WEST PALM BEACH, Fl. — “Spy Mission Kit” (1998) is a mixed media piece by Guerrilla Girls featuring an envelope, a pencil, postcards, flyers and other objects originally meant for public consumption. Using these, any individual who witnessed gender inequality at museums, galleries, and theatre production houses could mail in their concerns to the anonymous feminist collective and ultimately help illustrate the magnitude of bias against women artists. The irony is these items were collected as mementos to compose a piece from the nineties, yet, the issue they address is as relevant as ever.
I am familiar with the many arguments against temporary shows featuring only “women artists.” I, too, believe women are not a monolith and that lumping a group of artists together solely on account of their gender is rarely the way to go. So when I visited For the Record: Celebrating Art by Women, at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, I was wary of encountering yet another performative gesture. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case.
Drawing from the Museum’s collection, the Norton show brings together around 50 pieces by female artists working in diverse media to consider the contributions of women to the visual arts. Featuring works by well-known artists, such as Agnes Martin, Amy Sherald, Judy Chicago, and Alison Saar, the show’s lineup is undoubtedly impressive, but most importantly, it delivers on its promise of offering an opportunity to think about gender inclusion and exclusion within and beyond the art community.
From the get-go, visitors will learn that “11% of all acquisitions at 26 prominent American museums, from 2008 to 2018, were of work by women artists.” Eleven percent. That number was seared in my mind as I moved through the exhibition and noticed the word “American” written on so many placards that I caught myself searching for artists of other nationalities.
For a moment, I was genuinely worried I wouldn’t find anything beyond the US or Europe, until “Butterfly” (2013), an otherworldly sculpture by Japanese artist Mariko Mori, which dwells on the connections between East and West — and is on view for the first time at the Norton — emerged like a much-needed breath of fresh air. The futuristic piece made from polyurethane is covered in holographic paint, which reflects rainbows that seem to dance with the viewer’s gaze. Likewise, I was awestruck upon encountering “… of Prosperity” (2011), an imposing fiberglass figure in a gargantuan cobalt blue cotton dress by South African artist Mary Sibande which explores themes of gender, class, and race in her home country. The powerful presence of these sculptures confirmed my stance on the importance of approaching gender equity through an intersectional lens. It is no longer enough to have women at the table if they don’t represent the manifold identities of women around the world.
On my way out, on a less than prominent wall, I read, “Black women make up 3.3% of the total number of female artists whose work was collected by US institutions.” This staggering number and sole reference to data about Black women artists left me wondering what those figures look like in the case of other, traditionally excluded, women artists. And so I left the Norton thinking that when it comes to true gender equity, there is still a long way to go.
For the Record: Celebrating Art by Women continues through October 3, 2021, at the Norton Museum of Art (1450 S Dixie Hwy, West Palm Beach, FL). The exhibition was curated by Assistant Curator J. Rachel Gustafson.