Lynn Hershman Leeson when she began working as an artist
in the 1960s. She and her colleagues would travel from gallery to gallery,
being turned away and being told blatantly that it was because of their gender.
Once, a collector actually returned a piece to Hershman Leeson when he found
out her gender, telling her that he no longer considered it a sound investment
since, as a female artist, her work would never be worth anything.
documentary film !Women Art Revolution
(which screens June 1–8 at the IFC Center) captures those experiences and the
rebellion that stemmed from them. In 83 minutes of rare and never-seen footage
that Hershman Leeson filmed herself, it clarifies the history of those brave
women who were told to give up their dreams, and instead started a revolution.
weren’t thinking of it as a movement,” Hershman Leeson explains over the phone
when I call her to discuss the film. “No one said, ‘This is the beginning of
the feminist art movement.’ We were just trying to get our work shown.”
film documents the history of how women forced entry into the male-dominated
gallery scene, as well as into major museums (first illegally, then legally),
all in the name of showing that their work also had value—both aesthetically
begins with Faith Ringgold’s demand in the late 1960s that major galleries and
museum shows include at least 50 percent women, as well as artists of color.
From there, it lays out the tumultuous movement that followed: the first
feminist art program started at CalArts (as well as its demise); the creation
of A.I.R. Gallery, the first artist-run, not-for-profit gallery for women
(founded in 1972 on Wooster Street); and Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” piece
that caused Congressional hearings (and is now on permanent display at the
Brooklyn Museum of Art). It goes on to explain the circumstances around Marcia
Tucker becoming the first female curator at the Whitney, along with the
founding of the activist artist group Guerilla Girls and the innumerous
performance pieces, publications and actions that helped shape “feminist” art
into what it is today.
Hershman Leeson, this film documents both an important moment in history as
well as a movement that still has just as much relevance today. “We’ve made
progress, but not enough,” Hershman Leeson says. “People may do a feminist show
and think they’re done. But there’s a lot of work to do on achieving equality.
Particularly on the score of what work sells for.”
challenge was one Hershman Leeson faced even in the making of this film. After
she’d finished the documentary, many critics predicted no one would even be
interested in watching it. “I showed it to a few people, and they said, ‘Oh, no
one will want to see a film about American women artists,’” Hershman Leeson
explains. “It was devastating. But then, when we got into Toronto [Film
Festival], it was the first film to sell out. We weren’t sure what was
happening or why, but it was so gratifying that this was a film people were
interested in. Every screening received a standing ovation. We had to turn
film is accompanied by a comic book—written by Hershman Leeson, with art by
Alexandra Chowaniec and Spain—that also includes a curriculum guide and an
extensive bibliography and timelines. A companion website houses resources and
all of the information that didn’t fit into the film. “I wanted to make a film
without outtakes,” Hershman Leeson explains.
striking about the film is just how far many of the women interviewed for the
film have come today: Marcia Tucker founded the New Museum; Faith Ringgold’s
work is a part of the permanent collections of the city’s major museums; and
performance artist Marina Abramovic had a much-lauded and publicized
retrospective at MoMA.
for all the progress that has been made, Hershman Leeson insists that there’s
so much more still to be done. Though the discrimination is not quite as
blatant, women artists are still not as heavily represented in museums and
galleries and, according to her and others, work by women often sells for much
have been grateful to just show their work,” Hershman Leeson says. “And
galleries have undervalued the importance of it. Galleries have to step up and
raise their prices and museums have to step up and meet those prices.”
what are the struggling young women in today’s art scene to do?
keep challenging, and find any way to keep doing work,” Hershman Leeson says.
That’s how she made it through 17 years of being told no one would buy her
work. “It’s an issue of fairness and of freedom, in trying to be seen and be
heard, and not accept that kind of blanket discrimination. It’s a challenge.
You go on the bus; you go to the gallery. You challenge for freedom.”
biggest thing I learned, is that you are not alone,” she says. “If things are
happening to you, they’re happening to other people, and they’re happening in
culture. Oftentimes ideas are ahead of their time, but it’s important to hold
on to those ideas, and not compromise.”
by Lynn Hershman Leeson
the IFC Center, June 1–8