It is — or should be — relatively easy for museums of modern and contemporary art to feature women as part of their exhibition programs. Less so historical art museums, whose purview covers centuries of human creation during which women were often excluded from traditional art-production systems.
As a result, a historical art museum’s commitment to showing women in its exhibition galleries offers what could be considered an unusually clear measure of that museum’s commitment to a diverse program.
I thought of this last week, when I realized that I couldn’t think of the last solo exhibition of a woman artist at the National Gallery of Art. Sure enough: A MAN analysis of recent exhibition histories reveals that over the last decade or so, no major American historical art museum has a worse track record of devoting solo shows to women than the National Gallery.
Depending on what counts as a ’solo show’, the NGA has presented zero or one solo exhibition of a female artist since it showed “Anna Vallayer-Coster: Painter to the Court of Marie Antoinette” nine years ago, in mid-2002. The Vallayer-Coster exhibition was organized by curator Eik Kahng for the Dallas Museum of Art. [Image above: Vallayer-Coster, A Vase of Flowers, 1775. Collection of The Fitzwilliam Museum.]
The NGA presented “Judith Leyster: 1609-1660,” in its Dutch cabinet galleries in 2009. The Arthur Wheelock and Frima Fox Hofrichter-curated exhibition featured 10 Leysters (out of fewer than 40 known to exist) and 15 paintings by Leyster’s male contemporaries, plus assorted ephemera such as musical instruments. The NGA’s exhibition website says it published a catalogue for the exhibition but all I could find was this pamphlet.
With that possible exception, the National Gallery has not solely originated a solo show of a female artist in almost 20 years, since it organized a Helen Frankenthaler prints show in 1993. (The NGA also organized a Kollwitz works on paper show in 1992. With the O’Keeffe Museum, it co-organized an O’Keeffe works on paper show in 2000.) There are no monographic exhibitions of a female artist on the NGA’s list of upcoming exhibitions, which runs through 2012.
Regardless of how one counts the Leyster show, the NGA’s peer institutions have done much better at presenting exhibitions devoted to female artists. Since the NGA’s 1992 Vallayer-Coster show, the Art Institute of Chicago has offered up more solo presentations of female artists than any other major American historical museum, including exhibitions devoted to Marlene Dumas, Roni Horn, Elizabeth Catlett, Maureen Gallace, Rebecca Warren and Uta Barth. [Image above, left: Celmins, Hand Holding a Firing Gun, 1964. The painting was included in "Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster, 1964-66," at both LACMA and the Menil Collection.]
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has done next best, presenting seven such exhibitions. They’ve featured Diane Arbus, Kara Walker, Tara Donovan, Shigeyuki Kihara, Betty Woodman, Katrin Sigurdardottir and fashion designer Coco Chanel.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has devoted solo shows to five women: Sarah Sze, Minagawa Makiko, Cecily Brown, Laura McPhee and Rachel Whiteread. (A 2002 Sophie Ristelhueber show missed my manufactured cut-off date by just a couple of months.). The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum have all presented solo shows of four women in this nine-year span. Philadelphia has exhibited Florence Knoll, Toshiko Takaezu, Linda Day Clark, Frida Kahlo and Lee Miller, and will devote a solo show to Philadelphia-based photographer Zoe Strauss early next year.
LACMA has presented exhibitions of Vija Celmins, Eleanor Antin, Catherine Opie and Arbus. At the Getty, exhibitions have spotlighted Dorothea Lange, Julia Margaret Cameron, Nicole Cohen and Graciela Iturbide. In addition, a 2008 presentation of science illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian and her daughters Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria falls just outside my rubric. [Image: Iturbide, The Sacrifice, la Mixteca, Oaxaca, 1992. Included in the exhibition "The Goat's Dance: Photographs by Garciela Iturbide."]
True: Many of these exhibitions, such as MFAB’s Sze installation and the Getty’s Cohen presentation were single-work installations. Others, such as the AIC’s Catlett show were single-gallery shows.
The NGA’s commitment to art made by men has been in the news before, most recently in the years since the museum re-installed its West Building American art galleries. In June I noted that all 169 works in those galleries were made by men and that up to 168 of them were made by white men. When the museum debuted its remodeled American galleries in 2009, only one work was by a woman. Shortly after the galleries were opened that work was removed from view.
The National Gallery of Art received $159 million from American taxpayers in the 2011 federal fiscal year.