Project Profile: Huntington Museum of Art’s “Year of Women”August 28, 2009
As Huntington Museum of Art Director Margaret Mary Lane explained, the Community Action Grant project “Year of Women” was a serendipitous venture. Although the West Virginia museum was interested in women artists, it had few works by women in its collection. The project began as an opportunity to showcase the collection of a local woman who owned more than 400 pieces of art by women, but it evolved into an entire year dedicated to women artists and arts related to women’s issues. Margaret Mary was excited about the project because of the dearth of visible women artists on the art scene. In fact, she says, one traditional textbook used by many art history programs didn’t include a single woman until 1986.
The “Year of Women” project brought together an eclectic variety of high-quality art. A quilt exhibit, “Threads of Faith,” by women of color and an exhibit featuring the story and works of West Virginia artist Blanche Lizzell (1878–1956) resonated strongly with the local community. Another exhibit was a traveling sculpture show about the artist’s wife’s battle with ovarian cancer. Because of the show, the sculptor commented, “it was as though millions of thoughts, memories, and reflections [about his wife] were set free. It was very cathartic, and I could feel her presence in ways that I worry I will forget.”
One key to the success of the “Year of Women” was the show’s almost 50-member advisory council. At the first meeting, Margaret Mary told the group a few stories about her grandmothers, whom she described as strong, independent women. Afterwards, the other council members began sharing stories about their own role models. The meeting helped strengthen the group and their dedication to the project because it was tied to something in their own lives. In fact, the relationship between the advisory council and the museum has outlasted the project.
The museum’s interest in women’s art is also continuing. Four recent visiting master artists have been women, and the museum has adopted a collection development plan that includes acquiring works by women artists. According to Margaret Mary, “Although the interest has been there for some time, now there is a specific directive.”
Margaret Mary confessed that if someone had told her 20 years ago that she would be directing the art museum and developing a “Year of Women” exhibition project, she would not have believed it. But she believes that it is important to “be ready for things you would never expect,” because working with the unknown is what art is all about. “An artist isn’t just painting the outline of a person. They see something more. Art is a really good metaphor for life.”
And, by supporting projects like this one, AAUW is making sure women are a part of that metaphor.