"We Can't Keep up/We Won't Keep Down": Feminist Praxis in Art Institutions

"We Can't Keep up/We Won't Keep Down": Feminist Praxis in Art Institutions

Genevieve Flavelle

Presented at the Concordia University Art History Graduate Conference: No neutral art, no neutral art historians, Montreal, January 28th 2017


    It has been precisely a decade since 2007 was proclaimed the “year of feminism” by the American art press. 2017 is thus ripe for the mainstream identity politics conversation to return its focus to  feminism.  As contemporary and historic forms of feminist art continue to assume wider visibility through large touring retrospectives of feminist art, feminist themed programming, and the hiring of vocally feminist curators at major institutions—it feels imperative to ask; what does a seat at the table mean for feminist artists, critics, historians, and curators in 2017? If feminism as a revolutionary strategy is antithetical to art history as a hegemonic discourse, so much so that celebrated art historian Griselda Pollock once questioned whether a feminist art historian can exist, how do we grapple with feminism’s incremental yet increasing incorporation into canonical art discourse? Does the willingness of institutions and the media, to yet again spotlight the underrepresentation and historic erasure of women and feminist artists, signal an opportunity to demand more complex conversations about structural transformation?  Can the recognition of feminist artists wedge open the door to feminist praxis on a grander scale? Is it possible to occupy these privileged art world spaces and practice other ways of working? How can artists working on the “margins” set the terms of their participation in institutional art spaces if invited in? Can the hegemonic practices of art institutions actually be shifted; can art be collected, displayed, and valued in different ways under the influence of feminism?


As feminist art is increasingly historicized, questions of progress inevitably arise. 2007 saw a confluence of large feminist themed exhibitions at major museums across North America and Europe. These large-scale touring exhibitions included WACK! Women Artists in Revolution (2007) and Global Feminisms (2007) which coincided with the opening of the Brooklyn Museum's Elizabeth Sackler Feminist Art Centre. The push back by feminist artists and scholars has successfully led to important institutional initiatives including the MoMA’s Modern Woman Project, a research initiative into the MoMA’s holdings which produced several medium specific exhibitions of women artists, an impressive publication, two symposiums on feminism and art, and a lecture series. In 2009 Paris’s Musée National d’Art Moderne staged an unprecedented rehang of their 20th century collection with all women artists. Titled Elles@centrepompidou the exhibition was comprised of almost 1,000 works by over 300 women artists,  it ran for two years. In the process of mounting the exhibition curator Camille Marineau significantly expanded the MNAM’s permanent collection’s holdings with works by women artists (Wroblewsk 4-8). While these landmark exhibitions represent far more institutional struggle and negotiation than we can ever know, and certainly should not go uncelebrated, a studied look reveals that these exhibitions and initiatives have not led to a committed shift within museum culture or altered their host institutions in lasting ways. Most of these highly visible exhibitions were temporary and realized by independent curators and scholars. Funding for initiatives such as Modern Women at the MoMA and the Elizabeth Sackler Centre for Feminist Art came from private endowments from feminist philanthropists (Schwarts 97). When Elles@centrepompidou was taken down, the permanent collection was rehung in exactly the same male dominated narrative as before. These efforts were not focused on the long term wide reaching institutional restructuring and diversification needed for significant change, and therefore minimal change was achieved.


Questions of progress are tricky because they are often framed in ways that continue to ascribe power to the dominant system. Token representation is too often used to appease critics while masking the continued discriminatory machinations of the hegemonic art world. While public shaming campaigns such as those created by the Guerilla Girls decrying the meager amount of solo shows by women artists at major institutions are important, they do not necessarily critically probe the underlying barriers to representation. This risks normalizing the given value systems of the art world. If we discard the tactic of strategic essentialism and token representation, such as essentialist identity based exhibitions once a decade, what does it look like to commit to showing artists who are not cis-white men? What could it look like to center and care for these artists? Following feminist art’s mandate as anti-heroic and anti-canonical, with the intention of radically shifting the boundaries of what counts as art, what might feminist practices in art galleries look like?


Feminist Art Gallery Banner, Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue. 

Feminist Art Gallery Banner, Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue. 

One model has been proposed by the Toronto based Feminist Art Gallery (FAG). In collaboration with Toronto’s queer and feminist art communities artists Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue founded FAG in 2012. The gallery, whose primary location is a small building in Mitchell and Logue’s west end backyard, functions both as a critique of art institutions and as a proposal for a feminist way of working. FAG uses the term gallery to unpack and revision it. The gallery is positioned as a platform to actively engage in critical discourse, support artists, and build community while  practice new ways of working.  

Feminist Art Gallery, Toronto ON. 

Feminist Art Gallery, Toronto ON. 

FAG employs a variety of strategies that can be named as curatorial activism, queer curatorship, and queer feminist art praxis. These strategies are grounded in politics of refusal, philosophies of care, embodied histories, and the privileging of artistic agency over institutional interests. FAG centers desire and affinity rather than essentialist identity. FAG’s feminist refusal is multifaceted; a refusal of dominant institutional art structures, essentialist identity politics, and polite behaviour. Refusing to wait for permission, FAG has sought to conceptualize what a queer feminist art platform is capable of doing as a present tense project. FAG has creatively reimagined common gallery practices in all aspects of its operations. All projects are funded privately through a matronage program (a feminist play on patronage) rather than public grants. This choice was made to give the community direct investment in the gallery’s programming, and to enable the gallery to be agile in creating and supporting critical projects.


FAG initially did most of its programming in its own location, allowing knowledge of its existence to spread through community networks by word of mouth and a facebook page. As attention to the gallery grew FAG began to be invited to do satellite projects at small and large institutions in Canada, and internationally. This is a common pattern; large cultural institutions invite artists to do or perform the work of critique for them, other times artists are invited in just to give the gallery more credibility and surface diversity. While of course this practice produces important exhibitions, career opportunities, and cultural capital for artists, it once again reveals a lack of interest or commitment to structural change. Seeking to remain vocally critical of institutions while supporting the practices of underrepresented artists FAG has strategically utilized these opportunities to bring their new ways of working with them into larger institutions. One such strategy has been the founding of the Feminist Art Collection (FAC). Drawing on generations of queer and feminist institutional critique and the lived experience of artists, FAG’s Feminist Art Collection grapples with creating an intersectional feminist method for the practical collection and display of art that prioritizes artists rather than institutions. Arriving from FAG’s politics of refusal, The Feminist Art Collection is positioned as a response to the question of how to resist from within, and how to reconcile artists’ participation in oppressive systems of institutions, commerce, and fame.

Mitchell and Logue state that the Collection ;

does not work to contain, possess, or capitalize on artists. Instead, it aims to present a decentralized collection of work, one that resists the idea of a canon. The Collection is at once an intervention and a response, at once a formal collection and its opposition and ultimately a critique of art institutions and the powers that dominate the art world (Mitchell and Logue, 69).  

FAG has used the Collection as the basis for three exhibitions across Canada at the Lethbridge University Gallery, Doris McCarthy Gallery, and the Art Gallery of Windsor . The collection is based on two primary goals; a strategy to challenge existing institutional models and ultimately by-pass the institution entirely, and a method for artists and activists “to work in solidarity on the project of making this work visible, to give this work value, and to charge artists, collectors and future exhibitors with the task of caring for about feminist and queer work”(Mitchell and Logue 70). The Collection works through a decentralized method in which no one person or institution owns the collection—artworks are nominated by their artists or owners to be in the Collection, works can be added or removed at anytime, and if the work is owned by the artist the Collection will assist in having an enabler, collector, or the host institution purchase the work.

Seeking to avoid alignment with didactically feminist tropes, Mitchell and Logue situate the Collection in a feminism that is an exploded and embodied political position. Built through matrices of queer relations and feminist affiliations, the Collection encompasses and aims to serve; “feminist and queer artists, artists of colour, Aboriginal artists, women artists, trans artists and artists with disability/ies” who are making politicized art, but are being failed by the art system. Mitchell and Logue assert that if the creation of the Feminist Art Collection can act as a platform to encourage artists “to participate in identifying and describing feminist and/or queer work” it will connect and foster “a critical mass of feminists and/or queers invested in the Collections care and contextualization, AND a Collection that resists the museum model that has failed feminists and/or queers and will continue to fail feminist and/or queer art”(Mitchell and Logue 74). By taking the power of legitimacy and care into its own hands the Feminist Art Collection furthers the careers of its artists while enacting critical queer feminist engagements with art institutions.

FAG’s strategies are nimble in their negotiation of identity and power. Seeking to avoid a splintering of identity the Feminist Art Collection is adamant in its intersectionality and inclusivity, a work only need the nomination of one enabler to be considered feminist. This way of working is a useful strategy for avoiding ghettoization and opening up new lines of affiliation between works. It is also possible to translate into  larger institutional and historical settings. Curator Helen Molesworth conceptually demonstrates this in her provocative essay for the Modern Women publication, “How to Hang Art as A Feminist”.  Exploring the MoMA collection of works by women artists Molesworth proposes a feminist approach to display that is non-linear, non-hierarchical, and rhizomatic.  Rather than inserting women/feminist artists into spaces of absence in the tradition of feminist art histories Molesworth asks;

Is it a revolution of the deepest order to insert women artists back into rooms that have been structured by their very absence? What would it mean to take this absence as the very historical condition under which the work of women artists is both produced and understood? Might feminism allow us to imagine different genealogies and hence different versions of how we tell the history of art made by women, as well as art made under the influence of feminism? (Molesworth 504)

Opposing the patriarchal logic of art history as a narrative of progress in which new generations of artist work from a disavowal of the old generation, Molesworth thinks through feminist genealogies of art. Drawing on queer models of relation Molesworth proposes a new model of historical display. She argues for a method that, “allows us to think about lines of influence and conditions of production that are organized horizontally, by necessarily competing ideas of identification, attachment, sameness, and difference, as opposed to our all too familiar (vertical) narratives of exclusion, rejection, and triumph”(Molesworth 507). This allows her to connect different generations of contemporary and historic artists, pair artists formally deemed feminist with “non-feminist” artists, and construct complex conceptual and formal exchanges between unexpected works. By recalibrating how we structure historical narratives Molesworth attempts to translate new discursive formations into the spatial requirements of the museum, on a grand scale she proposed that, “such a modification in our thinking might in turn help us reorganize our institutional dynamics of power”(Molesworth).

Andrea Geyer, They Said Revolt!, image crop, 2012-on going 

Andrea Geyer, They Said Revolt!, image crop, 2012-on going 

I am aware that these are two small examples of what queer feminist practices could look like in large institutions. I believe for large institutions to become sites of complex, expanded art histories several shifts need to continue to take place at every level of the institution; reshaping  not only the narratives of art history but also the very architecture of these spaces, how they construct and narrate encounters with artworks, and who is hired to make these decisions. I think a really deep shift in power, how power is acknowledged, and the questioning and unknowing of this power needs to take place. I’m becoming increasing interested in projects that shift focus from bringing diverse artists and audiences into institution and instead focus on bringing the resources of institutions outside of their own walls. As Pollock argues, the dominant structural elements of art institutions have actively rendered the acknowledgment of women, queers, and folks of colour, “in the modernist enterprise difficult to imagine or integrate, even as some initiatives are being made to place more works by more women on view”(Pollock 51). While another round of group and solo exhibitions that highlight women and feminist artists is great I’m far more interested in strategies that imagine how we can integrate feminists artists while also transforming the very framework we are integrating into. I think one step is surely an ethical investment in the collection and care of works by underrepresented artists. Another is the development of new strategies for the interpretation and contextualization of works that have been prominently absent. Independent projects such as FAG offer more than important critiques of the art world, they enact and embody new ways of working that extend beyond any one physical space and may move from the periphery into the centre as they gain attention and traction. Moving beyond special exhibitions and revisionist initiatives toward strategic methods of feminist display and collecting begins a necessary shift away from the complex pitfalls of identity politics toward building something  transformational.

Works Cited

Molesworth, Helen. “How to Install Art as a Feminist”. Modern Women: Women at The Museum of Modern Art. ed. Butler, Cornelia and Alexandra Schwartz. New York: MOMA, 2014.

Mitchell, Allyson, and Logue, Deirdre. “We Can’t Compete”. Complex Social Change. Lethbridge: University of Lethbridge, 2014.

Pollock, Griselda. “The Missing Future, MoMA and Modern Women”. Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art. ed Cornelia Butler and Alexandra Schwartz. New York, MoMA, 2014.

Schwarts, Alexandra. “MoMA’s Modern Women Project, Feminisms, and Curatorial Practice”. Curating Differently: Feminisms, Exhibitions and Curatorial Spaces. Ed.Jessica Sjöholm Skrubbe. Newcastle upon Tyne UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016.

Wroblewski, Ania. “Le baiser de l'institution: Feminism After Elles”, C magazine 117 (Spring 2013).