It may be 2023, but female-identifying artists are still drastically underrepresented in museums nationwide. An analysis conducted by the journalists Charlotte Burns and Julia Halperin for Artnet News and Studio Burns looked at almost 350,000 works acquired and nearly 6,000 exhibitions staged at 31 museums across the U.S. between 2008 and 2020. The sad truth is that works by female-identifying artists made up just 11% of acquisitions and 14.9% of solo and group exhibitions during that period.
At Reynolds Gallery, a new summer exhibition titled “Boundless” showcases and celebrates the roster of women they have long supported, some over the course of many years of their career. The all-female group show features new and recent work from 18 artists, including Richmonders Brittany Nelson, Heide Trepanier, Leah Raintree, Tanja Softic, Sue Heatley, Alyssa Salomon, Sally Bowring, Leigh Suggs, Theresa Pollak, Susan Svendsen, Laura Snyder of Charlottesville, Ledelle Moe of Capetown, South Africa, Alison Hall of Brooklyn, Lanecia Rouse Tinsley of Houston and Richmond, and New Yorkers Meghan Gerety, Bailey Santaguida, Christy Matson, and Beth Gilfilen.
For this show, artists were challenged to evaluate what their non-negotiable and defining principles were. In her 50s, Heide Trepanier adheres to “a no BS policy with a flourish” and considers herself principled ethically, with high standards for her work. “I will not exhibit my work in commercial galleries that do not have more than one fem presenting artist in their representation, which is only 28% of commercial and retail galleries,” she explains. “And going forward, I don’t want to work with any gallery that exhibits A.I. works.”
Brittany Nelson grew up in Montana, with what she calls a “cowboy code” of ethics. Boiled down to loyalty, sincerity, and integrity, Nelson generally says exactly what she means and tries to make her word mean something. “Being a woman has certainly factored into my work and being a gay woman even more so,” the artist says. “My work and research are about the loneliness and isolation I experienced growing up in an extremely rural environment, and the general feelings of alienation.”
- Meghan Gerety's "Vanitas" (2022) acrylic on carved plywood, 25 x 21 inches.
Being a woman artist has its share of roadblocks – deciding to have children or being responsible for the care of aging parents – and frequently it’s the artist’s studio practice that suffers. “It’s ironic because oftentimes, it’s the only thing keeping you sane during those times,” Trepanier says. “I’ve never let it stop me though, and I would never discourage any woman from doing this work with whatever lifestyle they choose. I wish women had more representation in the fine arts and I try to foster a sense of encouragement and mentorship with women and gender queer artists.”
Nelson points out that real support from museums comes in the form of acquisitions to permanent collections. Acquisitions are meaningful in what they signify for an artist in their career, but also because they provide financial support so an artist can survive and continue to make work. “Reynolds Gallery has a deep and genuine investment, both emotionally and financially, in uplifting women in the field,” she explains. “I’ve worked with many galleries across the U.S., and the support I’ve received from them is exceedingly rare. I view this show as a celebration of those relationships.”
As for how an all-female group show is any different from a mixed gender group show, there’s a consensus that an all-women show can be a complicated topic. “There’s a big difference to what Reynolds Gallery is doing than the conflicts an all-women show at a major museum might conjure,” Nelson says, citing the Artnet News study. “Often institutions will host all-women shows as a performative undertaking and PR strategy to help themselves look equitable. In reality, these shows do little to nothing to actually support these artists.”
- Beth Gilfilen's "Touch Me Not" (2022) oil on canvas, 48 x 48.
Trepanier remains unconvinced that an all-female show is any different aesthetically. “I consider gender a spectrum, so I wouldn’t assume anything,” she says. “The nature of this show is exclusionary and I’m absolutely fine with that because the patriarchy is so strong in the art world. I see groupings of underrepresented identities just as essential a tool as inclusion.”
As a mid-career artist, her new work has evolved from her early efforts, but she still goes about getting to the work in the same manner. Once she becomes interested in a subject, she studies it, takes notes and thinks about it until it starts to form a body of work. “I then explore the best method of telling that story or representing that topic,” she says. “I usually work on a series, with new tools or media for each.”
For Nelson, it was a matter of learning how to express herself artistically. When young, she was frustrated because her sister could draw and paint very realistically and she could not. “That’s what I thought being an artist was, and I was unable to, much as I wanted it,” she recalls. “It wasn’t until I picked up a camera that I discovered creating artwork as a collaboration with the visible world. It took me until my mid-20s to really figure out how to make and say the things I wanted to.”
Although there is no obvious visual cohesion among the artwork of “Boundless,” the underlying theme remains the same: women being able to express themselves however they choose. “I find writing artist statements, or posting to social media wholly inadequate when it comes to my work,” Trepanier says. “So, I’m hoping that people will just come into the gallery and spend time with this exhibition. It’s a great group of artists.”
“Boundless” opens on Thursday, July 13 and runs through Friday, Sept. 1 at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St., reynoldsgallery.com