The National Association of Women Artists: Celebrating 128 Years of Art
The famous memoirist Anais Nin once said, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” On the evening of January 31, 1889, five women calling themselves The Woman’s Art Club met at the studio of Grace Fitz-Randolph on Washington Square in New York. They were there to “demonstrate that creative achievement need carry no sex distinction,” but they were setting in motion an artistic revolution in scope and genius that is still honored today.
One hundred and twenty-eight years later, you might ask what a small group of women sitting around a table chatting that winter night have in common with courage? Well, just consider the climate of the time. It was simply not acceptable for a woman to pursue a professional career. Decorative artwork, maybe, with magazines like Art Amateur to light the way. In the words of NAWA’s past president Penny Dell, speaking at the recent opening of members’ works at the Ridgefield, Conn. Library, “This is the 100thAnniversary of the Women’s Vote. The National Association of Women Artists is older than that! It is hard to imagine the changes that have transpired. Women went from not having access to exhibiting their works or the privilege of generating drawing from life models to now, where there is freedom to generate any image the artist can imagine.”
Susan G. Hammond, the executive director of the first national organization to support women’s art, has made “Our history is our future” her mantra. It’s for good reason. A long line of dedicated women artists, given unswervingly to the mission of “fostering and promoting awareness of, and interest in, visual art by women in the United States,” have enabled members like Faith Ringgold, Judy Chicago and legions of others to find their way. Many of their NAWA exhibiting predecessors were just as distinguished—Mary Cassatt, Cecilia Beau, and later, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Anna Hyatt Huntington, Louise Nevelson, Alice Neel and countless more. It would be remiss not to mention that Faith Ringgold was just honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the College Art Association at 105 years of age.
Few would argue that Cassatt’s star is permanently affixed in the firmament, but in 1892 when she exhibited along with almost 300 other member entrants in a West Village space leased for the occasion, the New York Times critic was unforgiving. “The women and children in these colored prints (there are no men) are one and all of the last degree of ugliness.” It must have taken a rare kind of mettle, even for a talent of Cassatt’s caliber, to weather such a review.
Of course, exhibiting always implies a level of risk, but these were women willing to take the leap. The same year the Women’s Art Club was formed, only four of the Society of American Artists’ 108 members were women. The number of women represented in the National Academy that year was 49, an impressive number until one realizes that 362 artists in all exhibited. In 1911, the critic Christian Brinton in reviewing the Club’s Annual, acknowledged that women were important in their “development of taste” but that they were “deficient in handling landscape painting and should not attempt to identify either in theme or in handling with that of men.” Climbing the ladder of visibility and credibility would continue to be a slow and arduous effort.
Even if some members may have identified with the mythic Sisyphus, trying time after time to gain solid footing only to fall repeatedly back to square one, others exhibited in the words of another critic “a splendid optimism.” Membership and opportunities with each Annual showing were on the increase and in 1913 the Club changed its name to The Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, not only to demonstrate the increasing importance of sculpture but to put to permanent rest the idea that the organization existed solely as a social club. In 1917, “National” was added to this new designation and in 1941 a less cumbersome title was adopted and is still in use today.
Visibility is important, but short-lived exhibitions don’t guarantee a permanent record of an artist’s accomplishments. Documented exhibits are archived within the Smithsonian Institution, The Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Library of Congress, among many others. The permanent collection from NAWA’s earliest days to the present is housed at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
With growing pains an expected part of increased membership and more exhibiting opportunities, early attempts were made to organize chapters in Philadelphia and Baltimore. This soon proved impractical. Greater efforts were then made to organize shows in other parts of the country. In NAWA’s recent past, member Liana Mooney was an ardent supporter of chapter building and in the early years of our new century, became the driving force behind the founding of NAWA’s Massachusetts and Florida chapters—both highly successful and thriving in their communities today. Thanks to the power of the internet, committee members statewide and nationwide can meet “face to face” informally and as part of various committees. One can only imagine what such ease of contact would have meant to earlier counterparts.
The ups and downs of the real estate market took their toll over the years but this resourceful band of renegades was hardly deterred. In 1925, when funds were needed to purchase a club house on 62nd Street, an auction of paintings was held. Members anticipated that rental of the upper apartments and gallery, plus a restaurant concession, would pay the mortgage interest. When zoning regulations forced the Association to liquidate, the sale at $50,000 over the purchase price allowed for a lease on West 57th Street at the Argent galleries. NAWA found itself at last in the heart of the art world.
Other locations over the decades followed, with the same entrepreneurial spirit in play. Just this past spring, NAWA moved its headquarters from the Union Square district to 315 West 39 Street, this time in the heart of the bustling Garment District. In-house exhibits are held throughout the year in an Arts and Design building filled with artist studios and periodic open houses for the public. NAWA’s juried annual exhibits are a prestigious affair, with over $9,000 dollars in awards. For the last several years, these shows have been held at the Sylvia Wald and Po Kim Art Gallery in Manhattan to packed audiences.
This past year, a prestigious two-part exhibit, between NAWA and the Women Painters of Washington, was held in Seattle and Women Artists Coast to Coast - EAST is currently at the Prince Street Gallery in Manhattan through the month of March 2017. New York Public Library exhibits, headed by NAWA member Anita Pearl, demonstrate an ongoing commitment to the public. Last spring, thanks to a generous grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Renaissance Women—a traveling exhibit with panel discussions—was conducted at five different branch libraries. In December, SHELTER, a joint exhibit by NAWA in cooperation with Violence Transformed—a Boston-based organization founded to celebrate the power of art to confront, challenge and mediate violence—was held at the Harlem School of the Arts. NAWA anticipates that future exhibits with such social impact will be an ongoing consideration.
The old adage, “You can’t keep a good woman down” is particularly apt this spring. In honor of Women’s History Month, two library exhibits—one at the Riverside branch near Lincoln Center for the seventh year in a row and another at the historic Ridgefield Library in Ridgefield, Conn. continue the tradition of bringing NAWA members’ works to the community at large.
In addition to outside shows, NAWA holds fundraisers and workshops as well as theme-related exhibits for members in its own gallery space. Periodically, they rent the gallery to women artists who have often achieved considerable recognition. This month, the work on view of Elizabeth Meyers Castonguay and Margery Freeman Appelbaum addresses environmental and mythological themes. Through visual positioning and mixed media, both Castonguay and Appelbaum give voice to the natural world—contained or set free. Castonguay sees the more than 41,000 endangered species of fauna and flora as important to nature’s fine balance as humankind itself. Appelbaum’s recent portraits refer to the shared complexities and pain between Greek mythological women and their contemporary counterparts. Like NAWA’s Susan Hammond, she believes “the past still follows us into the future.”
These are powerful themes. Daryl Mintia Daniels is a young emerging artist recently awarded a one-year free scholarship to NAWA. Singled out by her professors, along with several other outstanding graduating students in the fine arts last year makes women of color her subject. “I embrace the physical features within them that I was once insecure about…many of my figures are represented as Goddesses powered by nature.”
Such confidence within the generation of women artists coming up is inspiring. But is there a pressing need to continue such support? Absolutely. For the Guerilla Girls, giving up the battle is unthinkable. In 1985 iconoclastic posters decrying the marginalization of women artists appeared on walls in Soho and the East Village. Howling indignation followed but these anonymous costumed women (as gorillas) have continued their efforts, aiming their wit at museums nationwide and abroad. NAWA’s benefit luncheon this spring will feature costumed members of this controversial group.
Scholarship recipient Marie Peter-Stoltz believes that “women artists and the artists of color, those from the LGBT community, and artists from the “minorities” are not enjoying the exposure they deserve. Her hope is that organizations like NAWA “will change mentalities so that tomorrow’s art world will offer more diversity to the public’s eyes.” As for camaraderie, Vice-President Jill Baratta believes in the healing aspects of art and attests to the deeply meaningful friendships she’s formed based on a “joyful, creative and sometimes serious common interest. We have our own cultural needs, often distinct from those of men.”
Ronald G. Posano, the Guest Curator for NAWA’s Centennial celebration in 1988, summed up the continuing importance of women working together to carry on the spirit of their goals this way: “In this day and age, when so many people, including artists, are busy promoting their own interests and careers, and have lost sight of the years of effort that have advanced them to a position to do so—is it not time to look back and reassess such values?”
Featured art: 1. Susan Hammond; 2. Guerrilla Girls; 3. Margery Applebaum; 4. Elisabeth Castonguay; 5. Mary Cassatt.
Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief arts critic.
For Highbrow Magazine