State

Crystal Bridges needs female artists

By Abigail Fowler
For The Arkadelphian

Although society has become more advanced and inclusive with women in the workforce, the museum industry is still lagging. Crystal Bridges is no exception despite women continuing to create art. They’re above the national average in ratio of works acquired by women versus men, but still well below an equal 50:50. Their placing prominence of female art is performative at best. Change is needed quickly in this case of artwork by women. Buying more works by women, placing their pieces in more prominent spots, and being more strategic about female artist bios are steps that can easily be taken to remedy this. These actions will elevate to a more inclusive level, in this case gender inclusivity. It is up to Crystal Bridges to decide if they want to be progressive or performative moving forward. 

In an in-depth article published by Art Net News in 2019, Julia Halperin and Charlotte Burns discuss the illusion that museums in America are paying more attention to female artists. From the findings of Julia Halperin and Charlotte Burns, only “11 percent of all museum acquisitions over the past decade have been of work by women.” The article goes on to mention that the lack of research about the interest in female artists has aided in the biases and myths that these women will not bring in a crowd to the museum. A main issue with this lack of progress, they write, is that museums rely heavily on donated works. There have been female artists for hundreds of years that have the same talent as men, but society was more sexist back in the day, so they weren’t purchased. Since acquisition of female artwork is relatively new, art collectors have been known to buy male artist work for the more stable return on investment than someone newly in vogue. This article makes it clear that museums should step up where donors don’t and buy works from female artists, but the myths surrounding this taboo action are drowning potential progress. This leads to more women quitting jobs as artists after consistent defeats, further continuing the issue. More research needs to be published and museums need to take consistent action. That will fix this. 

The sporadic tone of the museum dissolves the clear purpose of purchases, bringing into question how strategic the goal of inclusivity in gender was thought through while purchasing art. Crystal Bridges focuses on American art, but from an eclectic point of view. Paintings by the nineteenth-century landscape painter, Thomas Cole, and unknown artists from Mississippi tribal nations are scattered throughout the museum with no clear indication of purpose in placement. Backlash was received for the “robber baron” style of acquisition (as The Guardian puts it); specifically Artlyst’s article on the Frank Lloyd Wright home and NPR’s article by Stamberg about Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic taken from locations of prominent placement in communities that prized themselves on having these specific works and transported to be one of many in a large attraction, possibly taking away from the value of the art. This tense debate over which pieces Crystal Bridges should have acquired, made starting stages more difficult to acquire enough of the same types of pieces to make a full, focused collection. This left the museum with unusual installations such as a floral tea set from Emily Cole from the early 1900s only a few feet away from a 1975 Rachel Sussman photograph of a Swedish landmark. They should have spent the time they used fussing with Philadelphia over the Eakin to research female artists from the same time period and bought those hidden gems. 

According to their site, Crystal Bridges opened its doors November 11, 2011. The museum was created by Alice Walton as a “love-letter” to her community. On the surface, she did everything right and gave 110 percent to the museum: placing the museum in an underserved area for the arts, sourcing local labor and materials in construction, and taking on the museum as an annual personal expense for admission to be free. Out of the eight board members, there is a 50:50 split between women and men. ArtNews’ Andy Battaglia was one of the first to drop the news that Alice Walton stepped from her title of Board Chair for her niece, Olivia Walton, to take the reins as of November 2021. In terms of executive positions: eight positions are held by women with four held by men *Insert applause and a standing ovation here.*

Of the 405 art works currently on display through the indoor section of the main museum and the library on the third floor: 297 pieces are by male artists (ya… your girl spent 4 hours and counted them… I don’t shirk on research), 93 by female artists, and 15 by unknown artists (mostly tribal pieces from Mississippi). This 22.96% inclusiveness of female artists is above the average 11% mentioned previously, but still not equal. It’s not even 1/4 of their collection. In addition to this, four display screens were posted throughout the museum to add interactivity to a singular painting. Only one of those four were for a female artist’s work. 

One would hope with such a small number of art works by women, that they would at least prominently place them to counteract the limited supply. That hoped died when one sees the layout. Although there was one exhibit room off to the side in the far back dedicated to Julie Alpert’s visionary work, while counting each piece in the museum for a gender ratio, it becomes apparent they placed a female artist’s work at the front of each exhibit hall to performatively show they are inclusive. However, these first piece were normally easily overlooked having been placed beside busy doorways with high traffic volumes. 

Not only were most works by women placed on the outskirts of the exhibits, but they were also not always at eye-level compared to works by men. At the salon-styled collage of paintings in the Early American Art wing, 40 artworks were strewn about 2 walls in a very well thought out fashion, but only 3 of those 40 were works by women. One of those three pieces was on the outskirts of the grouping at the far edge, the other two were over four feet above average eye-level; the third being placed roughly over ten feet above average eye-level (see photo). This gross display of performative placement and lack of respect in equally placing works of both genders in prominent places can only be derived from a severe lack of care about true inclusivity in art. 

A specific instance of gross negligence where women are concerned would be Emily Cole’s work. Emily Cole’s phenomenal paintings and tea set were not merely placed in a corner, but were overshadowed due to a painting by her father, Thomas Cole, placed to the left of the tea set. This particular tea set was most unique because it was the only one on display in the whole museum. Another collection of teacups that were in a modernist style were on display elsewhere, but this was the only early tea set original to the early 1900s with emphasis on craftsmanship more than on modern-day wow factors. Multiple tribal pottery pieces from unknown artists (most often by women) were in places of prominence, but this unique set was not.  In the description for the set, instead of using the space to discuss Emily Cole’s achievements and accomplishments, they instead discuss who her father was in her artist bio section.

A few notable pieces such as Nancy Grossman’s Car Horn and Lynda Benglis’ Eat Meat were on display in the Contemporary Art Gallery, but when looking at what female art was chosen overall, most of the works were mediums and subjects that are stereotypical to women: flowers, oil paintings, buttons, teacups, nature, and pastel drawings. The only fully female exhibit space was Julie Alpert’s Altars, Keepsakes, Squiggles, and Bows. This exhibit, hidden away at the end of the suggested museum route, next to the café and off to side is focused on Julie’s “girlhood” in a way the Crystal Bridges website describes as “spectacle of pattern, color, and shapes like bows, drips, roses, hearts, hashtags, and jazz hands using painted wood, collage, and modified household objects”. If this exhibit had been placed in a more prominent area and a full bio of the artist had been prominently displayed rather than being in the back of the narrow hallway that the exhibit was created in, a different outlook could have been given on the artist. The resulting placement immediately turns away any visitor who stumbled into the side room, saw the hot pinks bows, and walked out due to lack of proper signage on the thought process behind the artwork in a prominent place. It is a “no go” space for anyone who isn’t interested in that stereotypical “girly” style. Shutting women out of the art world once again because people don’t see the bio before they see the bubble gum pink. 

Being a new museum, Crystal Bridges had the opportunity to set a new standard for art museums. Although they performatively did so in aspects that are easier to publicize, such as women serving as executives and board members, in truth it is only a performative level and intensely shows that women are still not highly thought of in the art industry. If they want to remedy this, creating committees for each race and gender group to source adequate amounts of art for each group will aid immensely in creating diversity overall. A full inventory report needs to be made based off of those same requirements to see what they are lacking in as well as what they have on display versus what is in storage. This is easy to remedy, especially with more prominence being placed on female artists by the media, it is easier than ever to source and buy works by women. They need to itemize every aspect of their museum and ask the question, “Is this aspect performative or aiding to change the roots of gender inclusivity in the museum?” Having an honest look at placement of female artist’s work such as what eye-level they’re at and whether they’re placed at a focal point is needed. Reviewing each biography they have of women artists and spending even an extra hour or two to learn about all of those artists’ accomplishments rather than writing about their associations to men alters the tone of the museum entirely. Changes such as that are changes in the roots of the issue. Due to that, it is easier to find unique female works that can help shape the museum’s layout and purpose, making it a more consciously curated, inclusive museum. It is up to the museum to decide if they want to be progressive or performative moving forward.

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