Women First

New York

Left: Gloria Steinem and choreographer Elisabeth Streb. Right: Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman with Asher B. Durand Award honorees Martha Rosler, Amy Sillman, and Mickalene Thomas. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

EVERY APRIL brings out the benefits of being in the art world. Or rather, spring is the season of gala fund-raisers for the nonprofits that feed the public artworks that have yet to disappear into private collections. This year’s starting events gave the stage to the proverbial powers behind the throne: the women who rescue our society from total male domination.

On Monday, April 16, Yvonne Force Villareal, Doreen Remen, and Casey Fremont Crowe—the couture-friendly troika that direct the Art Production Fund—seduced five hundred artists and collectors into donning cowboy hats and boots, and getting “gown and dirty” for what they called an Urban Hoedown. Sponsored by Marc Jacobs and Vogue, the event (at St. John’s Center Studios on the picturesque West Side Highway in SoHo) filled the APF’s coffers with more than $400,000. In return, guests were treated to mechanical-bull riding, temporary tattooing by Scott Campbell, portrait sittings with Brad Kahlhamer, instant personal profiles by the Bumbys, and a musical interlude by Ryan Bingham.

That performance, unfortunately, was compromised by a muddy sound system that made it, as well as toasts by Jewish Museum director Claudia Gould and artist John Currin to honorees Kiki Smith, Mark Fletcher, and Tobias Meyer, unintelligible to most of the crowd. It did nothing to dampen spirits, however, and the carnival of like-minded souls lassoed their Fat Radish–supplied barbeque with a kind of frontier gusto that contrasted sharply with the Public Art Fund’s rather decorous dinner on Tuesday night, at nearby Skylight SoHo. Though chaired by collector Jill Kraus, and enlivened with participatory art projects by Rob Pruitt and others, the PAF’s “Installation in Progress” was no match for the awesomely estrogen-fueled ceremonies held by the Brooklyn Museum the following evening.

Left: Sotheby's Tobias Meyer with art adviser Mark Fletcher. Right: Art Production Fund cofounders Yvonne Force Villareal and Doreen Remen.

Starting at 4 PM, such game-changing superwomen as Gloria Steinem, Toni Morrison, Jessye Norman, Connie Chung, Linda Nochlin, and Faye Wattleton gathered for the inaugural Sackler Center First Awards. Established by philanthropist Elizabeth A. Sackler, the prize honors American women who were the first in their fields to break a glass ceiling—or mess with collective male attitudes in ways unimaginable before they came along.

“In five years, we’ve never had a fight,” said Sackler, of Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman. “That’s a record—for a guy.” One after another, each of the fourteen honorees present gave perfectly pitched, illuminating, personal, and laugh-out-loud acceptance speeches that more than earned them their Judy Chicago–designed awards.

Several cited Steinem, who presented the awards with Sackler, as the woman who inspired the leaps of faith that took each to extraordinary levels of leadership and accomplishment. Video messages stood in for former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra director Marin Alsop, while Charlie Soap, the male partner of the fortuitously named Chief Wilma Mankiller, first woman to lead the Cherokee Nation, accepted her posthumous award, recalling her mantra: “If they can do that, we can do that.” (Chief Mankiller died in 2010.)

Left: Art historian Lucy Lippard. Right: Johnnetta Cole and Faye Wattleton.

Political commentator Laura Flanders, a cohost for the proceedings with CNN news anchor Soledad O’Brien, correctly observed that “being first, by definition, means you are alone,” and introduced Morrison, the first African-American woman to win a Nobel Prize. As if to minimize the group’s isolation, she quickly dubbed it the “Firsties,” a moniker several later embraced. “We’ve never been without art,” Morrison said. “And we still hunger for ways to share who we are and what we mean.” Up came the spry Nochlin, author of the first treatise on feminist art history. “I’m very excited,” she said, relishing the moment. “I’m eighty-one and a half!” She grew up across the street from the museum, she said, and had been in “a lucky place” ever since.

The parade of bright lights continued and never did the dazzle dim. Lucy Lippard, the first feminist art critic, recalled an Occupy Wall Street placard that read I’LL BE POST-FEMINIST IN THE POST-PATRIARCHY. Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, founder of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, said that it never occurred to her that anyone would object to the institution. “I was mistaken,” she said, describing the museum’s vilification in the press and giving the nod to patrons like Sackler, who provided the funds despite the opposition.

Johnnetta Cole, currently director of the National Museum of African Art, was the first African-American female president of Spelman College, historically a school for black women. In her speech, she listed four lessons she had learned from her mother, starting with, “You gonna have to be twice as good to get half as far.” Clearly she was. Equally passionate was Wattleton, the first woman to preside over Planned Parenthood. “We’re doing work we couldn’t live without doing,” she said, invoking the spirit of Margaret Sanger, the activist for reproductive rights whom Chicago had placed at her Dinner Party table, now upstairs in the Sackler Center.

Left: Cisco Systems cofounder Sandy Lerner. Right: Choreographer Susan Stroman with opera diva Jessye Norman.

To cap it all off, Sackler announced that a newly bred rose (lab name: CLE #6), one that is “strong and propagates in multiple climates, entices passersby, and throws off pests,” henceforth would be named the Gloria Steinem rose. “I’m going to spend the rest of my life living up to that description,” Steinem said.

I’m not one to worship “sheroes,” but in the company of this stellar assembly, among women who really have changed the world, I felt like kneeling. If only there had been time. Downstairs in the lobby, Marisa Tomei was arriving for the museum’s annual Brooklyn Artists Ball, and Lehman was about to present Amy Sillman, Mickalene Thomas, and Martha Rosler with Asher B. Durand Awards, named for the first artist to give a contemporary artwork to the museum. (Never mind that Durand was a man.)

During the presentation, Sackler returned, having changed into evening wear to receive yet another award, the Augustus Graham Medal. No sooner did she take the mic than she announced her family’s latest gift to the museum, an endowment for the curator of the Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

By that time the lobby was filled with Brooklyn-based artists and their dealers and friends. Among them were the sixteen women whom curator Eugenie Tsai had commissioned to create centerpieces for the forty-foot-long tables at which more than six hundred guests would be seated for dinner in the third-floor rotunda. As luck would have it, I was at a table appointed with painted wooden sculptures by Carmen McLeod, beside the Sackler Center’s Catherine Morris. I reckoned she was the curator whose position was now secured by the endowment. “I hope so!” she said, looking around the room for some new trailblazer. As Sackler had said earlier, “The magic is in the gathering.” And it was good.

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Toni Morrison. Right: Gloria Steinem onstage with philanthropist Elizabeth Sackler and the Gloria Steinem rose.

Left: Actress Marisa Tomei. Right: Sackler Center First Awardees with cohost Laura Flanders (right).

Left: Artist Judy Chicago. Right: Connie Chung.

Left: Collector Eli Broad with artist Jeff Koons. Right: Artists Lisa Yuskavage and Sarah Sze.

Left: Bronx Museum director Holly Block. Right: Brooklyn Museum curator Eugenie Tsai with deputy development director Paul Johnson.

Left: Artists Janaina Tschäpe, Valeska Soares, and Kenya Robinson. Right: Artist Carmen McLeod.

Left: Artists Terence Koh and Hanna Liden. Right: Artist Rob Pruitt.

Left: Public Art Fund director Nicholas Baume. Right: Designers Gabi Asfour and Adi Gil with artist Spencer Sweeney.

Left: Sackler Center curator Catherine Morris. Right: Rockefeller Foundation president Judith Rodin with philanthropist Elizabeth A. Sackler.

Left: Art historian Linda Nochlin. Right: Artist Betty Woodman.

Left: Collectors Marty Eisenberg and Jill Kraus. Right: Performer Casey Spooner.