The decade of the 1970s was an unprecedented moment for women artists and strengthened by the actions of the women’s movement of the 1960s, feminist art became, and continues to be, a recognizable force. Women artists challenged the status quo by establishing new education programs for women, alternative exhibition venues which often functioned as spaces for lectures and debate, and women’s art collectives to support and present their work.1 These collectives also fostered an environment of collaborative working, a popular methodology among some women artists, not only for its creative potential but also because it provided an alternative to the model of the individual genius so prevalent in histories of art.
Early collective activities focused on establishing exhibition spaces, such as A.I.R. Gallery, where women could show their work, meet for discussion, and program lectures. A.I.R. Gallery was founded in 1972 as a non-profit women’s cooperative gallery in New York that also worked to advance the careers of its individual members as well as the careers of women artists and art professionals. SOHO20 established in 1973 by 20 women artists in New York continues to provide opportunities to members and women-identified artists through exhibitions and public programming. In Chicago, Artemisia (1973 – 2003) supported women artists and their work as it sought to professionalize their member’s careers and ARC—established in 1973 as a women-run cooperative gallery—continues to provide professional opportunities to women artists and art professionals as well as highlighting community issues, especially for underserved populations. Heresies collective focused on their journal Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics to give voice to women through their collective issue process that frequently generated heated debates on art and politics. The Los Angeles based Womanspace Gallery (1973 – 1974) was an integral exhibition venue in the early days of the Woman’s Building (1973 – 1991). While major well-known collectives were established in larger metropolitan centers, the oldest women’s art collective in the US is Las Damas de Arte (1971 to the present) which began in the historic Cuban district of Ybor City in Tampa. Las Damas began as a gallery space and continues today as a funding organization for women in the arts and other community organizations. In the Midwest, WARM (Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota, 1976 – 1991) opened a gallery in Minneapolis to exhibit work by women, provide mentoring, and program educational workshops.
While some collectives formed out of necessity due to the lack of acknowledgement of women in the art world and spaces which showed women’s work, numerous others formed around specific concerns such as medium used or a racial, ethnic, or gender identity. These include the early ’70s New York State groups: Amazing Grace Media, Women’s Video News Service, and Women’s Video Collective, that supported women working together to experiment and empower their art production in the early days of the Portapak. In California Mujeres Muralistas (1973 – 1975) was a Chicana-Latina mural collective that played a crucial role in the Chicano activist movement and the production of socially engaged work. Spiderwoman Theater (founded in 1976) organized around theater and performance with a focus on indigenous women and their communities, remains dedicated to issues that include gender and cultural stereotypes, as well as sexual and economic oppression. Based in San Francisco, the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA) supports women in the visual, literary, and performing arts through lectures, art events, and exhibitions. Numerous other collectives also formed based around identity and the (in)visibility of their work including Where We At and the Grey Canyon Group.
As the art world continued to change over the last several decades, so did the reasons for collective practices. The Guerilla Girls began their insistent attack on the inequities in the art world in 1985 with actions, posters, and stickers using humor in efforts to change the status quo. Susan Bee and Mira Schor founded the journal M/E/A/N/I/N/G in 1986 in response to the changes in the 1980s art world that favored institutional critique and theory to open a space for critiquing the mainstream, patriarchal art world. The genderqueer collective LTTR formed in 2001 to support “sustainable change, queer pleasure, and critical productivity.” The Ridykeulos collective, founded by A. L. Steiner and Nicole Eisenman in 2005, explore their genderqueer, feminist agenda that opens up the category of “women.” Other collectives such as Kerr + Malley reacted to specific issues such as the oppression of women and abortion rights while the collective fierce pussy focused on queer activism. There are countless others.
The collectives that formed since the 1960s have provided crucial venues and opportunities for women artists that were previously unavailable. However, little historical analysis of women’s art collectives has been undertaken, although this remains an impressive area of feminist art production—not only in the United States but around the world—that has provided models for other artist groups.2 More recent significant work intended to fill this lacuna in the US include Carey Lovelace’s 2008 exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Making It Together: Women’s Collaborative Art + Community, and a new anthology on European women’s collectives, All Women Art Spaces in Europe in the Long 1970s (2018) edited by Agata Jakubowska and Katy Deepwell. A needed reassessment of this area of artistic organization by women and women-identified artists is framed by the recent surge in collective practice among an increasingly diverse range of practitioners, the numerous exhibitions devoted to feminist art in the last decade or so that devoted little attention to collectives, and the lack of historical studies of collectives and their influence on contemporary art practice which continues to be influential to the present day.
In the current political climate, feminist art collectives provide a model for collective, activist work that may be the only way forward. As Mary Beth Edelson once said to me years ago, “If you want to get anything done, form a group.”
- Judith K. Brodsky, “Exhibitions, Galleries, and Alternative Spaces,” in The Power of Feminist Art:The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact, ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994), 104-119 and Katy Deepwell, “Feminist Curatorial Strategies and Practices since the 1970s,” New Museum Theory and Practices: An Introduction, ed. Janet Marstine (Oxford, United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 64-84.
- Meredith Brown completed her Ph.D. dissertation on A.I.R. Gallery at the Courtauld Institute in London. A few other studies on individual collectives include: Joanna Gardner-Huggett, “Artemisia Challenges the Elders: How a Women Artists’ Cooperative Created a Community for Feminism and Art Made by Women,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, Vol. 33, No.2 (2012): 55-75; Joanna Inglot WARM: A Feminist Art Collective in Minnesota (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), and Maria Ochoa, Creative Collectives: Chicana Painters Working in Community (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2003). The earliest work on this area is Gayle R. Davis, “The Cooperative Galleries of the Women’s Art Movement, 1969-1980,” Ph.D. diss., Michigan State University, 1981.
Kathleen Wentrack, PhD, is Associate Professor of Art History at The City University of New York, Queensborough CC and editor of the forthcoming anthology Collaboration, Empowerment, Change: Women’s Art Collectives. She recently published “1970s Feminist Practice as Heterotopian: The Stichting Vrouwen in de Beeldende Kunst and the Schule für kreativen Feminismus,” in All Women Art Spaces in the Long 1970s edited by Agata Jakubowska and Katy Deepwell (Liverpool University Press, 2018).