Last spring I had the wonderful experience of spending time in bucolic Bellagio, in Italy, sequestered away from the multitude of distractions of daily life to think about something I had always wanted to study: the plight of the female artist. In the weeks and months spent in preparation for this fellowship, I read and re-read many classic pieces and I kept coming back to Nochlin’s essay “Why are There No Great Women Artists?” which resonated deeply more than four decades after it was written.
Having started to collect seriously in the late 1960s, I recall being shown very few female artists. Dealers would unabashedly and freely say that women artists were not as salable as male artists and that they were in general a poor investment. The artists that I was lucky enough to get to know and begin to collect in those very early days included Rothko, Rauschenberg, Johns, Gorky, Calder, de Kooning, Hoffman, Oldenburg, Lichtenstein, Kelly, Stella, and many others who at that time seemed to be generating interest in varying levels in the New York art scene. Few, if any, women were on the list.
I do recall that it was around the time of Linda’s 1971 essay that I began to collect work by a number of women: Agnes Martin, Dorothea Rockburne, Mary Frank, Jackie Winsor, Athena Tacha, and then eventually many others in depth including Louise Bourgeois, Lynda Benglis, and Lee Bontecou. I do not think this was a conscious reflection or shift in my collecting habits but more that women were finally getting some exposure. Linda’s essay, no doubt, had a profound effect on the course of art history, but many personal histories as well.
It is ironic that my greatest influences and mentors were in fact great women collectors such as Emily Tremaine and Katherine White as well as a marvelous art history teacher I had at Farmington, Sarah McClennan.
It has been a great pleasure getting to know Linda a little through all these years—I am a fervent admirer of her tremendous scholarship and books on Realism, Courbet, Mary Frank, and many others—but it was remarkable to read her famous words so many decades later, having spent over fifty years in the art world, and see where we have come. As she wrote, women’s failure to attain greatness lay, “not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our educations–education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs, signals.” I think this systematic societal inequality was one of the many reasons I helped found Studio in a School in the mid-1970s and subsequently the Center for Curatorial Leadership in 2007 with Buffy Easton. Change begins at an institutional level, at a young age, and history is shaped by those in power, so the best people, many of whom are women, are given the chance to learn and fulfill leadership roles, the gender gap can begin to close.
I also hoped to address this gender gap by starting an oral history in honor of Elizabeth Murray. The purpose of this project was to produce oral history interviews of women artists, art historians, and curators who have had a lasting and significant influence on the American art world. It has been a great success but numbers, statistics, and the experiences of female artists illustrate that there is still much work to do. However, it is fair to say that no one has done more to address the gender disparity for artists than the incomparable Linda Nochlin.
AGNES GUND is President Emerita of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.