clare gasson

THE WOMEN’S ART LIBRARY // TOUR BY ALTHEA GREENAN + SOCIETY HATES THE F-WORD

This week I was lucky enough to be shown around The Women’s Art Library (WAL) at Goldsmith’s college, by special collections curator Althea Greenan. Here is a brief over view of it’s history:

The Women’s Art Library began as an artists’ initiative that developed into an arts organization publishing catalogues and books as well as a magazine from the early 1980s to 2002. The main purpose however was to provide a place for women artists to deposit unique documentation of their work. WAL collected personal files that functioned together as an alternative public space to view and experience women’s art. Thousands of artists from around the world are represented in some form in this collection.

On seeing the physical archive itself, you are immediately overwhelmed by the scale of it. Huge shelves catalogue artist files, books, publications and press cuttings, as well as editions of the Women’s Art Magazine / MAKE, which sadly folded after Arts Council funding was withdrawn in 2002. 

A fantastic facet to the archival process is that contemporary artists are encouraged to contribute their own submission material, including brief bios, CVs, and copies of their work. Althea pointed out that in the early days many were quite haphazard in their approach as they were sure no one would ever see these submissions. But as the era of self-promotion has flourished newer entries are far more professional and all encompassing.

My main interest in the archive lay in the work of the ‘Living with MAKE’ research bursary, in which a contemporary artists is invited to produce work based on their findings within the library. ‘The River’ was Clare Gasson’s recent piece (which I wrote about previously) and her working sketches and sculptures were displayed in the library.

As I explored the reading room, viewing Gasson’s work and leafing through the copies of the MAKE / WAL magazine Althea generously gave me, I started to consider the significance of this library. Established in the 1980s Althea informed me that the feminist ethos was always paramount, and the organisation worked as a collective, as a group of female artists wanting to “fill in the gaps” of female art history. “Of course” she said “they knew they weren’t the only female artists out there, and it was about time someone started documenting this huge body of work”

This is indeed a living, breathing and ever increasing library. Through the research bursary a continual link is forged with contemporary art practice, and the archive is always active and being re-interpreted in different ways. I feel it’s a real shame that the MAKE magazine ceases to exist now. Not only is there a gap left in terms of a publication dedicated to women artists, but a continuously fresh communicative tool has been lost, thus decreasing the accessibility and exposure of the archive.

I was also struck by the website wasteland that WAL’s link site offers. Most of the URLs are redundant, with many organisations (such as Foundation for Womens Art) having shut down. It’s at this point that I think: shit, there were hardly any links here to begin with, and now even most of these are dead. Is anything actually being done to preserve, let alone reestablish the importance of women artists? Or have people stopped thinking that this is still an issue?

There are a few exceptions of course, such as The Elizabeth A. Sackler Centre in The Brooklyn Museum, as well as huge programmes initiated my MoMa and The Pompidou Centre to highlight the important influence of female artists and their place in the museums’ permanent collections. But there are still very few permanent establishments and research centres committed to this cause.

In my opinion, there is still a general struggle to disassociate the larger feminist progression from that of the aggressive approach of the Third Wave Riot Grrls. I’m of course paraphrasing here, but generally the idea of feminism right now is seen as a bit unfashionable, or even worse, redundant. Certainly huge amounts of feminist literature and critical discourse published up to the 90s and early 00s already seems irrelevant, especially in terms of digital and communicative progression (not to mention an extremely optimistic outlook which has gradually faded)

As a select few curators, academics and artists tread the fine line between embracing the progress of the three waves, establishing their own practice and STILL addressing issues of gender inequality and feminist principles, an alarming number of women would rather not mention the “f-word” and sit down with a nice glossy copy of “How To Be A Woman” instead. 

The symptom of a post-postmodern society can widely be regarded to as apathy. In a retrospective fashion the eras of protest will always seem revolutionary, with a mobilised youth and inequalities worth fighting against. But I believe there is still fascinating progress being made out there, especially in the fields of feminist art, it’s just not as easily categorised anymore. It is more than viable for a woman to not to want to be labelled as a ‘woman artist’ just as it is justified that some work may be actively related to her sexuality and gender, but it many also relate to race, economy and personal reflection.

As new work and curatorial practice comes to the fore, forms of subtlety and self-reflection are being introduced which are fare more relevant to a (though I use the word tentatively) global society. My only fear is that as this progress is made, there are no measures being put in place to preserve this new history; and if that doesn’t happen we’ll only be left with the patchiest of sensationalised memory.