"Feminist practice means everyone's voice deserves to be heard."
-Judy Chicago, Fresh Talk at the National Museum of Women in the Arts
September 17, 2017
One of the first artists I got to meet when I first started volunteering at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) was Judy Chicago. Three years ago, we had a small exhibition of her work to celebrate her 75th birthday. She came to the museum to give a talk, which I attended. She and her husband were walking around the main galleries before the talk and I happened to ride in the elevator with them to the performance hall. We said hello and she asked if I worked at the museum. I shared I was in docent training and she told me to enjoy it. The talk she gave, in conversation with Jane Gerhard, was fun, feisty, and feminist. It was a great reminder of why the museum was founded and why women need a place where their work is championed.
Wilhelmina Holladay co-founded NMWA with her husband, Wallace, after they began collecting work by women artists. They were interested in discovering these artists, many of whom had been neglected by art history texts and in some cases, lost to history. Like Judy Chicago's iconic work The Dinner Party, the Holladay's were interested in combating the erasure of women artists from history. The current collection spans work from as early as 1580 and includes many living/working artists from today. I've volunteered at a few other museums in DC and volunteering at NMWA has been the most satisfying volunteer experience I've ever had. Every time I walk through the museum or lead a tour or participate in an event like this weekend's Fresh Talk, I feel like I'm part of something and helping our visitors connect to these works and artists.
I've felt, over the last year and half (or so), that NMWA has been a saving grace of sorts for me. No matter what was going on at work or in my personal life, I could go to the museum for my shift a few times a month and leave everything else behind. It's a little community, from the other docents and volunteers to the staff and guards to our visitors. I get to talk about awesome artists and spend time talking with visitors about their experiences in the museum.
Beyond my experiences with visitors, my favorite part of volunteering is those times when I do get to meet artists. We host a large number of events throughout the year where artists are present to talk about their work and interact with our visitors. I try to attend as many of them as possible not just because meeting artists is one of those things I never thought I'd get to do, but because hearing them talk about their art helps me be a better docent. I can elements from their talks to my tours and really bring art life in a way I wouldn't be able to do without those stories.
I had the opportunity to see Judy Chicago again this past weekend at NMWA during the first Fresh Talk of this season. Fresh Talk is a part of the Women, Arts, and Social Change program that looks at women and the arts as catalysts for change. The program launched in 2015 and includes curated artists' talks along with either a Sunday Supper or Catalyst happy hour which enables the audience to continue the conversation after the program itself. I've been to two Fresh Talks and have loved the experience both times. One of the cool things about Fresh Talk is that the programs are live-streamed and the videos are available online for later viewing. I attended "Who are the new superwomen of the universe?" in June and had a blast.
Chicago's talk was entitled "Amplify" and focused on how art can amplify women's voices and visibility. Her career has always focused on this idea, whether it be through her teaching, her dedication to feminist theory in art, or her actual promotion of "lost" women in history through The Dinner Party. In addition to talking about how her work has evolved from the 1960s, she also shared plans for a new visual archive and partnership between NMWA, the Schlesinger Library (at Harvard), and Penn State to create a new way to view her work and preserve her legacy. It's an exciting project and one that will ensure that Judy Chicago's work is not erased.
What I loved about this particular talk was seeing the breadth of Chicago's work at one time. Alison Gass joined Chicago for conversation. Gass is the director of the University of Chicago's Smart Museum of Art. She shared at the start of the program that she was an intern at the Brooklyn Museum when The Dinner Party was being installed and that Chicago's work had helped to shape her own art practice. Judy took us through her work, talking about learning new techniques like china painting, auto body painting (she went to auto body school in the mid-1960s), and glass work for newer exhibitions. Her dedication to learning is part of her art practice, from the techniques to the history and narrative she creates. She spent time researching the women included in The Dinner Party just as she would later do the same deep research on the Holocaust for her series The Holocaust Project: From Darkness Into Light (1985-1993). She talked a lot about how we move through history where there are times when we push back and erase one group or another. "We're in another moment of pushing back and erasure." It's our role to fight that erasure.
I appreciate her focus on learning as part of her practice. She's constantly learning; that's something that I try to bring to my tours, my own art (mostly writing), and my professional life. There's no magic formula for creativity or producing art except to get up and do it. That's what she does every day. It's these moments that make my time at the museum so important. It helps bring my own passion and creativity back.
As I sat at Sunday Supper, I had a wonderful conversation with the woman sitting next to me. She had recently moved back to the DC area after a fairly long time away and has been spending the last year "experiencing" DC again. She came to the event for Judy Chicago but was intrigued by the dinner part. We talked about writing (she's a writer), the museum, and Wonder Woman. It was the perfect evening of women, art, and social change.
If you're looking for a way to engage more and feel like you're not drowning in the spiral of hate and stupid that seems to be the way of the world these days, do yourself a favor and catch a Fresh Talk this season.