This weekend, from Friday, October 31st through Sunday, November 2nd, American University will be convening the fifth annual Feminist Art History Conference. This symposium offers participants a space in which to engage with the expanding legacy of Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, two pioneering feminist art historians and professors emerita of art history at AU. More than 68 papers will be presented to discuss the diverse ways in which feminist research and interpretation continue to inform art historical analysis and scholarship.
Three artists who participated in a 1972 Conference on Women in the Visual Arts at the Corcoran Museum are presenting a paper, “Reflections: The 1972 Conference for Women in the Visual Arts at the Corcoran Gallery.” They wondered if changes in the art world were the result of this seminal conference. Women became more fully represented in the art world, but was it due to feminist activities? In the ensuing 44 years, has the increased presence of women changed art-making practices, teaching, aesthetics, art history or the art market? Further, do women still face some of the same issues? Are we interested in taking political actions now? What do we have to say to younger generations of women in the arts?
In order to evaluate these issues, they looked at involvement in the conference and what our expectations were, if any. Did the 1972 conference affect personal and professional lives? How did the turbid sexual politics of the time impact people’s lives?
They invited me to share my memories and reflections from those heady days:
I stumbled into the Corcoran Conference on Women and the Visual Arts in 1972 totally by chance. As a young graduate student in fine arts with an undergraduate degree in art history, I had very little real world experience. I knew no one and was unaware of what was going on in the art world or how it affected me.
The Corcoran auditorium was standing room only – full of women artists and art professionals from around the country. Fed up with the status quo of the male-dominated art world, a small group of women from Washington organized the conference not just as a protest aimed at the Corcoran Biannual which included no women; but also as an opportunity to draw women together to exchange ideas. This forum was a democratic gathering of young, old, well-known and emerging – women who were able to reach out to each other and collaborate to bring about imperative sociological changes. It was a time of great ferment after a long history of isolation. I remember the conference as a time of new friendships and bonding.
The conference lasted a short time but it permanently harnessed the anger and resolve that drew us together. I remember a rush afterwards to form the Washington Women’s Printmaker’s Group, the DC Registry of Women’s Slides (this later became the Women’s Center), and the Washington Women’s Art Professionals as ways to continue the energy generated by the conference. We started Consciousness Raising Groups. Mary Beth Edelson offered a Smithsonian course on Women and the Arts. Charlotte Robinson organized a quilt project that connected women artists and craftswomen from around the country. There were other collaborative art projects and performances. And in 1980, the Women’s Caucus of College Art Association, another outgrowth, got the President Jimmy Carter to recognize five significant women artists in the Oval Office.
Several of us organized the first juried exhibition of women artists with work by artists from Washington, Baltimore and Richmond. New York artists visited Washington studios and selected women to show at A.I.R. and other cooperative galleries in NYC. As one of only three women on the faculty, Rosemary Wright opened the door for me to teach at the Corcoran College of Art.
The brief encounter with talented, feisty women hungry for change in 1972 had a lasting impact on my life. The Corcoran Conference was a catalyst for an empowering exchange that helped me find my voice and define my mission as an artist, an educator and a citizen. It helped me build the confidence to develop professional practices that have enabled me to be a self-supporting artist. I have been able to reach out to emerging artists – male and female – and share with them professional wisdom and contacts and knowledge of the wise and talented women who made this possible.