New ASU Art Museum exhibition aims to highlight women artists in collection

Emilee Geist

Photo by Alex Gould | The State Press The ASU Art Museum’s “Art in Focus: Highlighting Women Artists in the Collection” exhibition is pictured on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Tempe. The exhibit highlights works of art by women from the Museum’s permanent collection. By Sam Ellefson | 09/27/2020 9:49pm […]

Photo by Alex Gould
| The State Press
The ASU Art Museum’s “Art in Focus: Highlighting Women Artists in the Collection” exhibition is pictured on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Tempe. The exhibit highlights works of art by women from the Museum’s permanent collection.

A new exhibition at the ASU Art Museum seeks to challenge the overt gender inequity in today’s art world by highlighting women-made works in the museum’s permanent collection.

The Art in Focus gallery opened for viewing Saturday and will run Tuesdays through Saturdays until May 29 of next year.

The exhibition is housed in a gallery on the lowest level of the museum that used to be an old classroom, Miki Garcia, the director of the ASU Art Museum, said. 

“Because many of the exhibitions that are on view at our museum are temporary exhibitions, we wanted a space to foreground the works that we hold in our permanent collection,” Garcia said. “It’s my intention to activate the objects that we hold and stored and to use them as vehicles for learning and storytelling and lenses to look at the world today.”

Garcia said she recognizes “the museum as a conduit” to tackle and understand various contemporary social issues. This gallery seeks to analyze the urgent need for a continued commitment to gender parity and inclusion.

“We decided to look at the objects in our collection that were made by women and draw them together for the purposes of studying not only the works in and of themselves, but what they say about women makers, and what they say about permanent collections and collecting women in general,” Garcia said.

A staggeringly small number of women artists have been actively included in the artistic documentation of humanity, Garcia said. If women are depicted in works of art, they have customarily been portrayed as an object, often nude, to be gazed upon.

Artistic homogeneity of white, male artists in America was highlighted by a 2019 study concluding that merely 13% of artists represented in the collections of 18 major American art museums are women, and only 15% are non-white.

Unlike many 21st century museums, the ASU Art Museum does not have an acquisition fund or an endowment intended for collecting new works, Garcia said, but rather relies on gifts from individuals who wish to have certain work studied in a museum setting. 

This leaves the museum at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to the deliberate diversification of the permanent collection.

“What we try to do is work with donors to be strategic about what gifts we include and which ones we don’t,” Garcia said. “But certainly, if we look at the history of our collection, it is very obvious that it is like the rest of the art historical canon up to now, dominated by males, dominated by certain ideas of aesthetics. And those collecting practices are ones that our curators are actively trying to deconstruct and decolonize.”

Museums have a responsibility to begin or continue correcting the demographic imbalances within their collections, Brittany Corrales, the curator of the 2D works in the exhibition, said.

Many institutions have started utilizing rapid response collecting, where a museum will only seek out and acquire pieces originated by a specific identity group during an allotted period.

Corrales’ process for designing the gallery started with researching the museum’s database to find all of the 2D work by women artists in the collection and ruling out pieces that wouldn’t fit in the space, she said.

“And then from there I wanted to make sure that I had a diverse representation of the artists in our collection and really pulled out the strongest representation of those artists,” Corrales said. 

She specifically mentioned a piece by Faith Ringgold, an 89-year-old artist, whose quilts and textiles “reshaped the past to really question that absence of Black figures in art history.”

Textiles, along with basketry and ceramics, were mediums largely regarded as solely utilitarian until the mid-20th-century when “we got into art for art’s sake,” Mary-Beth Buesgen, the curator for the 3D works in the exhibition, said. 

In that era, these newly aestheticized mediums were primarily dominated by men, leaving women’s contributions disregarded.

“I think that now it’s definitely not the case anymore, so I think that as artists became more innovative and (incorporated) different techniques and just (pushed) the boundaries, it’s definitely recognized and acknowledged differently now,” Buesgen said.

Corrales said art museums are now recognizing a lack of diversity in showcasing work primarily done by males and are “beginning to right this wrong.”

“And I do see that continuing in the future, and I hope that that becomes increasingly more intersectional as we start to look at women as not a homogenous group, but really break it down to different experiences, racially and geographically,” Corrales said.


Reach the reporter at [email protected] and follow @samtellefson on Twitter. 

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