Public funding for the arts has been steadily falling for 20 years in the United States, and private dealers benefit a select few artists through a profit-driven circuit of galleries and art fairs. In this environment, private artist foundations and nonprofits are important vehicles for allocating resources to the artist class. The Brooklyn Rail’s ArTonic column sets out to illuminate the varied missions, structures, and histories of these organizations.
Mission: Pen + Brush is a 125-year-old publicly supported not-for-profit fighting for gender equity in the arts. P+B provides a platform to showcase the work of female artists and writers to a broader audience with the ultimate goal of affecting real change within the marketplace. We encourage and mentor emerging professionals and aim to expose the stereotypes and misconceptions that perpetuate gender-based exclusion, lack of recognition and the devaluation of skill that is still experienced by women in the arts. All artwork is for sale, 75% of all sales go directly to the artist and 25% comes back in to feed the organization’s work.
Pen + Brush was founded in 1894 as a private club for women artists and writers. This makes it older than any other professional women’s organization in the United States as well as most New York art institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney. The Pen and Brush Club, as it was then called, was legally incorporated in 1912, eight years before women gained the right to vote. The famous muckraker Ida Tarbell served as its president for 30 years (1913–1943), and early honorary members included two first ladies (Eleanor Roosevelt and Edith Wilson) and the Nobel prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck. The club was headquartered in a grand 19th century brownstone on 10th Street that was a hub for distinguished professional women. Flipping through the 1907 guest book in the Pen + Brush archive, which is stored on microfilm at the Archives of American Art, I paused on a random page to admire an art nouveau doodle and found the accompanying signature was that of Pamela Colman Smith, the British Jamaican artist and occultist who illustrated the Rider-Waite tarot, which remains the most influential Western tarot deck of all time. Looking at the entry’s date, it appears Smith was in New York City on the invitation of Alfred Stieglitz, who organized a solo show of her paintings at his famous 291 gallery in midtown.
History gives an institution power, but it can also weigh it down. Reflecting on the remarkable achievements of the club in the early years of the 20th century, Tarbell wrote in the original Book of Members, “Upon the continuing strength of this spirit with the communal and personal affections rising from it, the future of Pen and Brush depends.” It was an insightful prediction, for the defining challenge for Pen + Brush has since been how to keep a progressive organization moving forward. Now in its 125th year, the evolution of Pen + Brush has sometimes necessitated letting go of the past in order to keep pursuing its historic mission to advance the careers of women artists and writers.
Today, Pen + Brush is located in a large, contemporary-looking exhibition space just south of Madison Square Park, a headquarters inaugurated in 2014 (when it also updated the stylization of its name). It no longer functions as a private club with a membership model, but instead like a not-for-profit gallery. Pen + Brush exhibits and sells work by visual artists who are identified through an online application system and a rotating network of guest curators. Under its own imprint, it publishes written works in a quarterly journal, and also hosts writing workshops and readings on a monthly basis. The directors of the organization, Janice Sands and Dawn Delikat—who are also chief curators of visual arts—aim to form close relationships with artists and offer professional support not unlike a commercial dealer, from the opportunity to exhibit and build a collector base to documenting artwork, publishing catalogues, and counseling on pricing.
Most of the artists and curators at Pen + Brush have little crossover with the high-rolling art world centered a stone’s throw across Chelsea. More exhibiting artists at Pen + Brush come from developing countries than from Yale’s MFA program. Curators are drawn from diverse backgrounds; recent picks include Grace Aneiza Ali, assistant professor in the Department of Art and Public Policy at NYU Tisch; Alice Gray Stites, chief curator of a chain of boutique hotels-cum-contemporary exhibition halls; and Mashonda Tifrere, a former R&B singer/songwriter who now heads the foundation ArtLeadHer. Combating socio-economic privilege as a barrier to becoming a professional artist is very much part of the mission of Pen + Brush, as is expanding the hyper-specific narrative of art history that informs the taste of the elite art world.
A 2018 retrospective of photographer Lola Flash was one of the more memorable photography shows I have ever seen in New York. Flash makes large-format portraits of subjects who defy normative conceptions of people and power, such as her series “Surmise,” which depicts individuals whose gender is not readily apparent, and “Salt,” a portrait series of powerful women over the age of 70. Flash’s retrospective persuasively framed her work in the 1990s as significant to the narrative of art in the AIDS crisis, a period that has been art-historicized almost exclusively through white, male artists like David Wojnarowicz, Paul Thek, and Robert Mapplethorpe, who have all been given major museum retrospectives over the past decade. The Pen + Brush show was featured in the Brooklyn Rail, the New York Times, and Aperture Magazine, introducing Flash’s work to a large, new audience. The artist, who is a high school art teacher in Brooklyn, now has solo shows in New York and London.
Flash is one of Pen + Brush’s biggest success stories, and given her expansive exploration of gender identity and race, her work also exemplifies the contemporary mission of Pen + Brush. In 2019, to “showcase the work of women artists and writers” is necessarily an open-ended proposition that must interrogate the meaning of “womanhood” itself as a complicated nexus of gender, race, and economic class. When I wonder if suffrage-era members might be overwhelmed by transgender rights issues in the United States today, Sands smiles and refers to an old photograph of the Pen + Brush Valentine’s Day party, 1932. In the black-and-white image, a festive group of club members and friends is gathered, some in costume and no less than five dressed as men in suits and mustaches. The esotericism of the image is heightened by the fact that its subjects are not identified by name, but Sands says she doesn’t need much evidence to know that Pen + Brush has been a refuge for queer artists and writers from the beginning. Back in the old brownstone clubhouse, which had a distinctly domestic atmosphere, Sands took pride in hearing from women that Pen + Brush felt like a “safe space.” Creating the same sort of environment in the new, more institutional environment on 22nd Street is a metric of success for Sands, whose goal remains “challenging the discomfort so many women have about being out in the world and being judged.”
The activities of Pen + Brush today are rooted in what has not changed since the founding of the historic club, which coincided with the suffrage movement and the entry of many women into the workforce. The clawback of hard-won abortion rights in the United States this year casts the persistent oppression of women into sharp relief. In the art world, it is well known that female curators and museum directors make a fraction of the salaries their male counterparts do, and work by women still sells for less at the world’s major auction houses (the top selling female artist, Yayoi Kusama, is ranked behind 12 male artists in auction prices). While many readers may prefer to look away from the spectacle of secondary-market rankings as a measure of the art world, Sands points out that if there is such an extreme gap at the elite level of museum appointments and auction values, “It only gets worse the farther away from that you go.” Around the world, women still struggle for basic standards of agency, from personal safety to legal independence, and in the US this is largely the burden of disproportionately impoverished queer women and women of color. When Sands describes the type of artist she hopes Pen + Brush can work for today, it is one for whom the decision to be an artist poses an existential threat: “Somewhere in her psyche, she believes she’s just a few mistakes away from being on the street.”
The organization does not aim to be revolutionary in its relationship to the art market. It would rather get artists into art fairs, auction houses, and blue chip galleries than break these systems altogether. Sands says, “We are not here to make money on the back of the artist, but to move her work into the primary market. It’s not about trying to change the art market. We are here to make sure women get their fair share of it.” Through its pricing model and cultivation of buyers, however, Pen + Brush does hope to shift the culture of collecting art away from the paradigm in which contemporary art is a luxury commodity accessible only to the ultra-wealthy, which does nothing to help artists as a broader class.
The two elder stateswomen of Pen + Brush, Nette Thomas and Rashidah Ismaili, President and Vice President of the Board of Directors, have been involved with the organization for decades. Thomas retired in 2000 from Newark Arts High School, which was the first arts magnet school in the country, and her artwork has been exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Newark Museum. Ismaili is also a retired educator and a poet; she has been a professor of psychology, creative writing, and literature, and for 15 years worked as associate director of Pratt’s Higher Education Opportunity Program. Ismaili became a member of the Pen and Brush Club in the early 1980s, and later nominated Thomas to join. In those days, the organization maintained a fairly steady membership of around 400 artists and writers. In order to gain acceptance, women were nominated by two existing members and reviewed by an admissions panel. As Thomas explained, the membership model resembled an academic one not unlike the magnet school she taught at, ensuring standards of quality and investment.
For the women within this insular fold, the 10th Street house and the community fostered within it remained a treasure that sustained the organization. The brownstone was a proper 19th century mansion, with a high-ceilinged parlor level, 11 marble fireplaces, a wood-paneled library, servant passageways, a back garden hung with wisteria and bougainvillea, and a medieval boiler in the basement. It was a cherished piece of history, and one of only a few such homes in the neighborhood that was not totally closed to the public. Every member seemed to have a key to the building, and on holidays the members would gather for elaborate meals and long conversation. For Ismaili and Thomas, it was special for the way it replicated an experience of a previous era—“the old boys club” centered on rigorous discourse, mentorship, and mutual advancement, a collective model that Ismaili describes as “sorely missed” in many ways today, and one that the current embodiment of Pen + Brush still aims to fulfill without the exclusivity of a private association.
Ismaili was recruited to Pen + Brush by its first Black president, Sarah E. Wright (presidency 1992–1993), a member of the Harlem Writers Guild and co-organizer of the First and the Second National Conference of Black Writers; her 1969 novel This Child’s Gonna Live, which centered on the Depression-era life of an African American woman in rural Maryland, was one of the first critically acclaimed American literary works to focus on the Black female experience. And as one of the first non-white members of this historic organization, Wright worked to make it more welcoming to women of color who, like Thomas and Ismaili, thought of the Pen and Brush Club as a “Daughters of the Revolution” sorority. Wright began holding annual juried exhibitions featuring artists of African descent during her tenure as president, which drew much-needed new perspectives onto the parlor walls. When Janice Sands came on as Executive Director in the late 1990s, she noticed the salubrious effect of these exhibitions on the old brownstone and began to lobby among the members to open up more shows to outside artists.
Sands came from a background in non-profit activism, first as a clinic director for Planned Parenthood in the San Fernando Valley during the argument of Roe vs. Wade, then as executive director of the Actors Fund, which provides financial assistance to performing artists that includes health insurance counseling, affordable housing, and senior care services. She brought this spirit of advocacy for women and creative workers to Pen + Brush after learning of the organization through a “frankly irresistible” classified ad: Venerable women’s art organization in the Village seeking an Executive Director; lovely clubhouse setting. The closed membership model was strangling the organization’s ability to grow, or even sustain itself. Funds were still limited to membership dues, and the club’s activities were largely limited to social gatherings for members. It was questionable whether it even fulfilled its mission as a nonprofit. Furthermore, the average member was in her mid-70s, and programming had languished; apparently, the first abstract painting did not appear on the walls of Pen + Brush until the late 1990s. Sands recalls that it was “hard to argue” with how much more interesting exhibitions became as they were increasingly opened to non-members, and in 2010 the membership model was abolished.
It was much harder to convince the old guard that they needed to leave the beloved house, however. “It was heresy that she wanted to sell the building,” Ismaili recalls. “Janice had to convince us that it was an albatross around our necks.” Many long-time affiliates and members of the board parted ways with the organization around the time leading up to the sale of the brownstone in 2010. Thomas explains that “The whole premise changed in the new building,” which traded the intimate, domestic environment of the clubhouse for a more institutional flavor, allowing Pen + Brush to elevate artists’ work for a major public audience. There was also the fact that “we had money in the bank for the first time,” enough to purchase and renovate the new Chelsea space, and to allow Pen + Brush to work with artists and curators from around the world, bringing diverse aesthetic and political perspectives to the programming schedule (as well as covering shipping, travel, and duty expenses). This inclusive outlook was essential to the vision of a new Pen + Brush.
“What we are doing must be understood in a context of global feminism and global racism,” says Ismaili, who moved to New York from Benin when she was 19. “A lot has changed since the organization was founded, but we still have not been able to find alternatives to these power structures that tend to assign certain positive attributes to the ‘masculine’ and other, negative attributes to ‘female’ or ‘feminine.’” In many ways the evolution of Pen + Brush mirrors that very evolution of feminist critique. The suffragists who founded the organization were representative of a “women’s movement” that primarily advanced the interests of upper-class white women, one which eventually had to come to terms with the Civil Rights Movement and the ways that gender, race, and class are intertwined categories of oppression. Subverting these power structures must, in turn, elevate voices that have been ignored or silenced on the basis of gender, race, and economic privilege, meaning there can never be a single “women’s art” or “women’s movement.”
The work of Pen + Brush today is an open-ended exploration of that premise, one that allows the definition of “woman” to be continually reinvented. One exhibition from last year’s programming, 200 Women, was more of a feminist anthropological project than an art exhibition, comprising a survey of women from numerous countries speaking to their daily experiences. The 2019 summer group exhibition Women’s Work: Art & Activism in the 21st Century had a more literary premise, bringing together five international artists to interrogate the historical notion of “women’s work.” It both critiqued the limited cultural roles available to women and also celebrated domestic care-work as valuable, sacred creative labor. Associate Director Dawn Delikat emphasizes that she strives for a curatorial program that is not only focused on identity politics or feminist narratives, pointing out that “There’s definitely no sign on the door saying that all the work inside is by women artists.”
Many eyebrows were raised when Thomas nominated Rick Kinsell—director of Vilcek Foundation, which awards grants to immigrants in the arts and sciences—to curate the inaugural show at the Chelsea space. For some affiliates and board members, having a man curate an exhibition of women’s art seemed heretical—not unlike the sale of the old clubhouse. Thomas laughs as she tells the story, perhaps revealing why she has persisted at the helm of Pen + Brush: the point, of course, is not to promote women artists to the exclusion of men, but to ensure no one is excluded from being an artist because of their gender. Ismaili cites a 2008 exhibition of photographs by Roy DeCavara as another landmark moment. DeCavara documented African American life in Harlem in the mid-20th century, worked closely with the poet Langston Hughes, was the first Black photographer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was a beloved teacher at Hunter College. His artist talk at the Pen and Brush brownstone filled the house.
For Thomas and Ismaili, assimilating a new generation of women to lead the organization is a priority for its future. Lisbeth Redfiled is a member of that new guard, working as Manager of Literary Arts, a role initiated four years ago to allocate the organization’s resources to writers. As the exhibition program became central to the re-imagining of Pen + Brush in the past decade, the “brushes” have taken the limelight from the “pens,” and Redfield is now working to rebuild activities within the literary arts. Running in parallel with the visual arts open application process, Redfield and a panel of readers review submissions for publication in a quarterly journal, Pen + Brush in Print. The board of readers includes Joni Evans, retired president and publisher of Simon & Schuster, and literary agent Stephanie Koven. Redfield hopes to expand her independent publication program to release novels and other collections as ebooks and print-on-demand paperbacks, and to cultivate a network in the publishing world into which emerging writers might be plugged. Somehow, writing about women’s experience is still considered “niche,” and women readers are often presumed to be interested primarily in romance and self-help books. The philosophical challenge for Redfield, who comes from a background in publishing, is to break down persistent stereotypes about “women’s fiction” as a lesser genre of literature.
The current exhibition at Pen + Brush, a three-woman show featuring Katelyn Kopenhaver, Paola Martínez Fiterre, and Renee Cox (on view September 5 - October 5, 2019), is another form of intergenerational exchange. Martínez Fiterre and Kopenhaver are two young performance artists who became involved with Pen + Brush through its online portfolio submission, and have since been included in group shows there. “They have been amazingly supportive,” says Martínez Fiterre, who had few connections when she moved to New York from Cuba to attend the International Center for Photography. Her work today concerns the poetry of female embodied experience, as well as the violence that is often directed at female bodies. “I came from a place where you don’t talk about politics, you should not speak of feminism. I have found freedom to express so much as an artist in New York, but everything that’s going on here is crazy to me,” Martinez says, referring to recent state abortion bans and anti-immigrant sentiment on the right. “It is ironic for me to see. It’s like going back in time.”
Kopenhaver, who comes from Pennsylvania and attended the School of Visual Arts, is also motivated by a sense of outrage towards the current regression of women’s rights, as well as persistent cultural limitations placed on women despite an official narrative of equality. “Women should be confident, but not too confident. Smart, but not too smart. Pretty, but not too pretty,” she says, joking that “I started performing at 19, when I became a bartender.” Much of her work confronts abduction, sex trafficking, and rape that goes unreported in the media and unresolved in the justice system; one work she is exhibiting at Pen + Brush is a street mattress painted with the slogan “SHE WAS LAST SEEN….” Taken together, the subject and tone of Kopenhaver and Martínez Fiterre’s work strongly recalls Ana Mendieta’s video and performance work of the 1970s dramatizing the rape and murder of women (and bystanders’ apathy toward these events), a comparison that in itself speaks volumes about where we stand today.
The two young artists’ reliance on their own (youthful, female) bodies as locus points for their explorations of violence and power also makes them descendents of Renee Cox, the Jamaican-American photographer who is exhibiting alongside them. Cox became well known in the 1990s for medium and large format photographs monumentalizing Black bodies—and particularly Black women—often in dialogue with the absence of these figures from art historical imagery and from western (white) standards of power, beauty, and eroticism. When I visited her studio in the Bronx, one photo on display was Yo Mama at Home (1992), in which Cox sits naked and heavily pregnant, her legs slightly spread and her eyes locked on the camera. It is an arresting image made while the artist participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program at the same time she was expecting her second child. “They didn’t know what to make of me; they were shocked,” Cox recalled, an experience that prompted her to produce images of pride and feminine power which asserted that women can be (and often are) mothers as well as artists, despite stereotypes to the contrary.
The recent work that Cox is exhibiting at Pen + Brush departs significantly from the identity politics that propelled her early career. Sacred Geometry (2019) is a video work based on her recent body of work Soul Culture (2018), vertiginous three-dimensional collages of hand-cut fractal patterns constructed from photographs of human bodies. Male and female bodies, Black and Brown and White bodies—all are blended and tessellated within these compositions, generating a unity of living matter. “I started making these as a way to get out of my own head,” said Cox, who is interested in the incomprehensibility of these formally-complex, optically fascinating constructions in art historical terms, whereas her early work drew heavily from western art historical tropes in order to subvert them. However, she sees Sacred Geometry in continuity with her earlier images “as a sort of propaganda.” The message? “That Black people are supreme. Black people are beautiful,” and capable of being empowered through a rich cultural history. While fractal dimensions are largely named after Europeans (Mandelbrot, Sierpinski, Hilbert, Koch), complex fractal geometry is in fact found at the basis of architecture and aesthetics in many African cultures dating back to ancient times.
In the three-woman show at Pen + Brush, the accomplished Cox brings visibility to the emerging careers of Martínez Fiterre and Kopenhaver. Her own work gains fresh context from a new generation of artists interested in identity politics and performative image making, artistic strategies she played a role in developing. This sort of intergenerational mentorship, and a spirit of rising together, has always been the basic ethos of Pen + Brush. The organization’s long history has been enabled by its capacity for reinvention, and intergenerational exchange is essential for maintaining a progressive spirit. Change takes many lifetimes to achieve. Cox’s turn from aggressive identity politics to more universal, even cosmic messages is the vital evolution of her own work, but there is a new radical generation of women waiting in the wings, prepared to shout the same message she did in their own ways, angry that the message remains unheard. With shows like this, Pen + Brush positions itself as a unique space for observing the trajectory of feminist art over time, and for continuing to knead the clay of “woman” as both a flexible identity and a progressive banner under which to rally against systems of oppression—continually, gradually, once more.